Paleo Diet vs. Other Diets: Which Is Best?

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When you’re considering diet plans—whether for weight loss or overall health—you’ll want to carefully evaluate your options. The paleo diet is no doubt a popular choice among those looking to eat better, but it can be unnecessarily restrictive. By eliminating grains, dairy, and legumes, the diet strays from USDA guidelines and may lead to nutrient shortcomings if not properly planned.

The paleo diet is less restrictive than some other diets you might be researching, like the keto diet or Whole30. However, other eating plans like the Mediterranean diet offer health benefits along with more flexibility.

The 2019 U.S. News and World Report Best Diets ranks the paleo diet number 33 in Best Diets Overall and gives it an overall score of 2.4/5.

USDA Recommendations

Many paleo proponents claim that USDA nutrition recommendations are responsible for a myriad of health problems. Though these assertations are not necessarily supported by science, it’s clear the paleo diet promotes a different food ideology compared to the current government guidelines.

Food Groups

MyPlate, the current USDA nutrition visual, separates foods into five groups—fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, and protein. The paleo diet eliminates two of these groups completely by not allowing any grains or dairy in the diet.

There are also restrictions placed on the protein group. MyPlate allows for both animal proteins (like chicken and beef) and plant-based proteins (like beans and soy). The paleo diet eliminates any legumes from the diet, so beans, soy, lentils, and most other plant-based protein sources are not allowed. As such, following the paleo diet would be particularly difficult if you are also vegetarian or vegan.

Variety

Because so many foods are eliminated, it can be more challenging—though certainly not impossible—to achieve variety on a paleo diet.

For example, there'll be no more oatmeal for a warm morning meal. You’ll need to skip those snack-time apples dipped in peanut butter. And your family’s favorite black bean enchiladas? They’re unfortunately now off-limits because of the beans, tortillas, and cheese. 

There’s no question that these restrictions can be difficult depending on your current eating preferences. That said, there are still many delicious and nutritious meals that you can make from the allowed foods.

You can still enjoy a warm breakfast by mashing up a sweet potato and topping it with almond butter and banana. Swap out the peanut butter for cashew butter and your apple snack is back on the table. Or get the same enchilada flavor by using similar seasonings with steak and fajita vegetables. 

You’ll find there are many ways to achieve variety on a paleo diet, it just requires more planning and creativity.

Calories

The paleo diet focuses on food quality over quantity. You’ll want to pay attention to the types of foods you’re putting in your body, rather than simply the number of calories it contains. That can be a refreshing (and sometimes healthy) change for those who get anxious about calorie counting.

That said, calorie balance remains a key factor in weight management. Eating too many calories leads to weight gain, while creating an appropriate caloric deficit helps shed unwanted pounds.

If you are following the paleo diet to lose weight, but are seeing a plateau on the scale, you may want to consider taking a look at your calorie needs and comparing them to your current intake. Even though the foods in the paleo diet are nutritious, it’s still possible to overeat them.

Try using our calorie goal calculator below to get an estimate for your weight loss calorie needs. Then, track your food intake for a few days using one of the many online food journals and compare it to that number. 

If you’re over your calorie goal, it could be the reason the scale isn’t moving. If that’s the case, try making some small changes to your diet (within the realm of paleo eating) to get back on track. For example, you might decide to switch from a fattier cut of meat to a leaner cut of meat at dinner, and cut your portion of nuts in half at snack time. 

Similar Diets

The paleo diet can feel restrictive, although less so than several other popular diets. Though it is linked to some health benefits, there are other more flexible eating patterns that can achieve those goals too. Here's a breakdown of key facts about the paleo diet and how it compares to other plans:

Paleo Diet

  • General nutrition: The paleo diet focuses on whole, unprocessed foods like meats, seafood, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. These nutrient-dense foods provide many benefits for the body. However, the diet prohibits grains, dairy, and legumes, increasing the risk of nutrient shortcomings without proper planning. 
  • Health benefits: Though specifying further research is needed, one review of studies found that a paleo diet may potentially promote cardiovascular health and longevity.
  • Weight loss: Research on weight loss varies. Some studies indicate a paleo diet promotes weight loss, while others have found higher BMIs among those who claim to eat paleo. Success with weight loss is likely dependent on calorie balance within the confines of the allowed foods.
  • Sustainability: Because of the restrictive nature of this diet, it can be difficult (though certainly not impossible) to follow for life. Allowing restricted foods occasionally or modifying the restrictions to fit your lifestyle may help it feel more doable over the long run.

Whole30 Diet

  • General nutrition: Whole30 bears many similarities to the paleo diet, also removing grains, dairy, and legumes. As an elimination diet, though, it is stricter than paleo—placing any sugar, alcohol, baked goods (even if made with approved ingredients), and several additional ingredients in the off-limits category. Following this diet long-term can lead to a restrictive mentality and may put you at risk for nutrient deficiencies.
  • Health benefits: Unlike the paleo diet, there is currently no peer-reviewed research available on the Whole30 diet. However, it may be beneficial as a short-term elimination diet for those trying to identify an unknown food sensitivity.
  • Weight loss: While not specifically designed for weight loss, anecdotally some consumers report success shedding pounds on Whole30. There is no research to support these claims, though, and many other diets can promote weight loss without the need for so many restrictions.
  • Sustainability: Whole30 is not designed to be followed long term, and would be extremely difficult to do so—much more so than the paleo diet. While some may find success in the 30-day plan for identifying a food sensitivity, others probably do not need to implement such a strict protocol.

Keto Diet

  • General nutrition: The keto diet is based on a very high fat (approximately 75 percent) and very low carb (approximately 5-10 percent) breakdown. There is some overlap with the paleo diet in that it also eliminates grains, beans, and lentils. Unlike paleo, dairy is allowed and often embraced on keto. Fruit is far more limited on a keto diet, with only minimal berries being allowed. These severe restrictions can make it difficult to meet nutritional needs.
  • Health benefits: Research is clear that the keto diet is an effective treatment for people with epilepsy. For other medical conditions, though, the benefits are not well established. It’s important to note that it can be dangerous for people with certain medical conditions, like pregnancy and type 1 diabetes, to start a keto diet.
  • Weight loss: Systematic reviews have found that a keto diet promotes weight loss in the short term (around one year). However, there is a lack of long-term data on whether people will follow the diet for life to keep that weight off.
  • Sustainability: Due to the restrictions and severe limit on carbohydrates, keto can be very difficult to stick with long term. It's likely more challenging to follow compared to a paleo diet.

Mediterranean Diet

  • General nutrition: Similar to the paleo diet, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes whole, unprocessed meals. However, the Mediterranean diet varies considerably from the paleo diet in the actual content of those meals. You’re encouraged to eat whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and fish – with moderate poultry and dairy. There’s more flexibility on this plan compared to the paleo diet.
  • Health benefits: The Mediterranean diet is linked to numerous health benefits, from better cardiovascular health to reduced inflammation to improved mental health. It has been researched more thoroughly than many other diets. 
  • Weight loss: Despite the inclusion of high-calorie foods like olive oil and nuts, those on a Mediterranean diet don’t typically gain weight – and in fact, many lose weight.
  • Sustainability: With the exception of heavy red meat eaters, it’s probably easier for most to stick with a Mediterranean diet compared to a paleo diet, due to the less restrictive plan.
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