Unless you’ve been living in an actual cave, you’ve probably heard all about the Paleo – or “caveman” – diet. Maybe you’ve even tried it. A little meat here, some fresh veggies there. Perhaps going grain- or processed-food-free. It’s a cool idea that captures the imagination. But is it healthy? And does it work? That’s what we’ll explore in this article.
What we’ll cover
In this article, we’ll give you a definitive guide to the Paleo diet.
- We’ll define just what “Paleo” refers to.
- We’ll explain what’s so special about hunter-gatherers.
- We’ll review how and what ancestral-style eaters actually do.
Then, we’ll explore the ideas and evidence critically.
- What does Paleo promise?
- What evidence supports ancestral-style eating?
- What might cause our chronic 21st century health problems?
- Is the Paleo diet truly primal?
- What does our GI tract tell us?
Finally, we’ll give you the all-important conclusion:
- What should YOU do with all of this?
The Paleo, or primal, diet is based on two central ideas.
- We adapted to eat particular kinds of foods.
- To stay healthy, strong, and fit — and avoid the chronic diseases of modernity — we need to eat like our ancestors.
A brief history of eating
Our oldest cousins, the earliest primates, lived more than 60 million years ago. And, just like most primates today, they subsisted mainly on fruit, leaves, and insects.
About 2.6 million years ago, at the dawn of the Paleolithic era, things began to change.
Our early human ancestors started rockin’ the opposable thumb and big brain adaptations. They started using stone tools and fire, and, as a result, slowly changed their diet.
By the time truly modern humans came on the scene about 50,000 years ago, our ancestors were eating an omnivorous hunter-gatherer diet.
The basic Paleo diet
And thus we arrive at a model of a Paleo diet that includes:
- animals (meat, fish, reptiles, insects, etc. — and usually, almost all parts of the animals, including organs, bone marrow, and cartilage)
- animal products (such as eggs or honey)
- roots/tubers, leaves, flowers and stems (in other words, vegetables)
- nuts and seeds that can be eaten raw
Recently, many Paleo proponents have suggested that eaters start with the above, then slowly introduce grass-fed dairy (mostly yogurt and other cultured options), and small amounts of “properly prepared” legumes — meaning legumes that have been soaked overnight.
What’s so special about hunter-gatherers?
About 10,000 years ago, most of the world figured out agriculture. And thus, we moved from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic period.
Planting and farming provided us with a consistent and relatively reliable food supply, without which civilization could never have developed.
Yet the 10,000-year time frame since the dawn of the Neolithic period represents only about 1% of the time that we humans have been on earth.
Many people believe that the change from a hunting and gathering diet (rich in wild fruits and vegetables) to an agricultural diet (rich in cereal grains) gave rise to our modern chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
This is a fundamental tenet of the Paleo Diet, and a big reason why proponents say we should return to the meat and produce-based diet of our past.
How do “ancestral eaters” fare?
Of course, while we have extensive skeletal remains, cooking sites, and other types of evidence, we don’t have detailed medical records of our hunter-gatherer hominid ancestors.
However, we do have real live sample populations that we can look at.
A diverse dietary world
The very few surviving hunter-gatherer populations subsist on a wide variety of diets, from the “nutty and seedy” African !Kung, to the root vegetable-eating Kitavans near Papua, New Guinea, and the meat and fat-loving Inuit of the Arctic.
These foraging diets are diverse and probably reflect the widely varying diets of our prehistoric ancestors, simply because what people ate depended on where they lived: mostly plant-based (in the tropics), mostly animal-based (in the Arctic), and everything in between.
However varied their diets across the globe, most Paleolithic humans likely consumed about three times more produce than the typical American.
And when compared to the average American today, Paleolithic humans ate more fiber, protein, omega-3 fatty acids, unsaturated fat, vitamins and minerals, and much less saturated fat and sodium.