Is paleo gluten free? And other paleo questions answered

Is paleo gluten free? And other paleo questions answered

Team ErbologyErbology

In the mid 2010s, a new diet craze appeared seemingly out of nowhere. The ‘paleo’ diet aims to recreate the diet of our distant ancestors, but it has been controversial even as its popularity soared. In this article we’ll answer some of your top questions on the paleo diet, including whether it’s suitable if you’re sensitive to gluten.

April 27, 2022 4:20 pm

What is the paleo diet?

The paleo diet is a way of eating which tries to mimic the diet of our Palaeolithic ancestors. According to the diet’s proponents, this means centring your diet around foods like meat, fish, fruit, nuts and seeds. (1)

Meanwhile, foods which became staple items long after this period, such as grain products, dairy and processed foods, are largely off the menu.

The theory goes that our genetic makeup hasn’t changed significantly since the Paleolithic era. Advocates of the diet argue that this means we should return to the dietary patterns humans followed back then. By doing this they hope to avoid lifestyle diseases which have become common in the modern age. These include diabetes and heart disease.


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What can you eat on the paleo diet?

The Paleolithic era covered a very long period of time, from about 2.5 million years ago to around 10,000 years ago. At this point we started to use stone tools (and eventually grow our own food).(2)

Scientists and fans of the diet can’t agree on a single ‘true’ paleo diet, so there is a bit of variation in what foods are allowed depending on where you get your information.

However, generally speaking, the following foods are acceptable when eating a paleo diet:

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Eggs
  • Fruit and vegetables
  • Nuts and seeds

You can also enjoy a small amount of honey.

Fans of the diet argue that these types of food would have been part of the diet of hunter-gatherers during the Paleolithic period. As such, they form part of the optimum diet for our genetic makeup.

What isn’t allowed?

Any foods which became part of our diet after the Paleolithic period are generally a ‘no-no’. If, like most of us, your knowledge of agricultural history is a little thin, it’s a good rule of thumb to avoid the following foods:

  • Any grains
  • Cereals
  • Dairy
  • Legumes such as lentils and beans
  • Alcohol
  • Coffee
  • Any processed foods, including refined vegetable oils

This is because these foods involve the use of agricultural methods to either grow (grains, cereals) or care for (dairy). They were not available during the Paleolithic period and, as such, are not allowed on the paleo diet.

Is paleo gluten-free?

Yes, the paleo diet is gluten-free. This is a side effect of removing all grains and cereals from your diet.

However, not all gluten-free diets are paleo. If you are sensitive to gluten and need to exclude it, you can do so by removing gluten-containing grains from your diet. These include wheat, rye and barley.

If your sole concern is eliminating gluten, you don’t need to follow the full paleo diet.

The paleo diet has a lot more restrictions than a standard gluten-free diet. It excludes foods on the basis of whether our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate them, rather than on their nutritional content.


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Does the paleo diet work?

As mentioned above, the idea behind the diet is that by eating the optimum diet for our genetic makeup, we can avoid ‘modern’ lifestyle diseases.

But does the paleo diet actually have any effect on our risk of these illnesses?

As it turns out, the jury is out on that.

Take, for example, two major lifestyle diseases that are increasingly common in the West: diabetes and heart disease.

An uncontrolled study of Aboriginal people in northwest Australia with type 2 diabetes showed that following a ‘hunter gatherer lifestyle’ for seven weeks resulted in 10% weight loss and reductions in blood glucose levels.(2)

Another compared groups with diabetes or heart disease following a Mediterranean diet (which included grains and low-fat dairy alongside paleo-friendly items like vegetables and nuts) and a paleo diet. The study found that both diets improved glucose tolerance, but the improvement was much greater in the paleo group.(2)

One more study looked at a small group of non-obese ‘sedentary subjects’ (i.e. people who did not lead an active lifestyle). It found that the paleo diet helped to reduce blood pressure, their ability to process glucose and other markers of good cardiovascular health.(2)

So far, it all sounds rosy. So, what are are the controversies surrounding the diet?

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"The paleo diet is gluten-free. This is a side effect of removing all grains and cereals from your diet."

Almost anything is better than a Western diet

One of the major issues with research into the paleo diet is that often it is being compared to a Western diet. Usually this type of diet is high in processed foods, refined grains and saturated fat, thanks to high meat consumption.

Essentially, if you’re starting from the baseline of a Western diet, any dietary pattern that cuts down on the unhealthy products above and introduces more fruit, vegetables and unprocessed foods is likely to support better health.

This may go some way to explaining the positive results above.

The study comparing a Mediterranean diet and a paleo diet seems very compelling on first glance, but the sample size was very small (29 people in total).

A fact sheet released by the University of California noted that there is a lack of scientific evidence to support many of the health claims made by advocates of the paleo diet.(3)

Are we really genetically disposed to a paleo diet?

Scientists seem to agree that lifestyle diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes are related to poor diet.

