The caveman model for nutrition is commonly known as the Paleo Diet. Eating the Paleo way basically mimics the hunter-gatherer diet of our Stone Age ancestors who lived during the Paleolithic Era. Their example suggests that humans are genetically programmed to eat a diet of wild plant and animal foods, but no grains or dairy. Proponents of the Paleo Diet believe that following this caveman model of eating can make you healthy, lean, and fit. Not everyone agrees.
History of the Paleo Diet
According to a paper published in the January, 1985 edition of "The New England Journal of Medicine," for 2.5 million years human beings lived as hunter-gatherers and ate lean meats, fruits, and vegetables. However, when the Agricultural Revolution began 10,000 years ago, the human diet changed dramatically. Cereals, breads, legumes, salted foods, dairy products, domesticated meats, and refined sugars displaced the foods that our Paleolithic ancestors ate. Since these foods are new in terms of human history, proponents of the Paleolithic diet believe they conflict with our genetic blueprint.
Fundamentals of the Paleo Diet
In the "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition," Loren Cordain, the founder of the Paleo Diet, described the basic tenets of the hunter-gatherer way of eating. He noted how the diet included high amounts of animal protein from lean meats, fish, and seafood. Fiber came in the form of carbohydrates, primarily from fruits and vegetables. Our Paleo ancestors ate moderate amounts of fat, consisting mostly of mono- and polyunsaturated fats with a nearly equal ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fats. Unlike modern eaters, they did not eat cereals, breads, legumes, refined sugars, dairy products, or processed foods.
The foods that compose a typical modern diet differs from Paleo foods in several key nutritional characteristics. Typical modern diets are largely composed of carbohydrates, usually grains, with higher glycemic loads that produce insulin spikes. The modern diet is lower in fiber and higher in omega-6 fats, as opposed to the healthier omega-3s.
How the Paleo Diet Improves Health
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Cordain maintains that most of today's diet-related chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, are directly linked to the excessive consumption of foods introduced during the agricultural and industrial eras. He claims these diseases were rare or nonexistent in hunter-gatherers, and believes their diet played a key role in maintaining their health. However, many scientists and anthropologists argue that hunter-gatherers avoided the diseases that are common in modern society because of various factors, including eating fewer calories and following more active lives. Since hunter-gatherers had significantly shorter lifespans, they also weren't as susceptible to the diseases that accompany old age.
A Different Viewpoint
In a review of hunter-gatherer diets published in the March issue of "The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition," writer Katherine Milton presented a different perspective of the Paleo diet. She noted that while some hunter-gatherer societies lived primarily on animal protein and fat, other hunter-gatherer societies relied on plant foods to compose the bulk of their diets. While Milton agrees with Cordain that hunter-gatherer societies probably did not suffer from many of the diseases that plague modern civilization, she suggests that we should increase our consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables rather than meats.
The Ideal Paleo Eating Plan
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Paleo diet adherents make animal protein the core of their meals. They eat moderate portions and focus on more healthful sources of animal protein by largely consuming pasture-raised or organic meats, poultry, fish and eggs. They balance their protein with abundant helpings of colorful fresh vegetables and fruits. Instead of slathering their food in butter, they employ healthful fats such as avocados, nuts, seeds, nut butters, coconut products, olives and olive oil. The diet avoids grains, legumes, sugars, dairy, and all processed foods. As a treat, modern Paleos may depart from their ancient ancestors and enjoy some wine and dark chocolate in moderation.
- "The New England Journal of Medicine"; Paleolithic Nutrition - A consideration of Its Nature and Current Implications; S. Boyd Eaton and Melvin Conner; January 1985
- "The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition"; Origins and Evolution of the Western Diet: Health Implications for the 21st Century; Loren Cordain et al.; February 2005
- "The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition"; Hunter-gatherer diets - A Different Perspective; Katharine Milton; March 2000
- "The Paleo Diet"; Loren Cordain, Ph.D.; December 2010
- "The Primal Blueprint"; Mark Sisson; January 2012
- "The Paleo Answer"; Loren Cordain, Ph.D.; December 2011
- "The Paleolithic Prescription"; S. Boyd Eaton et al.; June 1988
Robert Iafelice, M.S., R.D., L.D., is an expert in nutrition and fitness and began writing professionally in 1987. He has written for magazines such as "Chicago Medicine" and has contributed to the handbook, "The Alkaline Way Guide." Iafelice is a consulting nutritionist for Revati Wellness, Silver Lake Wellness Center, and the Northeast Ohio Institute of Functional Medicine.