What exactly is the Paleo diet (and can plant milks fit)?
What is a Paleo-based diet?
We can’t even delve into history for the answer. The Paleolithic period dates back to a time – measured in millions of years – when not a single word was written, leaving archaeologists to probe the dietary patterns of antiquity through pictographs and artifacts. The evidence obtained attests to a way of eating that eschews both our childhood Twinkies and many contemporarily trendy foods coronated with health halos. It is one that, in our fascination with wisdom from days of yore, has been classified as the Paleo diet.
In principle, the Paleo diet aims to embrace the dietary patterns and principles of people during the Paleolithic period (2.5 million to 10,000 years ago), before the Neolithic Revolution brought about widespread adoption of agriculture. Emphasis is placed on nutrient-dense, whole foods as a means to promote overall health and longevity. 1 Proponents of the Paleo diet believe that there is an evolutionary mismatch between our genetic makeup and our modern diet, evidenced by the high prevalence of degenerative diseases occurring concomitantly to our consumption of processed, industrialized foods. 1, 2
What can I eat on the Paleo diet?
Farming may have been the foundation of settled civilizations, but the Paleo diet aspires to emulate pre-Neolithic ways of eating. Predictably, it largely avoids products accessible because of animal domestication and crop cultivation. Since most of us do not have a spear at the ready to catch our next meal, however, it recommends consuming animal products that have been raised in their natural environments (e.g., grass-fed meant, wild-caught eggs, pastured eggs) and eating plants that could be foraged. In specific:
- Meat (grass-fed encouraged)
- Seafood (wild-caught or sustainably raised encouraged)
- Eggs (pastured encouraged)
- Natural fats (e.g., olive oil, coconut oil, red palm oil, ghee, lard, duck fat)
- Nuts and seeds
- Herbs and spices
- Probiotics and fermented foods (e.g., kombucha, sauerkraut)
- Grains and pseudograins (e.g., wheat, barley, rye, corn, quinoa, and buckwheat)
- Legumes (green beans, sugar snap and snow peas are okay)
- Dairy (depending on level of rigidity)
- Vegetable oils (e.g., canola oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil)
- Refined sugars and artificial sweeteners
Is Paleo right for me?
The Paleo diet has been regarded by some as an overly restrictive, lower carbohydrate diet, given its limits on agricultural products such as dairy, whole grains and legumes. The preeminence of meat and nuts inherently favors fat and protein; however, you’ll also see that there is ample breathing room for incorporating carbohydrates to your liking (just not from the aforementioned food groups). Hunter-gather diets varied across geographies, making a precise prescription impossible.
Who is the paleo diet recommended for? If you’re weighing the Paleo diet as a potential diet for you, here are some benefits and drawbacks.
Benefits of Paleo diet plan
Allows you to moderate the macronutrient content and degree of adherence
- Evidence suggests the diets of hunter-gatherers varied substantially in carbohydrates depending on their proximity to the equator, ranging from ≈3%-50% of their total energy intake. 3
- So, depending on your health and performance goals, you can customize your carbohydrate intake to your liking.
