The Paleolithic, or caveman, diet is a reversion to the foods eaten by humans prior to the advents of civilization, agriculture, and technology. Before those developments, the human diet during the Stone Age is thought to have consisted largely of lean red meat and vegetation.
Modern-day adherents to Paleolithic diets add vigorous physical activity to mimic the Stone Age’s hunter-gatherer lifestyle. In some cases, modern-day “Paleos” actually adopt such a lifestyle, hunting their own food in the natural environment.
The Paleolithic Period of human development, characterized by the use of chipped, stone tools, began about 2.5 million years ago. Whenever possible, Paleolithic peoples consumed large amounts of animal meat and offal, deriving 45-65% of their energy from animals.
Among those aboriginal, hunter-gatherer societies in Australia, Africa, and South America that survived into the twentieth century, the rates of cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, and other conditions were remarkably low until they switched to modern diets.
In most other cultures, this switch to modern diets happened about 10,000 years ago, when it was discovered that many inedible plants could be rendered suitable for human consumption by cooking. This resulted in the introduction of grains, beans, and potatoes as foods, and later followed by sugar, milk, and milk products.
Many nutritionists and scientists believe a Paleolithic diet and lifestyle might be an effective weapon against the adverse effects of modern affluence, reducing risk of heart disease, cancer, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, and other conditions.
Since this was the diet practiced during much of human evolution, advocates argue, it is the food that humans were designed to eat. Additionally, these advocates endorse the idea that milk (after weaning) and grains were never intended for human consumption.
There is really no single Paleolithic diet. Hunter gatherer cultures in different parts of the world ate widely differing diets, due to the availability in each locality. Stone Age diets also varied significantly depending on the season. Generally, however, such diets included much lean red meat from game, as well as eggs, fish, fruit, nuts, and vegetables.
Excluded from most Paleolithic diets were grains (e.g., breads, pasta, cereals, corn), milk, refined sugars, beans, soy beans, or lentils. For twenty-first century adherents to Caveman diets, potatoes and peanuts are also forbidden.
These diets are high in high-quality protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, iron, mono-unsaturated fats, omega-3 fats, phytochemicals, and antioxidants. They are low in salt, saturated fats, enzyme inhibitors such as protease or amylase inhibitors, exorphins, and glycoalkaloids.
Concerns have been expressed about the environmental effects of millions of people switching to diets heavy in red meats, requiring many agricultural operations to switch from growing crops to raising livestock.
Sensitive wild areas could be ravaged in the search for insufficient quantities of Paleolithic foods. The global food supply is widely thought to be incapable of supporting widespread adoption of this diet.
It is also believed that Stone Age peoples had access to a broader range of wild foods than are currently available, and modern-day “Paleos” should monitor their consumption to ensure a balanced diet. Some nutritionists caution against total dietary exclusion of milk and milk products, arguing that low-fat dairy products can be useful to maintain sufficient levels of calcium.
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A balanced Paleolithic diet is thought to be generally free of harmful side effects, although anyone excluding milk and dairy products should be careful to maintain sufficient dietary levels of calcium to avoid problems such as osteoporosis, osteomalacia, rickets, and tetany.
Research and general acceptance
Many aspects of the Paleolithic diet have proven health benefits. There is absolutely no question that people who get plenty of exercise and eat lots of fruits and vegetables and avoid saturated fats tend to be healthier. Some experts are dubious, however, as to whether the benefits of the caveman diet extend into old age.
They argue that diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and arthritis are found less frequently in hunter-gatherer societies because few members of those societies survive to an age at which those conditions become problems.