Did Cavemen Have It Right? My Take on the Paleo Diet

I’ve heard rumblings about the paleo diet for years, but only now realize that “eating like a caveman” is more than just a passing fancy. Friends are hooked on the paleo program, a new caveman book seems to appear every time I pop into my local bookstore, and paleo recipe sites dominated the recent “best healthy food blog” contest on the popular website The Kitchn. It’s clear that the stone age diet is here to stay, which feels like high time for me to weigh in.


Paleo is based on what is believed to have been the diet during Paleolithic times: meat and fish acquired through hunting and fishing, and nuts, fruits, and vegetables, acquired through gathering. This translates in modern day to a diet that includes meat, preferably grass-fed, game, poultry, preferably pastured, wild seafood, eggs, fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, certain oils including olive, coconut, and walnut oil, and for some paleo followers, honey and maple syrup in moderation.

Foods that are not “paleo-approved” include grains, legumes, potatoes, dried beans, dairy foods, refined sugar, salt, processed foods, artificial ingredients.


The paleo approach to eating offers much to be desired from a health standpoint. Indeed, it would be a very good thing if a few of the fundamentals were to rub off on the American public. Here’s where I applaud the diet:

  • Reliance on whole foods without processed ingredients.
  • Eschewing refined sugar, something we eat far too much of in this country.
  • Emphasis on high-quality animal protein: grass fed beef, pastured chickens, and wild seafood. These foods tend to be higher in nutrient content and gentler on the environment than conventionally raised beef and poultry, as well as farmed fish.
  • High intake of fruits and vegetables. Because the diet eliminates grains and beans, it relies heavily on fruits and vegetables, which are low calorie, nutrient-rich, and far too inadequate in the typical American diet.
  • Innovative approach to cooking. Many foods traditionally used in recipes are not part of the Paleo lifestyle. This, by default, has give rise to some pretty  inspired food and use of ingredients.


On the flip side, though, there are a number of sticking points:

  • The idea of knocking out entire categories of nourishing ingredients just doesn’t stack up: Quinoa, farro, oats, lentils, chick peas, peanuts, and yogurt. Mountains of research demonstrate the health benefits of all of these foods and their role in disease reduction.
  • Eliminating affordable ingredients such as grains and beans, and prescribing grass fed meat and pastured chicken makes this diet an expensive proposition that is, frankly, out of reach for much of the country, not to mention the world at large, most of which subsists on these forbidden foods.
  • Animal protein, even when sustainably raised, is more taxing to the environment than plant-based proteins such as beans and grains. Many animal proteins are high in saturated fat, which we know to be linked to high cholesterol and heart disease.
  • The adverse effects of salt are associated with an excess intake largely  from processed food. Used in moderation in home cooking, salt is perfectly compatible with good health.
  • Meeting all the important nutritional requirements could prove challenging on the Paleo diet, most notably calcium and vitamin D.


Nutrition data aside, here’s where I get really stuck:

Any diet that claims to be the cure-all for what ails us, quite simply, gives me hives. I don’t espouse a “one-size fits all” approach to eating, so the statement by self-proclaimed paleo founder Dr. Loren Cordain that his is “the healthiest diet in the world,” doesn’t ring true.

Travel abroad and you’ll discover pockets of the globe where inhabitants know little of the diseases that afflict modern society; all eat vastly different diets. This notion is the basis for Dr. Daphne Miller’s acclaimed book, The Jungle Effect. Consider for example, the Tarahumara Indians in Copper Canyon Mexico for whom diabetes and cancer is practically non-existent. They subsist on a foundation of beans and corn, foods considered off limits to paleo followers. Or look at the traditional cuisine of Crete, a Greek Island with a remarkably low rate of heart disease. Theirs is a diet that includes barley and yogurt, with very little meat. Again, a significant departure from the paleo approach.

Aren’t these possibly some of the “best diets in the world,” too?

Perhaps as important as any of the nutrition, environmental, or economic arguments is what I think of as the flavor quotient. Following a paleo diet means that many delicious, nourishing dishes that find their way to my dinner table would be off limits: braised farro with winter greens and mushrooms, slow cooked white bean soup with a smoky ham hock, apple slices topped with peanut butter and homemade granola, and a luscious raspberry smoothie boosted with Greek yogurt.

That, from a purely, “this is my grandma talking” standpoint, just makes no sense to me.

I have friends who swear by paleo and have both lost weight and feel terrific on it.  And I say, good for them. But for now, I’ll stick with my own “best diet” by making a salad on a bed of quinoa with greens and chick peas, topping it with crumbled feta, tossing it with a yogurt dressing, and enjoying it with a slice of hearty, whole grain bread with a swipe of salty butter.