- Unlike plant-based diets (vegetarianism or veganism), which require absolute abstinence from meat and fish, a Paleo diet only encourages you to mimic the diets of hunter-gatherers. You don’t have to entirely emulate them (since not everyone is adept in fashioning a spear for catching their next dinner!). 1
Helps decrease your risk and/or treat chronic diseases, such as:
- Participants fed two Paleo-style meals and one according to WHO-guidelines, all on separate days, were found to exhibit significantly greater increases in satiety hormones glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) and peptide YY (PYY), as well as reductions in glucose-dependent insulinotropic peptide (GIP) after the meal. The highest scores in satiety were observed after consumption of the Paleo meals, which may help with better appetite control. 4
- Obese, postmenopausal women were prescribed a diabetic diet or a Paleo diet over the course of 24 months. Participants following the latter diet experienced significantly greater reductions in fat around their abdomen, chest, and shoulder areas at 6 months, as well as decreases in the inflammatory marker, C-Reactive Protein at 25 months. 5
- In a similar study wherein half of women received a diet based upon Nordic Nutrition Recommendations instead of the diabetic diet, those on the Paleo diet experienced greater decrease in body fat and weight circumference at 6 months. 6
- Men with one or more features of metabolic syndrome (e.g., Type II Diabetes, impaired glucose tolerance, waist circumference >94 cm) who followed a Paleo diet compared to a Mediterranean diet over 3 months were found to consume less energy and exhibited greater decreases in leptin (a fat hormone positively correlated to an individual’s body fat percentage). 7
- Type II Diabetes
- For patients with Type II Diabetes who were prescribed a Paleo diet and randomized to follow a standard or supervised exercise regimen for 3 months, those who adhered to the standard exercise regimen experienced greater improvements in body fat percentage and circulating leptin compared to their counterparts. This led researchers to conclude that the Paleo diet is capable of exerting beneficial effects on overall metabolic health without the need for especially intensive workout regimens. 8
- Cardiovascular disease
- Adherence by individuals with metabolic syndrome to a 2-week Paleo diet or control diet per the Dutch Health Council’s guidelines, both equal in energy density, led to significantly larger decreases in blood pressure and improvements in total cholesterol, triglycerides and HDL among those following the Paleo diet. 9
- In as little as 10 days, healthy participants who switched from their baseline diets to consuming a Paleo diet exhibited impressive changes in triglycerides, total cholesterol and LDL. 10
- Researchers saw little change in lipid levels among individuals with hypercholesterolemia who adhered to a diet according to the American Heart Association’s guidelines for 16 weeks; however, when they were prescribed a Paleo diet for 16 weeks, they saw significant reductions in triglycerides, LDL and total cholesterol, as well as increases in HDL cholesterol. 11
- Fatty Liver disease
- Obese, post-menopausal women who adhered to a Paleo diet or low-fat diet for 2 years displayed greater decreases in liver fat percentage on the former at 6 months, despite the diet’s liberalization of saturated fat. After 2 years, however, reductions in liver fat percentage were nearly identical between the diet groups, thereby revealing the potency and efficiency of a Paleo diet to combat fatty liver disease in a shorter amount of time. 12
- Autoimmune diseases
- When patients with multiple sclerosis in a pilot study were given a Paleo diet especially high in plants (i.e., greens, colorful and sulfur-containing vegetables), those who remained in the study up through a year experienced large reductions in their Fatigue Severity Score. 13
Shortcomings/Risks of Paleo diet plan
May induce nutrient deficiencies linked to skeletal health
- Strict adherents to the Paleo diet abstain from dairy products, which are replete in vitamins (e.g., A, D, K2) and minerals (e.g., calcium, magnesium and phosphorus) that cooperate synergistically to promote bone health and help balance blood pressure, notably, among other essential functions. Low intakes of these nutrients can predispose individuals to developing bone-softening diseases, such as osteoporosis. 14
May put stress on the kidneys
- Since the macronutrient content of the Paleo diet may be tailored according to one’s personal preferences or health goals, the type and amount of meat consumed is entirely liberalized. This can lead to excessive intakes of protein, and while this is not necessarily harmful, there has been a longstanding belief that too much can overtax the kidneys and impair their ability to filter nitrogenous waste products out from their blood stream. 15 However, recent findings from a meta-analysis involving >13,000 healthy individuals were found no evidence for this, 16 so at present the verdict is unclear.
Why no dairy on Paleo?
Paleo is consistent in its aspiration to a generalized hunter-gatherer diet, of which dairy was not part. Paleo adherents may argue that it is fundamentally unnatural to consume another species’ milk, thus contributing to allergic reactions and intolerance.
Can I do Paleo using plant-based foods?
Absolutely! One common misconception is that Paleo is essentially a carnivorous diet. Vegetables, potatoes, fruit, certain legumes (like green beans and sugar snap peas), and nuts are important components. Indeed, they will form the core of the Pegan variation.
What nuts can I eat on the Paleo diet?
Tree nuts are acceptable on the Paleo diet because they exist in nature, ready to consume without cultivation. As vegan sources for protein and fat, tree nuts like almonds, cashews, walnuts, and hazelnuts provide a window for plant-based Paleo (coined and popularized as Pegan). The Paleo diet’s restriction on dairy, in combination with its allowance of tree nuts, make nutrient-dense plant milks a natural option – especially for consumers who avoid meat.
Which Elmhurst® products are best for Paleo?
