The paleo diet—here's everything you need to know, including which foods to eat

Does the paleo diet—inspired by our hunter-gatherer ancestors—have a place in modern-day nutritious eating?

Healthy food: salad, tomatoes, butternut squash and kale in a metallic bowl with a fork
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The paleo diet, which is based on the meals eaten by our hunter-gatherer ancestors—including unprocessed produce and few carbs—has won over a number of modern-day famous fans, with everyone from Jessica Biel, to Megan Fox and Blake Lively having sampled its purported benefits. These include not only weight loss, but also claims of a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

However, amongst popular diet plans like the science-backed and longevity-boosting Mediterranean diet, the questionable virtues of the short-term Keto diet, and the very temporary BRAT diet, you may be wondering where paleo fits in and whether it's a good option for long-term health. We spoke to nutrition experts to find out the historical origins of this eating regime, as well as which foods you can eat and why it might be helpful for you, as well as the downsides to be aware of.

What is the paleo diet?

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"The paleo diet was designed to reflect our ancestors’ hunter-gatherer lifestyle," says Tamara Willner, nutritionist at Second Nature. "It involves eating only foods that would have been available before farming practices began—around 10,000 years ago." 

Willner explains that the core idea behind the eating regime is that it’s believed people were generally healthier in the paleolithic era, with lower rates of heart disease and type 2 diabetes—and it's thought these results could be replicated by modifying our modern-day diets. Although it remains unclear to researchers if it was their diet that was responsible for differences in health, or if it was due to other factors like the fact they spent more time outdoors and had higher fitness levels.

Which foods can you eat on the paleo diet?

So what's on the grocery list in 2022? "Since the diet is based upon not eating foods that have been developed as a result of modern farming, it involves only eating unprocessed foods," notes Willner. "These include lean meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. It usually also means no dairy, grains, or legumes as these weren’t widely available at the time, and other foods that are off-limits are sugar, sweeteners, and vegetable oils. Some variations of the diet do allow for small amounts of grass-fed butter, and small amounts of wine and dark chocolate are also permitted." 

The origin of groceries is also something to consider too. Josie Porter, the Doctify-reviewed dietitian at The Gut Health Clinic, points out that—to really eat like our ancestors—you'll need to opt for organic and grass-fed products. She adds, "You'll also need to avoid refined grains, as well as items containing trans fats, salt, and added chemicals." Some grains, such as ancient grains, which haven't been processed through hybridization or genetic modification, are permitted on the paleo diet.

Foods to eat on the paleo Diet

  • grass-fed meats
  • fish/seafood
  • fresh fruits
  • fresh vegetables
  • eggs
  • nuts
  • seeds
  • natural oils (olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado, coconut)

Foods to avoid on the paleo diet

  • cereal grains
  • legumes (including peanuts)
  • dairy
  • refined sugar
  • potatoes
  • processed foods
  • overly salty foods
  • refined vegetable oils
  • candy/junk/processed food
  • artificial flavorings 

Are there health benefits to the paleo diet?

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"There are benefits to consuming a more whole food diet," says nutritionist Jenna Hope. "This eating regime focuses on consuming real food and plenty of vegetables, meaning the paleo diet can support a wide range of nutritional requirements and incorporates plenty of fiber to improve gut health." 

Porter agrees that there's much that makes sense from a nutritional point of view. "We know that highly processed foods are not healthy when eaten in excess, as these are easier to digest and often contain added sugar, salt, and fats, while eating more whole foods—such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and eggs—can be more nutritious," she explains. "It also helps that nutrients are obtained from fresh, organic, unrefined and unprocessed sources."

Cutting out anti-inflammatory foods could help boost gut health. "The removal of a number of processed, or refined sugar-containing, inflammatory foods, and drinks, combined with the addition of a number of anti-inflammatory food items, may lead to improved gut health and overall improvement in markers of inflammation," explains Dr Kirstie Lawton, PhD, a registered nutritionist at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition. "A lower refined carbohydrate diet may also have a positive impact on insulin resistance and blood sugar markers."

Additionally, the paleo diet might aid healthy, sustainable weight loss. "On the paleo diet you won’t be eating any processed foods, which are typically high in sugars, refined carbohydrates, fats, preservatives, and salt," says Willner. "These foods are rarely satiating, and by cutting out these foods we’ll become more aware of our natural hunger cues and be less likely to overeat." Additionally, she adds, "Lower-carb diets have been shown to be effective for weight loss, as well as for managing type 2 diabetes. With a lower-carb diet, your energy levels are likely to be more stable throughout the day and you may find that you’re naturally eating less." If you often feel tired in winter and find yourself prone to snacking, a lack of adequate nutrition could be the reason why.

The paleo diet—what are the downsides?

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For starters, the healthy premise on which the paleo eating regime is based could be misguided. "The logic of the paleo diet is questionable," points out Porter. "After all, the life expectancy of our paleolithic ancestors is around the age of 35. It is likely the reason they have lower rates of disease is because they passed away before they could take place."

Moreover, they would have experienced extreme periods of famine before they were able to catch and slaughter an animal for food. During these periods, they would have eaten very little meat, and much more plant-based foods." With that in mind, Darcy Lawler, nutritionist, and co-founder of wellbeing platform Aegle warns that paleo diets can often rely too much on animal protein. "Including plant proteins, nuts, seeds, and some higher protein vegetables is important," she explains. 

There's also the fact the paleo diet restricts certain food groups. "Cutting out grains and legumes can be detrimental to gut health in the long term," says Hope. "Additionally, strict followers of this eating regime consume no dairy products either, and therefore this can increase the risk of nutritional deficiency if they're not replacing key nutrients such as iodine, calcium and vitamin D from other dietary sources." You could also miss out on fiber and protein. "It involves avoiding legumes and whole grains," warns Willner. "These are good sources of fiber, complex carbohydrates, and protein and can definitely comprise part of a healthy diet." 

Dr Carrie Ruxton, from The Health & Food Supplements Information Service, echos this sentiment and urges those who try the paleo plan to supplement their diet. "Given its avoidance of many healthy foods, there is a risk of nutrient deficiency—in particular of fiber, vitamin, and mineral shortfalls (eg. calcium in dairy foods, fiber and B vitamins in legumes and whole grains). Anyone following this diet should be recommended to take a multivitamin/multimineral supplement.”

w&h thanks nutritionist Jenna Hope, Tamara Willner, nutritionist at NHS-backed eating plan Second Nature, Josie Porter, Doctify-reviewed dietitian at The Gut Health Clinic, Dr Kirstie Lawton, PhD, a registered nutritionist at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition and Darcy Lawler, nutritionist, and co-founder of Aegle, and Dr Carrie Ruxton, from The Health & Food Supplements Information Service, for their time and expertise.

Lauren is a freelance writer and editor with more than six years of digital and magazine experience. In addition to she has penned news and features for titles including Women's Health, The Telegraph, Stylist, Dazed, Grazia, The Sun's Fabulous, Yahoo Style UK and Get The Gloss. 

While Lauren specializes in covering wellness topics—ranging from nutrition and fitness, to health conditions and mental wellbeing—she has written across a diverse range of lifestyle topics, including beauty and travel. Career highlights so far include: luxury spa-hopping in Spain, interviewing Heidi Klum and joining an £18k-a-year London gym.