The paleo diet is inspired by the eating habits of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, becoming a popular diet in recent years for weight loss and a more natural way of eating. Using the paleo diet for weight loss is effective mostly because of the unprocessed nature of the foods it encourages you to consume, which are often naturally low in sugar, salt and saturated fat.
The diet cuts out most grains, legumes, potatoes and dairy products, relying heavily on fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds and lean meat and fish. As a result, the paleo diet is fairly low-carb and has a slightly higher risk of calcium deficiency, due to the lack of dairy products.
While it may seem a good idea to ‘return to our roots’ and eat in the way early humans did, how practical is the paleo diet for weight loss in a modern sense? With a wider range of foods available to us than our ancestors had, what benefits might we gain by restricting ourselves to a diet based on ancient practices? We asked the experts.
What is the paleo diet?
The paleo diet shifts focus from starchy foods such as grains, legumes, potatoes and foods made from these ingredients (pasta, bread, potato chips) and encourages you to base your meals around a lean protein source instead.
Dr Nurisa Kumaran, medical director and founder of Elemental Health Clinic, tells us that the paleo diet puts a heavy focus on eating ‘natural’ foods. “The paleo diet, also known as ‘the caveman diet,’ focuses on eating lean grass-fed meat, fish, fruit and vegetables,” she says. “This means that you should eliminate processed foods and most dairy products, and instead eat a diet rich in nuts, seeds, fruit, lean meat – such as lamb and chicken – and omega 3 containing fish, such as salmon and mackerel.”
The paleo diet can be helpful for those with obesity or diabetes, due to the reduction of heavily processed foods and reliance on lean meats and vegetables. A study from the International Association for the Study of Obesity indicates that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and diet contributes to excellent cardiovascular and metabolic health.
Does a paleo diet help with weight loss?
Due to the protein-rich nature of the paleo diet, those who eat paleo for weight loss may find they have a higher success rate due to the feelings of satiety associated with eating protein, according to one study by the British Journal of Nutrition.
As well as protein, the paleo diet is full of high-fiber foods, such as nuts, seeds and vegetables, which are also great for an increased sense of satiety according to a study in Nutrition Reviews. Fiber is a bulking agent that slows stomach emptying, which helps you to feel fuller for longer, as well as taking longer to break down in the digestive system than low-fiber foods. Feeling full is important when keeping people motivated to stick to eating habits, so the paleo diet might be good for weight loss due to its ability to keep you feeling full and satisfied.
However, one review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition indicates that while there was a downward trend in weight and other positive metabolic markers, without the intensive dietary support of a clinical trial, many participants lapsed and stopped following it. This might indicate that the carbohydrate-restricted nature of the paleo diet isn’t as sustainable without proper nutritional support.
Dr Kumaran agrees with the benefits of using the paleo diet for weight loss. “There has been research so far to show that the paleo diet can produce greater benefits compared to other diets for weight loss and other associated metabolic health conditions,” she says. Additionally, a study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition indicated that the paleo diet can be useful in supporting those with type 2 diabetes, increasing their insulin sensitivity over time. As diabetes is often a secondary condition to obesity, the research in this area is promising.
Paleo diet for weight loss: What to eat and tips for success
The paleo diet requires you to eat lots of fresh foods and lean meats, so there is often a little more prep involved in eating paleo than a traditional western diet that relies on ready meals and processed foods. Many of us are used to building our meals around starchy foods, as advised by the USDA government dietary guidelines, so there may be a learning curve in making your meals paleo-friendly.
Paleo appropriate foods include:
- Oily fish: salmon, mackerel, sardines – rich in brain-supporting fatty acids and lean protein.
- Lean meat: lamb, chicken, turkey – low fat, high protein and a good base for lots of paleo meals.
- Cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, cabbage, radishes – high in fiber and rich in vitamins and minerals.
- Nuts and seeds: chia seeds, cashews, pine nuts – high in calcium to make up for the low dairy nature of paleo and good to snack on.
Kumaran also advises caution when undertaking restrictive diets, such as paleo or keto, despite evidence of positive weight loss trends. “As with all diets that can be restrictive such as the paleo diet, it is important to work with a qualified health professional to ensure you do not risk nutritional deficiencies,” she says.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to offer medical advice.
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Lou Mudge is a health writer based in Bath, United Kingdom for Future PLC. She holds an undergraduate degree in creative writing from Bath Spa University, and her work has appeared in Live Science, Tom's Guide, Fit & Well, Coach, T3, and Tech Radar, among others. She regularly writes about health and fitness-related topics such as air quality, gut health, diet and nutrition and the impacts these things have on our lives.
She has worked for the University of Bath on a chemistry research project and produced a short book in collaboration with the department of education at Bath Spa University.