Elmhurst 1925’s unsweetened nut milks are ideally suited for Paleo. The diet emphasizes fat and protein, is skeptical of added sugars, and outright rejects refined sugars and most dairy. Made sugar- and dairy-free with just nuts and water, the following products check all these boxes:
- Unsweetened Milked Almonds™
- Unsweetened Milked Cashews™
- Unsweetened Milked Walnuts™
- Unsweetened Milked Hazelnuts™
The Paleo diet isn’t for everyone, but there is evidence suggesting this ancient way of eating is especially beneficial for individuals afflicted by modern diseases. Is it a viable option with more staying power than a fad? Put another way, are there millions of years to support it? (Okay, we recognize that such a rhetorical question may be hotly debatable, and so we’ll quietly take some middle ground to assert some legitimacy and leave it at that. We do sell oat products, you know). What is not open to debate, however, is whether Elmhurst’s unsweetened line is Paleo-friendly and beneficial for your health. Here, we shout a resounding yes.
- Cordain L. The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; 2010.
- Cordain L, Eaton SB, Sebastian A, et al. Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 2005;81(2):341-354.
- Ströhle A, Hahn A. Diets of modern hunter-gatherers vary substantially in their carbohydrate content depending on ecoenvironments: results from an ethnographic analysis. Nutrition Research. 2011;31(6):429-435.
- Bligh HF, Godsland IF, Frost G, et al. Plant-rich mixed meals based on Palaeolithic diet principles have a dramatic impact on incretin, peptide YY and satiety response, but show little effect on glucose and insulin homeostasis: an acute-effects randomised study. The British journal of nutrition. 2015;113(4):574-584.
- Blomquist C, Alvehus M, Buren J, et al. Attenuated Low-Grade Inflammation Following Long-Term Dietary Intervention in Postmenopausal Women with Obesity. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md). 2017;25(5):892-900.
- Mellberg C, Sandberg S, Ryberg M, et al. Long-term effects of a Palaeolithic-type diet in obese postmenopausal women: a 2-year randomized trial. European journal of clinical nutrition. 2014;68(3):350-357.
- Jonsson T, Granfeldt Y, Erlanson-Albertsson C, Ahren B, Lindeberg S. A paleolithic diet is more satiating per calorie than a mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischemic heart disease. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2010;7:85.
- Otten J, Stomby A, Waling M, et al. Benefits of a Paleolithic diet with and without supervised exercise on fat mass, insulin sensitivity, and glycemic control: a randomized controlled trial in individuals with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes/metabolism research and reviews. 2017;33(1).
- Boers I, Muskiet FA, Berkelaar E, et al. Favourable effects of consuming a Palaeolithic-type diet on characteristics of the metabolic syndrome: a randomized controlled pilot-study. Lipids in health and disease. 2014;13:160.
- Frassetto LA, Schloetter M, Mietus-Synder M, Morris RC, Jr., Sebastian A. Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet. European journal of clinical nutrition. 2009;63(8):947-955.
- Pastore RL, Brooks JT, Carbone JW. Paleolithic nutrition improves plasma lipid concentrations of hypercholesterolemic adults to a greater extent than traditional heart-healthy dietary recommendations. Nutrition research (New York, NY). 2015;35(6):474-479.
- Otten J, Mellberg C, Ryberg M, et al. Strong and persistent effect on liver fat with a Paleolithic diet during a two-year intervention. International journal of obesity (2005). 2016;40(5):747-753.
- Bisht B, Darling WG, Grossmann RE, et al. A multimodal intervention for patients with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis: feasibility and effect on fatigue. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, NY). 2014;20(5):347-355.
- Sahni S, Mangano KM, McLean RR, Hannan MT, Kiel DP. Dietary Approaches for Bone Health: Lessons from the Framingham Osteoporosis Study. Curr Osteoporos Rep. 2015;13(4):245-255.
- Martin WF, Armstrong LE, Rodriguez NR. Dietary protein intake and renal function. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2005;2:25-25.
- Devries MC, Sithamparapillai A, Brimble KS, Banfield L, Morton RW, Phillips SM. Changes in Kidney Function Do Not Differ between Healthy Adults Consuming Higher- Compared with Lower- or Normal-Protein Diets: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. The Journal of nutrition. 2018;148(11):1760-1775.