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September 9th, 2011
10:21 AM ET

Is the Paleo diet healthy?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Friday, it's Dr. Melina Jampolis, a physician nutrition specialist.

Question asked by Courtney L. from Pittsburgh:

I am obese and have been working on losing weight for three years. I have been working with nutritionists and personal trainers instead of fad dieting. On the Web, I stumbled upon the Paleolithic (Paleo) diet. Is this lifestyle change beneficial despite the promotion of saturated fats and cholesterol?

Expert answer

Hi, Courtney. I applaud you for staying away from fad diets in an attempt to lose weight. Most fad diets are simply not sustainable long term, which leads to weight regain, and their impact on overall health has not been established.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the Paleo diet falls into the fad diet category.

While there are many different versions of the diet with slightly different rules, the general principle of the diet involves eating foods that can be hunted and fished (meat, seafood - grass-fed, wild and organic are encouraged) or gathered (eggs, fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables and herbs).

Dairy, legumes, salt, grains, refined sugar, processed oils, potatoes (including sweet potatoes) and alcohol are excluded from the diet.

Basically, this is a high-protein, relatively low-carb diet. The positive aspects of this diet are that it eliminates processed foods, a major source of added sugar, salt and fat in the American diet.

The diet also eliminates sugar and refined grains, both of which contribute to obesity and diabetes and can lead to increases in dangerous belly fat, which has been linked to heart disease, Alzheimer's disease and cancer.

In addition, the diet encourages a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts (except peanuts, which are legumes) and seeds, all of which are an important part of a healthy, balanced diet.

The cons are:

1. The diet eliminates dairy, an affordable and widely available source of bone-building calcium (and vitamin D when dairy foods are fortified) and protein (yes, calcium can be obtained from greens and other foods, but it is more challenging to consume adequate amounts.)

2. The diet eliminates all grains, including whole grains, which are a good source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and heart healthy fiber, and foods such as beans, peanuts and sweet potatoes, all of which have numerous health-promoting qualities.

3. The diet is high in animal protein, which could lead to an excess intake of saturated fat, resulting in elevated cholesterol levels, an increased risk of heart disease and increased risk of certain types of cancer.

4. Finally, the diet can be expensive (grass-fed, organic meats and eggs are more expensive) and inconvenient due to the limitation of food choices, both of which make this diet less practical for the average person long term.

Overall, I would steer clear of the Paleo diet, but we can take away something from our ancestors by eating foods closer to their natural state (less processed), which are more nutrient-dense and digested more slowly by the body. In most cases, they lead to better hunger control, more stable blood sugar levels and weight loss if calories are reduced and exercise is increased (as it sounds like they are in your case).

Got a question for our experts? Submit it here and make sure to follow Dr. Melina Jampolis on Twitter.


soundoff (287 Responses)
  1. Darren Burgess

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    March 3, 2012 at 18:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Grokette

    Paleo has changed my life. I assumed it was a "fad" and that I wouldn't be able to maintain it, but after only a few days into it I realized I'd stumbled on something big. It is a lifestyle which is very rewarding and absolutely sustainable. I was recently listening to friends discuss their non-paleo diets and all the deprivation and suffering they went through. They were hungry for more, but couldn't go over their calorie limit. Their work outs were grueling. They were miserable being "healthy". Each day was a challenge and it was always something on their mind. Awful. Paleo is NOT another fad diet and promotes not just gaining as much nutrition from your food as possible, but reasonable exercise and overall well being. And it isn't as difficult as you might think. Once you start learning it becomes easy peasy :)

    April 15, 2012 at 14:21 | Report abuse | Reply
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  4. Admin

    Paleo is not a fad! It is a lifestyle!

    There are huge healthy benefits to the lifestyle.
    I agree with Grokette.

    May 11, 2012 at 16:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Talkingcure

    I have been doing a paleo lifestyle change for three weeks. I am finally feeling the release of pain and I flammation from my joints that began a year ago that started coincidentally with menopausal hormone change. I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis and put on an NSAID. This made my health worse, and began to damage my liver such that I had to consult a liver specialist. I had to be taken off that medicine to save my liver. I lived with horrible main for months. Trials of two other pain medications caused other bad effects rendering those remedies useless.

    I finally turned to changing my eating when it was suggested by an enlightened female gynecologist. The pain is diminishing. I can exercise again and I feel great during and after. No medicine could give me that back. Read "Wheat Belly" which Is authored by a physician. Wheat is poison to me! I wouldn't have known without paleo.

    By the way, I no longer have cravings for sugar or other unhealthy foods. I feel very sustained by this plan. Weight loss was not my goal, it was to be pain-free. But unwanted belly fat from genetically modified wheat is now going away, which is another added health benefit. If I can be pain free without medication, how can this be a fad?

    I have always been healthy until this problem came up, and modern medicine not only failed me, it made me sicker. After a year of pain and medication horrors, I am dancing a jig because of paleo.

    July 13, 2012 at 01:48 | Report abuse | Reply
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  7. TrueGirl

    I agree, being paleo feels awesome and is NOT at all a fad! It´s true that since the agricultural revolution (think: corn, wheat, etc.) human beings have become smaller and sicker. We´re simply not meant to eat most of the things we´re eating. There´s absolutely nothing wrong with abstaining from consuming grains. If more people did, we would probably have fewer autoimmune diseases and the like. Grains don´t do anything for us and we don´t need them. If we´re eating properly we´re already getting the nutrients we need elsewhere.

