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The Pros and Cons of Starting a Paleo Diet

Detrick Snyder
A plate of paleo-friendly food, including eggs, avocado, cucumber, lettuce, and strawberries
According to thousands of first-person accounts and confirmed by high-quality recent research, the paleo diet — which aims to mirror the eating patterns of our Stone Age ancestors — can be an easy, sensible way to eat for better health.

But did you know that if you do it wrong, a paleo diet can lead to nutrient deficiencies, higher cholesterol, or weight gain?

Here I’ll cover the five positives and five negatives of a paleo diet. Whether you’re starting a paleo diet or you’ve started plateauing on it, this list will help you.

The pros of a paleo diet

1. It’s an easy way to eat

Many people find that a paleo diet is straightforward and relatively sensible. Just don't eat any foods that weren't available to hunter-gatherers and you're all set.

On most paleo plans, processed foods, sugar, and grains are all off-limits, and the emphasis is on lots of whole plants and animal products. Beans, nightshade veggies, dairy, and root veggies can go either way depending on the specific paleo program.

No calorie counting, a few unusual rules to pay attention to (and these are flexible anyway), and a number of delicious and satisfying meal options to choose from all make paleo a popular way of eating. It gets even easier with a Paleo Meal Delivery service.

More flexible paleo diets are a great choice for sustained diet success. After all, you’re not trying to go on yet another diet; you’re trying to change the way you eat to foster better long-term health!

2. It can improve your health

With no sugar, no refined grains, limited alcohol, and lots of plants and lean animal products, paleo actually checks many of the boxes for a healthy diet as defined by the FDA and the American Cancer Society

Research studies have shown that well-formulated paleo diets are every bit as healthy as other official dietary recommendations. Paleo can lower LDL “bad” cholesterol, triglycerides, HbA1c, blood sugar, insulin, and blood pressure, while also raising HDL “good” cholesterol.

After all, humans did spend millions of years living as hunter-gatherers before processed foods came on the scene. It only makes sense that these foods might have something to do with health — or the lack of it — in the 21st century.

3. It can help with weight Loss

One of the main reasons that people choose to follow a paleo diet is the beneficial effect on body composition: fat loss and muscle gain.

In fact, research studies show that people on paleo lose 3 – 8 ½ pounds more than people following other healthy diets over the course of a year. 

Are you one of the 50% of people who do better with a healthy low-fat diet, or do you benefit from a healthy low-carb diet? 

As a diet moderately high in protein and flexible with the number of carbs or fat, paleo can be tailored to fit your individual needs for weight loss. Either way, that flexibility is key for making this diet work in the long run.

4. It can be beneficial for autoimmune and food sensitivities

Even though more recent research shows that the diets of hunter-gatherers did include small amounts of grains, beans, and root veggies, some people may still benefit from a paleo diet as a way to address common food sensitivities.

With up to 40% of people reporting some sort of food intolerance, it makes perfect sense that a diet aimed at eliminating these triggers would lead to better health. 

Common food intolerances restricted on a paleo diet are dairy, gluten, alcohol, antinutrient phytate and lectins in legumes, and the particular carbohydrates in specific grains. 

For the best success, figure out which of these you might be sensitive to early on, and then expand your diet to include the other foods you’re not sensitive to.

5. It’s flexible and compatible with other diets

I always say that “the diet that works is the diet that you stick to”.

If you’re always “going on a diet” and then inevitably “falling off the wagon”, then the yo-yo dieting probably limits the positive impact on your health. I bet it takes an emotional toll on you too. 

That is where the flexibility of paleo shines. One version of paleo uses the 80:20 rule. You try to follow the rules strictly about 80% of the time, but then don't worry about the 20% of the time when you're eating bread and butter. 

If your goal isn't to go on a diet, but to change your eating habits to foster long-term health, then this more accommodating version of the paleo diet might make a positive difference that you’ll notice.

Plus, the flexibility of paleo makes it compatible with low-carb, low-fat, vegan, gluten-free, and a number of other dietary patterns.

If you would rather not spend energy on thinking about what could work and what might not then consider just having paleo meals delivered to your door. Check out Sunbasket for a great healthy meal delivery option!

The cons of a paleo diet

1. It may be hard to stick to

Like any diet that you go on, paleo can be hard to stick to long-term. (See my last point about going on a diet versus sustainably changing the way you eat). 

