What is the paleo diet, and can it help you lose weight?

The paleo diet, the back-to-basics healthy meal plan, is gathering steam. Can it help you lose weight?

Paleo diet: What are the benefits and pitfalls?
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The paleo diet is an eating plan modelled on what our ancestors may have eaten. Said to be similar to the diet of Paleolithic or Stone Age era, the general principles – no processed foods – are pretty simple. 

But why take on the paleo diet: how do you get started, what are the benefits, and can it help you when trying to lose weight? We look at the research to find out whether it's worth giving the diet a go. 

What is the paleo diet?

The paleo diet, otherwise known as the "caveman diet", is designed to resemble the diet of Stone Age hunter-gatherers and very early farmers. That means more nuts, berries, lean meats, fish (you can still cook things on one of our best grill entries, we're not savages), fruits and vegetables, with the aim of returning to a more "natural" diet. 

The diet is based on the "discordance hypothesis" theory that our diets have changed too quickly for the human body to adapt to it. The theory says we're not meant to eat processed foods, and our diets are not in harmony with our bodies. 

As such, the paleo diet recommends ditching any and all processed foods such as grains (including products based on milled grains like bread), salt,  sugar, some dairy products and processed meats like burgers, bacon and sausage.

Paleo diet: What are the benefits and pitfalls?

(Image credit: Getty Images)

What are the benefits of the paleo diet?

A relatively new phenomenon, there's not too many concrete studies about long-term effects of the paleo diet. However, there are some short-term effects published in a round-up of studies by Harvard University, covering periods of six months and two years. 

In the studies, researchers found the diet "produce[d] greater short-term benefits than diets based on national nutrition guidelines, including greater weight loss, reduced waist circumference, decreased blood pressure, increased insulin sensitivity, and improved cholesterol."

This is fantastic news for paleo diet advocates, and certainly found the paleo diet confers plenty of short-term weight loss benefits. It also makes a lot of sense: if you ditch bread, sugar, cheese and soft drinks, and replace it with lots of vegetables, fish, lean meats and water, you're obviously going to be more likely to lose weight. 

Are there any paleo diet pitfalls?

One of the biggest pitfalls around the paleo diet is the same that befalls any number of "extreme" restrictive diets: they're very hard to maintain. One review of studies, again reported by Harvard, examined 22,000 overweight participants of lots of different studies. All of them were on restrictive diets of some form or other.

The review found "low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets both resulted in weight loss of about 10 pounds at six months, most of the lost weight was regained within one year". 

This is pretty emblematic of the problem of dieting: if you're being very strict with your diet choices, eventually your cravings will win out, or you'll reach a target weight, and you'll ditch the diet altogether. It's up to you to make the plan sustainable, or allow yourself a few "cheat days" to ensure you stay on course most of the time. 

For example, if you love chicken and fries, you can have your favourite proteins and veggies cooked healthier by picking up one of our best air fryers. Air fryers use a small amount of fat and currents of hot air to coat and cook the surfaces of its contents evenly, ensuring you get a great taste with minimal added calories. You can also whip your veggies into an easy, on-the-go green juice with some of our best blenders

Matt Evans
Matt Evans

Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and Channel Editor at Fit&Well. He's previously written for titles like Men's Health and Red Bull, and covers all things exercise and nutrition on the Fit&Well website. Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen kickboxer and runner. His top fitness tip? Stretch.