Paleo-Should We Really Eat Like Cavemen?

March 15, 2016

I have to say that of all the dietary extremes we humans adopt on our quest for health and fitness, the Paleo or caveman diet concerns me the most. I decided to write about this because it seems to me that there’s a lot of misinformation—and marketing—behind this dietary approach. Once again, people are confused.

Developed by Loren Cordain, PhD, a researcher from Colorado State University, who began doing studies in the 1970s, the paleo diet is billed as the way humans were genetically designed to eat.

Just in case you’ve actually been cave dwelling for the past years, the basis of the Paleo approach is that eating animal products like meat along with vegetables is the way we should be eating. No processed or refined foods (a plus…) and no grains, whole or otherwise, no beans (not so great an idea, really…).

This high-protein diet seems like a cool idea—eating like our ancestors and all, but is it healthy for us in the long run?

You know I love history, so let’s take a wee look at our past as humans, shall we?

Our oldest “cousins,” shall we say, are the earliest primates, who lived more than 60 million years ago. Just like the primates of today, they lived on fruit, leaves and insects. Then, about 2.6 million years ago, the Paleolithic era dawned and things started to change. Our earliest human ancestors developed our lovely opposable thumbs and as a result of discovering fire, they spent less time chewing, developing bigger brains that required glucose as fuel. Slowly, their diet adapted and they changed yet again.

Modern humans came on the scene about 50,000 years ago, enjoying an omnivorous hunter-gatherer type diet, what I call the authentic Paleo diet. In this dietary approach, our ancestors ate animals like meat, fish, reptiles and insects (and all their parts, too, like organs, marrow, cartilage, etc), eggs, honey, roots and tubers, leaves, flowers and stems (translation: vegetables), nuts and seeds, wild fruits (such as they were…).

About 10,000 years ago, the world figured out how to grow food and agriculture was born. We moved from the Paleolithic age to the Neolithic age. The advantages of agriculture were many, but the most important was that planting and farming gave us a relatively reliable source of food so communities could thrive thereby guaranteeing the development of civilization.

However, many proponents of the modern Paleo approach believe that changing from the hunter-gatherer mode of sustenance to a diet richer in cereal grains gave rise to our modern epidemics of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. The main tenet of Paleo eating is that our ancestors were robust and healthy, living about as long as we do now (unless dying in accidents or from infectious diseases).

In truth, our Paleo ancestors were more vegetarian than carnivore and most likely ate about 3-4 times the veggies we modern humans eat, so I will give them that one. They also likely ate more fiber, protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins and minerals and less sodium.

The Lancet looked at mummies from all over the globe in a recent study only to discover that they, like modern humans harbored parasites, suffered from infectious disease and showed signs of atherosclerosis, just like modern humans.

Where the Paleo approach gets it right is in choosing foods that are not processed and rejecting dairy foods.

Over the last 100 years, industrialization and technology have radically changed how we eat—and not in a good way.  In modern America, many of us subsist on packaged foods that are commercially prepared and devoid of real nutritional value. These modern foods are designed to be so delicious as to be addictive using fat, sugar and salt as the siren calls that keep us eating and eating.

Where the Paleo theory loses me is with the foods they eliminate and the concentration of animal products included. In order to truly hearken back and eat like our ancestors, we would have to reverse all of the hybridization done by farmers to create delicious vegetables and fruits that are nutrient-dense as opposed to the bitter, small and tough versions “enjoyed” by our ancestors.

We can say the same for the meat we eat today. Beef, even grass-fed, pristinely raised beef is not the same as bison or deer. There’s nothing wild about the meat we consume today (unless you’re hunting…and it is actually wild…and there’s karma with animal food).

In short, most of the foods included in the Paleo approach didn’t even exist when humans were, in fact, Paleolithic. Their elimination of whole grains (cereal grasses) stems from the idea that 10,000 years of evolution isn’t enough time for human digestion to adapt to these foods. A nice idea but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny since the National Academy of Sciences has discovered that ancient humans began eating grasses and cereals before the Paleolithic era, maybe as long as three to four million years ago. Further research has shown evidence of grain consumption as far back as 150,000 years ago. Finally, evidence of widespread flour production dates back as long as 30,000 years. On top of that, researchers have found that legumes were an important part of the Paleo diet back in the days of Paleo

In the end, while proponents of Paleo eating can point to any number of controversial studies that support their ideas, most nutrition experts hold to the evidence that eating whole grains and beans improves our overall health, improving blood lipids and blood glucose; reducing inflammation and reducing our risk of heart disease and stroke. The same can’t be said for meat.

Most of the foods encouraged by proponents of the modern Paleo diet can compromise health and wellness. And that’s not just me talking here. Most nutrition experts agree that the less animal fat and protein we consume, the better our overall, long-term health.

This new approach to ancient eating, seemingly steeped in traditional wisdom, hearkening back to when humanity was at its finest, is nothing more than yet another high protein diet in disguise. With some good points to it, like encouraging the consumption of lots of veggies and eschewing junk food and sugar, overall, it’s a diet that is unsustainable for us and for our fragile planet.