Obesity is a key risk factor for conditions such as these. Many believe that a Western diet filled with fatty, sugary foods is directly related to the dramatic rise in obesity we have seen over the last few decades.(4)

We also now eat a lot of industrially processed foods (often called ‘ultra processed foods’ in scientific literature) which are also associated with adverse health outcomes. High consumption of ultra processed foods has been linked with a higher risk of cancer, coronary heart disease and overall mortality.(5)

Therefore, it’s pretty likely that the Western diet is not optimal for our good health.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the paleo diet is. While it encourages healthy habits such as focusing your diet more on vegetables and fruits as opposed to meat and processed foods, it also includes some recommendations which may not be as healthy.


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What are the downsides of going paleo?

Sticking to a paleo diet requires you to cut out major food groups including dairy, grains and legumes.

However, there is plenty of evidence that foods from these groups have health benefits which you may end up missing out on.

For instance, cutting out grains and dairy may mean a decrease in your intake of fibre, vitamin D, calcium, B vitamins and iron.(3)

Two areas of particular concern for scientists are a lack of calcium and vitamin D, both of which are needed for healthy bones.

The paleo diet reduces your intake of calcium while increasing your protein intake, which encourages further calcium loss in your urine. Meanwhile, the paleo diet all but totally excludes dietary vitamin D.

As a result, you may be at a higher risk of bone health issues like demineralisation and osteoporosis.(3)

What’s more, there may be a flaw in the overall theory behind the paleo diet. Advocates of the diet base their eating patterns on those of our Palaeolithic ancestors, but the truth is that their diet varied dramatically from region to region.(3) As such, it’s likely that the actual Paleolithic diet was rather different from the modern version.

Further, as we’ve already discussed, going paleo means cutting out several important food groups. This can make it a difficult diet to stick to over the long term.

Is the paleo diet sustainable and affordable?

Instinctively, a diet which focuses on foods you can ‘hunt and gather’ and eschews ultra processed foods feels like it would be a positive choice for the environment.

However, that’s unfortunately not the case.

A fascinating study compared the paleo diet with three others: the Mediterranean diet, the Southern European Atlantic Diet and Spanish dietary guidelines.(6)

It found that all the diets were of high nutritional quality (the paleo diet had the highest score here).

However the researchers noted that a paleo diet was too expensive to be accessible to low income consumers. It estimated the cost of the diet at around €8.60 per day, which is around twice the cost of the other diets.

Further, the paleo diet had the largest carbon footprint, at around 5.44kg per person per day. This is almost twice the environmental impact of the Mediterranean diet, 1.5 times higher than the Southern Easter Atlantic diet, and 1.7 times that of Spanish dietary guidelines.

The researchers attributed the high environmental impact to the higher intake of meat and fish recommended in the paleo diet. Compared to more plant-based diets, this results in a larger carbon footprint due to the large amount of resources needed to produce meat and fish.


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The paleo diet: the verdict

There are several compelling arguments to suggest that the paleo diet could be a healthy option. Among these are the studies we mentioned above which show that swapping to a paleo diet may have a positive effect on your risk of diabetes and heart disease.

However, the paleo diet is not the only one which can offer those benefits.

For example. The Mediterranean diet also delivers on a lowered risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease (among others such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases).(7)

However, the Mediterranean diet is much less restrictive than the paleo diet. Perhaps as a result of this, many people find it much easier to stick with over the long term.

It’s also worth considering the high cost and carbon footprint of the paleo diet. Both of these are around double those of the Mediterranean diet.

In terms of nutrition, we’ve seen above that scientists have indicated the high nutritional quality of the paleo diet. But some important questions – such as the long-term effects of a possible deficiency in vitamin D and calcium – are still unanswered.

Furthermore, the high intake of red meat in particular may put you at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease due to their high levels of saturated fat.

On top of all this, the notion that the entire theory of the ‘caveman diet’ may actually be flawed. The diet of our ancestors bears little resemblance to the modern version of paleo and varied based on geography.

Should you go on paleo?

At Erbology, we’ve gone through the evidence to draw our own conclusions about the paleo diet.

While it seems to be quite a healthy diet in some respects, it’s likely this is down to certain elements of the diet – particularly cutting out processed foods and eating more fruit and vegetables – than the diet as a whole.

There’s no reason, for example, why you couldn’t make those changes to your normal diet without losing important food groups such as whole grains and legumes.

The idea that we should eat like our ancestors doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny, given that their diets were varied depending on where they lived. What’s more, we don’t actually know that they were healthier for following this diet. They may simply have been eating whatever was available!

So, rather than placing tough restrictions on your diet in order to be healthier, we’d recommend you make simple and easy changes which you can stick to over the long term.

The best things to start with are cutting down on red and processed meat and ultra processed foods. Next, increase your intake of fruit, veg and whole grains. Chances are, you’ll stick with these changes a lot longer – and therefore see greater health benefits – than by eating like a caveman!

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