In fact, the longest-running research studies on paleo show that after six months people start to fall off the diet. At 2 years, 1 of 4 study participants stopped the diet, and most of the advantages washed out for the people who stayed true.

That doesn't mean that a paleo diet can't be beneficial in the long run, though. Even in that 2-year study, people on the paleo diet were still doing better than if they had been on a typical Western diet.

If you're having trouble sticking to a paleo diet, either embrace a more flexible version, try a loosely-defined paleo meal delivery like HelloFresh, or consider trying a different way of eating healthy that works better for you! 

2. It can raise cholesterol

On average, most people typically see improvements in their blood lipids on a paleo diet, but there are occasionally times where somebody may see their LDL cholesterol go up.

There is one research study that documents this effect. Unfortunately, this is just one, small, poorly designed study, while at least a dozen other studies show a positive effect.

That said, if you're one of the unlucky people who see an uptick in LDL on a paleo diet, there are a few things you can do to manage it.

One strategy to lower LDL cholesterol is to eat less saturated fat from red meat and more unsaturated fat from lean meat, plant oils, seafood, nuts, and seeds. You could also eat fewer carbohydrates, which may blunt the effect of saturated fat on LDL-cholesterol. Either of these strategies are paleo-compatible, so see what works for you!

3. It can cause nutrient deficiencies

A well-formulated paleo diet is full of all of your essential vitamins and minerals, but the more rigid and outdated versions may cause nutrient deficiencies.

Deficiencies in iodine, calcium, and vitamin D are the most serious ones to look out for.

The best paleo source of iodine is seafood, particularly seaweed, cod, and oysters.

Paleo-friendly calcium sources include bone-in canned fish, some leafy greens in the cabbage family, and bone meal.

Vitamin D is fairly hard to come by on a paleo diet: food sources like fish, eggs, and liver only provide a little bit. Fortunately, an appropriate amount of sun exposure is what your body needs most in order to generate sufficient amounts of the sunshine vitamin, so take your caveman lunch break outside!

4. There are too many Paleo diets to choose from

The colorful history of paleo dieting leaves you with at least a half dozen different types of paleo diets, and no guidance on how to choose which one might be right for you.

Although many versions of the paleo diet were developed by well-intentioned scientists, once they become popular they are rarely updated with the newest science.

Throughout its history, the paleo diet has become more and more lenient. Nowadays some paleo diets allow beans, yogurt, ghee, root veggies, nightshades, and even small amounts of ancient grains.

However, you decide to change your diet, pay attention to how it makes you feel as an individual. Don't worry about all of the hype and the fad diets, just stick with what works for you! 

On the other hand, if you want the convenience of a different kind of meal plan delivered to your door, check out our Meal Delivery options here.

5. It’s not entirely scientific

Whereas anthropologists used to think that hunter-gatherers mostly ate meat, newer research shows that ancestral people living near the equator ate mostly plants. 

Even more northerly human ancestors in Europe consistently ate grains, root vegetables, and beans. They were eating those foods at least 130,000 years ago, which is pretty far back into the Stone Age.

Beyond the archaeological evidence, genetic research shows that some groups of people have evolved to digest dairy since it was first introduced about 5000 to 10,000 years ago. So much for the paleo principle that humans haven’t evolved since the paleolithic period!

This tells me that all of the meat-heavy, highly restrictive paleo diets are more rigid than what our paleolithic ancestors were actually eating. 

So, give yourself a little slack, and don't worry about an occasional dessert, a little bit of pasta, or a serving of fiber-rich beans. If you were living 100,000 years ago, you certainly wouldn’t bat an eye before scarfing something like that down!

Conclusion

Paleo diets can have positive effects similar to the benefits seen with other healthy diets. A moderate and flexible paleo diet is a sustainable way to lose weight, improve metabolism, and eliminate food sensitivities.

On the other hand, more draconian paleo diets — typically the fad-diet versions based on old science — can be hard to stick to. Furthermore, sticking to a rigid paleo diet can impair your health by raising cholesterol or causing nutrient deficiencies.

Detrick Snyder
Detrick Snyder is a Denver-based dietitian and consultant who loves developing best-in-class content for companies on a mission to promote better health. Detrick brings expertise in clinical research, public health, and evidence-based food-as-medicine practices so that you get the most relevant and accurate content possible.

*The information on this site is based on research, but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new diet plan, we recommend consulting with a physician or other professional healthcare provider. Results may vary based on various health factors, individual weight loss plans and adherence to the meal plan.