    January 23, 2013 at 08:11 | Report abuse | Reply
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  9. dessertsbylauren

    I have been following the Paleo way of life for about a month now and I have already lost over 12 lbs. My depression is GONE. My once achy joints no longer ache. My energy level is through the roof. I FEEL better. I feel amazing actually. I am not an avid gym goer, I just don't have the time with a 2 year old. My only exercise is chasing her around. It is NOT an unrealistic lifestyle to follow, especially if you start trying to avoid GMOs. I'm avoiding mostly the same foods. My daughter has been gluten free for a few weeks now and I notice her moods don't get all crazy the way they used to. She's not as sensitive. She has less tantrums. My husband also feels great and is losing weight. Anyone calling this a fad diet just doesn't want to admit that modern medicine is just wrong.

    February 18, 2013 at 01:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. True dat

    Growing up in the Caribbean as a child my diet consisted of ground provision and locally grown food without all the added fertilizer and our cows were grass fed and we use to give the peels of our food, green bananas, plantain, yams etc to our pigs. Our eggs we local, the yolk were yellow and they were small, our chicken were raised locally and we never or rarely ate rice nor macaroni, we did not and could not afforded cereal, we use to eat bread but minimum. My stomach was flat and we were rarely ill because all our juices were locally and all the fruits grew from trees which were not cultivated using fertilizers. Even in my late twenties after the birth of my child I remained small, but as I strayed away from this way of eating, I have gained weight and have a huge stomach that I acquired in less than 10 years, As I was approaching my 40th birthday I decided to go back to this way of eating and I have just started less than a month ago and I can see the difference.

    March 11, 2013 at 19:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Ben

    I decided to go paleo a little over a month ago. At the start, it was very difficult, with a spouse and 2 young children in the house that were not looking to go paleo. Since that install hardship, watching them eat the foods I had always loved, it has become very easy. I have gone from 310 lbs. to 285 lbs. and from a size 44 waist to a 40. I see the results right in front of me. Paleo is the way to go. I feel great and my energy level has gotten to the point that I actually want to go and work out. Can it be a bit more expensive? No doubt. But a few extra dollars is not worth a few less years.

    March 15, 2013 at 23:43 | Report abuse | Reply
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    April 26, 2013 at 01:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Haley O'Bryan

    Okay, I almost never comment on things online like this, but here goes:

    1) A paleo or paleo-type diet does NOT expressly prohibit sweet potatoes or other starchy tubers – it just says to limit them if you are trying to lose a good amount of weight.

    2) While most paleo people avoid dairy, there are factions (such as Mark Sisson's Primal movement) that advocate organic, grass-fed dairy if you can tolerate it.

    3) Saturated fats are not bad for you, as MANY a study has proven. Added sugars are what's bad for you.

    4) Finally, YES, paleo can be expensive. Generally, quality food runs a bit pricier than highly-palatable frankenfoods mass-engineered to provide as many calories as possible for the lowest cost. Nonetheless, I fully maintain that with proper planning and diligent searching, it is possible to have a paleo diet that is just as cheap, if not cheaper, than a SAD (standard American diet).

    5) It's worth mentioning that I am neither a paleo blogger, a Crossfitter, or any other "typical" paleo person. However, I've given paleo a reluctant but fair shot and I have to say that I feel amazing having done it. It helps that I don't call it "paleo" per se, as I eat dairy regularly. It's just my way of eating. Tell me, am I unhealthy for choosing whole fruits and vegetables, fish and chicken, nuts, seeds, and olive/coconut oil?!

    May 3, 2013 at 16:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Actually Informed

      A lot of doctors have said that you feel better initially, but after a year or so, you start suffering from terrible health problems. You feel better because your body enters "survival mode." It can't stay that way forever. See how you feel come middle of next year.

      December 13, 2013 at 20:37 | Report abuse |
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  17. Morris Buchwalter

    Proponents of this diet argue that modern human populations subsisting on traditional diets allegedly similar to those of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers are largely free of diseases of affluence,and that multiple studies of the Paleolithic diet in humans have shown improved health outcomes relative to other widely recommended diets.`..,-

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    June 15, 2013 at 20:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Elvin Phanthanouvon

    But a true paleolithic diet is impossible to mimic because wild game is not readily available, most modern plant food is cultivated rather than wild, and meats are domesticated. At best, you can eat a modified version of the original diet that's gluten-free and includes lean meat, organ meats, fish, poultry, eggs, vegetables, fruit, and nuts. It's a wide variety of foods.`..^,

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    September 4, 2013 at 06:21 | Report abuse | Reply
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  22. Dr. J.

    I have seen a lot of people with health problems caused by this approach. It cures cravings at first causing weight loss due to redcued calories. Long term it is terrible for your heart among others. My prescribed approach is fruits, vegetables and less of everything else, along with moderate exercise.

    October 28, 2013 at 13:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • DrLIE?

      How can eating tons of veggies, and some meat, fish, nuts cause long term health problems. Do you have references? Are you saying I'd be heathier eating sugar with all that? Why?

      January 8, 2014 at 11:49 | Report abuse |
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