It’s been called the caveman diet, but does it really replicate what people ate in the Paleolithic era? The Paleo diet has gained popularity in recent years for its focus on fresh, high-quality, unprocessed foods and its avoidance of grains, starches and added sugar.
This week, Sarah Ballantyne -- a scientist turned Paleo advocate -- will introduce us to the science behind eating Paleo. Ballantyne is the founder of ThePaleoMom.com and author of many New York Times bestselling books on the same topic.
At its core, the Paleo diet is a whole foods diet that’s nutrient rich. Imagine cutting out any empty calories and focusing on only foods that provide nutrients your body needs -- that’s the aim of the Paleo diet.
“When we focus in on those most nutrient-dense foods we see certain foods kind of fall off the table, so to speak, in terms that they really don’t have a lot to offer,” Ballantyne says.
The Paleo diet focuses on a variety of high-quality foods in these areas:
According to Ballantyne, focusing on these main food groups will net you all the nutrients you need and cut out the junk -- foods that stimulate high blood sugar, foods that cause insulin resistance problems, foods that contain chemicals from processing and foods that are inherently inflammatory.
Common myths and misconceptions
The Paleo diet is not a low-carbohydrate or low-starch diet.
“Starchy vegetables are absolutely endorsed on the Paleo diet and included in most people’s own implementation of it,” Ballantyne says. “So that includes sweet potatoes and regular potatoes and other starchy roots like cassava.”
The Paleo diet is not all meats. It’s actually a high vegetable-content diet.
Practitioners of the Paleo diet strive to get 40 to 50 percent of their calories from animal foods and 50 to 60 percent of their calories from plant foods. That translates to most of their plate covered in vegetables (because plant foods tend to be less calorie dense).
Dairy is still up in the air, according to Ballantyne, but the Paleo diet tries to cut it out.
When starting the Paleo diet, Ballantyne says to cut out dairy altogether, and then slowly introduce it to see how you feel. Her observations have led her to believe that most people feel better without diary in their lives.
“There’s nothing in dairy that you can’t get from other great Paleo foods. You’re getting all those same nutrients from dark leafy greens and from seafood,” Ballantyne says.
Autoimmune disease: Could Paleo help?
Clinical trials have not yet validated this claim, but some in the Paleo community find that their diet helps with various autoimmune diseases.
“People are getting nutrient density because the immune system is a tremendous nutrient hog and it needs nutrient resources to function normally and we’re cutting out things that are inflammatory,” Ballantyne says. “And it’s a tremendous trend that we’re seeing in the Paleo community that people with autoimmune disease are putting their diseases into remission.”
She says they’re just starting to get validation of these claims with clinical trials.