Review of the Stone Age (Paleo) Diets

By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD

Going back to our roots to the way our ancestors dined in the Stone Age on large quantities of red meat, wild animals and plants (other than those before the era of agriculture) is the premise of these popular weight loss plans. Eating like a hunter-gatherer, as promoted in the Paleo Diet, is one of the more popular ways to diet today. Similar diet plans promoting the same principles include the Caveman, Paleolithic, Stone Age and Warrior diets.

Despite ranking 29th and last in the 2013 U.S. News and World Report of the best and worst diets survey and one of seven diets to avoid on ABC News, the Paleo diet continues to have a loyal following.

What’s on the Menu

The modern day caveman diet is gluten-free and includes lean meat, organ meats, fish, poultry, eggs, vegetables, fruit and nuts. Missing are dairy, grains, sugars, legumes, potatoes, oils and any foods grown after the agricultural revolution.

A true Paleo diet is based on foods that could be hunted, fished and gathered during the Paleolithic era – meats (such as the wooly mammoth), fish, eggs, tree nuts, vegetables, roots, fruits and berries.

Eat a wide variety of allowed foods; eliminate salt and any beverages other than water, coconut water and organic green tea. Satisfy your sweet tooth with raw honey or coconut.

Some versions of the plan encourage fasting, eating raw foods and eliminating nightshade vegetables (e.g., tomatoes, eggplant).

Experts Question Why Turn Back the Hands of Time?

Advocates for the diet believe that our bodies are programmed to eat like our Paleolithic ancestors because of the proper balance of nutrients.

Not so say some nutrition experts. Mary Hartley, the registered dietitian and nutritionist for Diets in ReviewOpens a new window, says “even Paleo man didn’t eat the Paleo Diet, depending on where they lived.”

Nutrition experts take issue with the diet, warning that it is hard to follow, not necessarily effective for weight loss and a poor choice for heart health.

Eating a cleaner diet based on whole foods, lean meats, fruits, vegetables and less sugar, sodium and processed foods has been the mantra of nutrition experts for years. But they also typically include low-fat dairy, legumes and whole grains based on the wealth of research that supports the role of these foods in a healthy, wellbalanced diet.

People who eat diets high in whole grains, beans and low-fat dairy tend to be healthier because these foods are nutrient-rich and studies support the health benefits. Eliminating whole food groups also eliminates essential nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D.

Lack of variety, cost and potential nutrient inadequacies makes this diet difficult to sustain, experts say.

Defending the Plans

A caveman-like diet is optimized to our gene pool say the proponents and the answer to reducing the spiraling cases of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions plaguing American adults. Papers, books and websites argue the perils of the current Western diet are responsible for the obesity epidemic along with heart disease, type 2 diabetes and more.

They believe the Paleo-type diet is the optimum diet for reduced risk of heart disease, weight loss and promoting optimum health. The diets are rich in lean protein and plant foods containing fiber, protein and fluids that work together to promote satisfaction, control blood sugar and prevent weight gain and type 2 diabetes.

Exercise Like a Warrior

Exercise is part of the plan. Modern man following the caveman diet is encouraged to be physically active on a regular basis much like the hunter-gatherers were in their daily lives seeking food, water and shelter.

The caveman diet also has a macho appeal attracting men who go beyond routine exercise with ‘evolutionary fitness,’ which calls for the increased strength and fitness of our distant ancestors.

Weight Loss Wisdom

Dieting is an American pastime. At any given time during the year more than 55 percent of adults attempt to lose weight according to a 2012 International Food Information Council survey.

If you are looking to eat healthy and lose weight, choose a diet that’s nutritious, satisfying and reasonably simple to follow.

A diet that includes whole, unprocessed foods is the basis of most all healthy diet recommendations, but so are whole grains, low-fat dairy and legumes. Including these food groups will help meet nutritional needs and contribute to a well-balanced diet plan. You can satisfy dietary requirements without these foods but it requires careful planning and supplementation.

If the ‘Caveman Diet’ appeals to you, be sure to supplement the plan with calcium and vitamin D.

Eliminating all grains, dairy, processed foods, sugar and more will most likely lead to weight loss but it may be tough to follow this plan long term due to the dietary limitations and multiple restrictions.


Mary Hartley, RD and nutritionist for

The information provided in this article is for general informational purposes only and not intended to be nor should be construed as medical advice.  You should consult your own doctor to determine what may be right for you. 

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