Diets that do and diets that don’t: Part 2 – The Paleo Diet

By Tamzyn Murphy

BSc Med(Hons) Human Nutrition and Dietetics, RD


The Paleo diet, founded by researcher Loren Cordain (PhD), is based on what our caveman ancestors ate. It includes only the foods we’ve eaten for most of human history; which we’ve evolved to eat. Like Atkins, Paleo is a low carb, moderate protein, high fat diet. You’re allowed as much meat, fish, poultry, eggs, natural fat (e.g. butter, olive oil, avocado) and non-starchy vegetables as you like. Unlike Atkins, Paleo allows any other foods that our caveman ancestors ate, like any root vegetables, nuts, seeds and fruit.  We only became dependent on farmed foods, like grains, legumes (beans, peas, lentils) and dairy, relatively recently – less than 500 generations ago – with the advent of agriculture. So our genes haven’t had much time to adapt to problem compounds in these foods, theoretically causing inflammation and weight gain.

Indeed, grains and legumes contain anti-nutrients (like lectin and gluten) which interfere with nutrient absorption, irritate intestinal lining (promoting leaky gut) and yield other toxic effects. Cereal grains, particularly wheat, are the worst.[i] So there’s a case to be made for limiting or even eliminating them. But legumes’ anti-nutrients are largely inactivated by cooking at high temperatures, which makes them relatively safe[ii]. Plus legumes contain numerous beneficial compounds.[iii] They’re also are an important protein source – particularly important for vegetarians, vegans and the poor; not to mention ethical and environment-friendly meat-replacements. There’s no evidence that legumes increase weight gain. Research shows that dairy doesn’t have inflammatory[iv] or weight promoting effects[v]. In fact it may do the opposite.

So, the theory behind Paleo is sound – eat whole, unprocessed food as much as possible. But including moderate amounts of dairy and legumes may offer more benefits than risks. Paleo loses points on the expense-front, and due to the lack of dairy you might want to supplement with calcium and vitamin D, unless you’re getting plenty of other calcium rich foods and enough sunshine.



[i] Cordain L. Cereal Grains: Humanity’s Double Edged Sword. Simopoulos AP (ed): Evolutionary Aspects of Nutrition and Health.Diet, Exercise, Genetics and Chronic Disease. World Rev Nutr Diet. Basel, Karger, 1999;84:19-73

[ii] Pusztai A, Grant G. Assessment of lectin inactivation by heat and digestion. Methods Mol Med. 1998;9:505-14 

[iii] Bouchenak M, Lamri-Senhadji M. Nutritional quality of legumes, and their role in cardiometabolic risk prevention: a review. J Med Food. 2013 Mar;16(3):185-98 

[iv] Labonté MÈ, Couture P, et al. Impact of dairy products on biomarkers of inflammation: a systematic review of randomized controlled nutritional intervention studies in overweight and obese adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Apr;97(4):706-17 

[v] Abargouei AS, Janghorbani M,  et al. Effect of dairy consumption on weight and body composition in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled clinical trials. Int J Obes (Lond). 2012 Dec;36(12):1485-93