03.11.2013 at6:51 AM #

Sally Kuzemchak

Thanks for this thoughtful take on it. Some friends of mine have had great success with this diet, but like you, I can’t get past not eating super-healthy foods like beans, lentils, and oats. And your salad and bread combo sounds delicious! 🙂

03.11.2013 at6:51 AM #

Katie Morford

I also can’t get past eating the occasional not-so-healthy food. Chocolate cake with buttercream frosting and vanilla ice cream, for example

03.11.2013 at7:18 AM #

Heidi Roth

Hi Katie,
As a mom of 2 kids, 11 and 8, as well as fellow RD, I really enjoy your blog. You are spot on with your synopsis of the Paleo diet. Keep up the good work!

03.11.2013 at7:18 AM #

Katie Morford

Thanks Heidi…means a lot coming from a fellow RD!

03.11.2013 at8:14 AM #


Great synopsis Katie. I would expect nothing less from the balanced, insightful person you are! Thank you for sharing your wisdom and skill with all of us:)

BTW, I just heard Rebecca Katz speak and bought her book “The Longevity Kitchen”…another balanced, inspiring read.

03.11.2013 at8:14 AM #

Katie Morford

Thanks Kelly. I’ll have to go check out that book!

03.11.2013 at9:49 AM #

Courtney F.

First off, thank you for bringing this topic to the “table” :o)

I believe the Paleo/Primal lifestyle is focused on getting us away from our conveniet, sedentary lifestyle. Our industrialized lifestyle of processed convenience foods in a processed box (that could outlive us at the apocolypse) is to blame for our diabetic, hypercholemic, hypertension-ridden, obese neighbors. I hate when it is portrayed as elitest/expensive, as Paleo/Primal is more about participating to the best of your ability. You can eat lean cuts of conventional meats instead of grass-fed/pastured/wild if that is what you can afford and tons of non-organic veg is better than none at all. There are many grey areas that any of us could fit into .. it is not all or none. Remember, Paleo/Primal is a lifestyle, requiring behavioral changes in participants. It isn’t just a “diet”, something to do for 4 wks to lose 10# for the beach and then you return to your regularly scheduled program.

As to the science and research aspect: when all of your dietary research is funded by Big Grain/ Big Corn/ Big Soy and Big Government, of course it is all going to point to grains being healthy. But that also means that any research going against said conglomerates isn’t going to get the funds. You must read very carefully.

03.11.2013 at9:49 AM #

Katie Morford

Thanks for your perspective, Courtney. I agree that the typical American diet of processed, convenience foods is the root of so much of the health problems in our country. And yes, it is unfortunate that much of our research — backed by special interests — compromises the findings.

03.11.2013 at9:56 AM #

Jane McKay

Thanks Katie, I do a lot of “food searches” online and Paleo pops up a lot. I’ve learned something today and I will seek to read more. We would certainly struggle without the grains and legumes since my girls choose them over most animal proteins (apart from sausages – of course..) Thank you!

03.11.2013 at6:22 PM #


Great summary! Thanks for addressing this popular diet with some valid points on both sides. It’s certainly trendy right now and I’m curious to see how long it lasts. I also keep wondering why the pro Paleo side never mentions the life expectancy of the caveman…not really a diet for longevity.

03.11.2013 at6:22 PM #

Katie Morford

Appreciate you chiming in, Sam. It will be interesting to see if the current buzz around Paleo is here to stay.

03.12.2013 at1:01 PM #


Thanks for posting on this, Katie. I too have a number of friends who have adopted a Paleo lifestyle and they feel (and look!) all the better for it. But as someone who has eaten primarily a plant-based diet for years, I have some concerns about the heavy meat consumption, both from a health and environmental impact perspective, as you pointed out in your post. I really appreciate how you highlighted the “upside” of the Paleo approach because I think we can all benefit from eating closer to our food’s source. It seems like one doesn’t have to “go Paleo” to get the message and be more mindful of our food choices.

03.12.2013 at1:01 PM #

Katie Morford

I agree, Nikki, and I’m hopeful that some of the messages of the Paleo diet around moving to whole foods has an impact on a culture that is too dependent on packaged and processed goods.

03.12.2013 at9:59 PM #


The basic premise of the Paleo diet is that grains and legumes, like all seeds, contain substances (lectins, phytic acid) that inhibit digestion so that the seed can pass through the mammalian digestive tract intact – this isn’t conjecture, it’s well known in the world of food science, and it makes sense from the standpoint of plant reproductive success.

Many traditional cultures that consume grains and legumes also developed specific, time-consuming techniques for eliminating such substances. Soaking, sprouting, and fermenting render grains and legumes highly nutritious and easy to digest. The problem with modern grains and legumes is that more often than not they are not prepared in such traditional ways, and they can cause serious nutritional deficits. People who are healthy can handle these foods, but people with chronic illnesses, autoimmune conditions, and digestive imbalances often thrive on a Paleo diet because of the removal of these foods.

Although I’m currently following a Paleo protocol for health reasons, my personal preference is to focus on proper preparation techniques: soaking, souring, fermenting, sprouting, etc. I would like to eventually include grains and legumes into my diet.

You might want to check out the book Perfect Health Diet – a modified Paleo diet – by Paul and Shou-Ching Jaminet. The book is very scholarly and a bit dense, but they do a good job at presenting the science behind the Paleo approach.

03.12.2013 at9:59 PM #

Katie Morford

Hi Viola, Glad to have you join the conversation. Appreciate your perspective and the book recommendation.

03.13.2013 at4:57 PM #

Teresa DNP

I also appreciate Viola’s input. While you are able to site people who eat only veggies and how there health is, there are also nomads who eat only meat and the blood (notice the line drawn here) and are healthy and have no cancers. Many of our carbs come from highly processed foods – flour, sugar – not like what our ancestors even a few hundred years ago ate – and we are paying for with with obesity. Other foods have been demonized in place of the grains – like fat – good fats. Our obesity problems and heart problems went up when we cut the fat – something is wrong with that picutre.

I do agree though that the range raised beef and chicken is difficult to afford, and I don’t go that route. Calcium is available from a variety of foods – like dark green leafy veggies- and frankly when so many people give their children flavored milks – I’d rather they didn’t drink milk if it’s going to be flavored. They don’t need the calories. And vitamin D – our best source is the sun. We need to be sun smart and not overdue, but that is your best source.

I LOVE carbs -cake, bread is my biggest downfall, bakery items – and I look it. I am back on a paleo diet to only have those vacation times at holidays and birthdays – that’s not a problem. But I’m tired of carrying around 40 extra pounds and this is the only thing that works.

Someone mentioned sprouting and fermenting…I’d like to know more about how to do that – because those veggies are truly more healthy for our guts.

Glad to find your recipie for cocoa coated almonds – though I’ll leave out the sugar!


03.13.2013 at4:57 PM #

Katie Morford

Glad to have you join the discussion. You might also like he chocolate coconut copycat bars. They’re sweetened with dates!

03.13.2013 at6:13 PM #


I tend to agree with you on the paleo diet. While I love that it is showing people the value of whole foods it does take out a lot of foods that are healthy. I much prefer the diet proposed in the book Nourishing Traditions, which is not a “diet” but a compilation of recipes that can help people avoid processed foods, and eat things that are healthy for you.

03.27.2013 at9:59 AM #

Cindy Martin

Thank you for the informative post. I was unfamiliar with what Paleo entailed and appreciate that you stated both the pros and cons in an unbiased way.

03.27.2013 at9:59 AM #

Katie Morford

Appreciate your feedback. It’s definitely not black and white.

06.25.2013 at4:48 PM #

jim l

Okinawans are the healthiest people in the developed world, and have cancer and heart disease rates about one fifth of americans. That rate increases to levels of mainland Japanese when they move there. When they move to the United States, their disease rates are almost identical to americans. While correlation does not equal causation, if you think that’s just a coincidence, then you probably think smoking doesn’t cause cancer. It’s really that simple, says Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, “heart disease and cancer are food born illnesses”. And he says grains and legumes are fine. Plant based diet is key.

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08.11.2013 at3:03 PM #


Hi there…just having a look at your site..looks great and I am a mom of 3 too…I just noticed you saying “saturated fat causes heart disease and high cholesterol”…I cringed…no, actually it doesn’t. This is one of the biggest lies ever told – no, it doesn’t. I wont’ go into detail here but give it some of your research time – you’ll be surprised.

08.11.2013 at3:03 PM #

Katie Morford

Thanks for chiming in Christine. You may be right….and time will tell as I know research is in the works, but the evidence we have now points to a relationship between saturated fat and high cholesterol.

08.11.2013 at3:03 PM #

Teresa DNP

I agree Christine, there is more and more research coming out on this. In the 70’s we began telling people to cut the fat in an effort to cut heart disease. We not only didn’t cut heart disease, we caused more problems, including increased waist lines! It’s very hard to change these though processes – and while people are still consuming so many carbs, it is problematic.

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