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It’s no surprise that present-day Americans struggling against unprecedented obesity rates would romanticize the idea of a pre-industrial diet—you can’t “cheat” if there’s nothing to cheat with.
This wistful notion has manifested itself in several forms throughout the latter 20th and early 21st centuries, most notably as the paleolithic and neolithic diets.
Simply put, these highly popular diets seek to copy the food choices of paleolithic (roughly 2,500,000-10,000BC) and neolithic (roughly 10,000-4,000BC) man in hopes of avoiding the many health issues related to the post-industrial diet.
As it so often happens when a fad starts blowing up, nutrition experts are piping up from both sides of the argument.
Before we weigh in on whether or not it’s wise to eat like a caveman, a crash course on the diets themselves is in order.
Think hunter-gatherer versus farmer.
The greatest distinction between the paleolithic and neolithic diets, aside from their respective timeframes, is agriculture.
There was no farming or animal husbandry to speak of in the paleolithic era, so hunting and gathering was the only game in town.
Food sources varied by region, but paleolithic-era hunter-gatherers killed and foraged whatever they could, including:
And that’s about it—there was no dairy, no grains, no legumes, and definitely nothing processed.
It’s also important to note that there isn’t as much diversity in the fruit and vegetable category as we are conditioned to expect; berries and dug-up tubers were the main options in the absence of even simple tools.
As far as the rationale behind this diet is concerned, modern-day advocates center their argument around the evolutionary discordance hypothesis, which claims that obesity and related problems are caused by an inability of our genes to adapt to the rapid industrialization that swept the world more than two centuries ago.
In other words, they believe that our bodies are still on the paleolithic-era setting when it comes to efficiently digesting and metabolizing food, and that the “sudden” shift to processed food has incited the wave of serious health problems society is now facing.
Whether it was an evolutionary increase in cerebral blood flow, a happy accident, or just the brainchild of an anomalously clever caveman, somebody fashioned a rock into a tool at some point.
That seemingly simple development was so integral to the advancement of mankind, it became benchmarked by historians as the beginning of a new era—the neolithic era.
Neolithic man used simple tools made of stone, flint, and obsidian to hunt and butcher animals, craft all kinds of important items (tools, utensils, boats, houses, etc.), and farm the land.
This gave rise to agriculture and animal husbandry, allowing access to grain, legumes, milk, yogurt, and other products not available in the paleolithic diet.
Reliance on wild game and fish naturally decreased, but crop yields would often fail due to disease and weather conditions, so these meat sources along with foraged foods were not completely abandoned.
Compared to the paleolithic diet, the neolithic diet offers a greater variety of nutritious plant foods including complex-carb-dense grains, but many paleolithic dieters (and outsiders) believe that grains encourage inflammation.
Neolithic or paleolithic, the answer to the question of whether or not you should eat like a caveman goes much deeper than this quandary, so let’s take a broader look.
Though few would refute the value of ditching processed foods completely (or almost completely), the paleo diet—and to a lesser extent, the neolithic diet—is often harped on for being too restrictive.
Opposing anthropologists and nutritionists point to the surprisingly grim health status of modern-day tribes of hunter-gatherers as proof of this idea.
Here’s what else opponents of caveman diets are saying.
It hasn’t been completely dismantled, but the evolutionary discordance theory mentioned above has certainly met its share of justified criticism.
First and foremost, dissenters correctly point out that humankind hasn’t completely stopped evolving—especially when it comes to the gut microbiome.
We are nowhere near making friends with refined sugar or hydrogenated oils, but the trillions of benevolent bacteria in our systems have shown their ability to adapt to modern dietary choices to a limited extent.
Cultural and social anthropologists also shed light on the non-evolutionary influences on eating behaviors, arguing that social and psychological elements have always been strongly in play.
Evolution notwithstanding, prominent dieticians and researchers are working to warn the public about key nutritional deficiencies associated with the true paleo diet, including:
The lack of portioning guidance is also problematic; followers are only restricted in what they eat, not how much of each allowed food they should eat.
Without this needed check against human nature, many are turning to the paleo diet as a justification for gorging on red meats rich in saturated fat.
Finally, opponents of the paleo diet are calling attention to modern-day examples of hunter-gatherers like the Hiwi people of Colombia and Venezuela, who follow the paleo diet as their central means of sustenance, not a trendy weight loss experiment.
Contrary to the suppositions of the pro-paleo crowd, the Hiwi people face numerous nutrition-related health challenges: they’re short and skinny, and they frequently complain of exhaustion and hunger.
They also report issues with parasites, and the average life span is significantly lower than surrounding communities.
In review, here’s what anti-paleo people are saying:
For all its imperfections, few can convincingly deny that the paleo diet is far superior to the modern (Western) diet when it comes to staving off the serious health conditions associated with processed foods.
Namely, this diet has shown its ability to fight metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, three strongly interdependent states that bank on refined sugar and other processed foods.
A study by Mills-Peninsula Health Services in San Mateo, CA found that the paleolithic diet outperformed the conventional diabetes diet by promoting “statistically significant lower mean values of hemoglobin A1c (blood sugar), triglycerides, diastolic blood pressure, weight, body mass index, and waist circumference.”
If that sprawling list of not just anti-diabetes, but anti-obesity and heart disease benefits wasn’t enough, researchers also found that participants who followed the paleo diet had higher high-density lipoprotein (HDL) counts, the “good cholesterol.”
Systemic inflammation is central to most, if not all of the above issues, confirming the claim of paleo advocates that the diet addresses inflammation better than even healthy alternatives.
Think of metabolic syndrome not as a specific disease linked to a specific pathogen, but rather a class of symptoms that greatly increase heart disease and diabetes risk.
These symptoms include, but are not limited to:
According to a meta-analysis of four randomized clinical trials from the Bahrain Branch of Cochrane, an independent network of physicians and patients, “Paleolithic nutrition resulted in greater short-term improvements than did the control diets” across the following dynamics:
The most confidently proposed explanation offered by this finding’s authors echoed that of the diabetes study: inflammation prevention.
Without processed foods and omega-6-rich vegetable oils, chronic and systemic inflammation has a much harder time gaining a foothold.
This is where we need to start drawing finer lines, namely around the issue of proportionality mentioned earlier.
Yes, the paleo diet as administered by researchers in more balanced ratios of plant foods to meat can indeed lower blood pressure and bad cholesterol, but the real world is not a controlled environment in this regard.
Using the paleo diet as an excuse to over-consume red meat can negate or even reverse these benefits because of the well-evidenced connection between (even unprocessed) red meat and heart disease.
This brings us to the most important point in determining whether or not caveman diets are safe and sustainable in the current nutritional and evolutionary climate: compromise.
If you can work in a few modern adaptations, caveman diets have strong potential.
Going 100% purist with the caveman diet—which entails eating insects, by the way—is much more likely to skew your results towards the issues that objectors are trying to warn the public about (nutritional deficiencies, heart disease, etc.).
However, by compromising with the addition of polyphenol-rich foods, minimally processed sources of calcium (yogurt, kale, etc.), and a less restrictive approach to healthy grains, dieters can address these concerns while still avoiding processed foods for the most part.
Let objectively proven nutritional needs and your personal circumstances drive each adaptation you make, not a desire to go along with the trend.
Unfortunately, most lye-cured olives have been sapped of a sizable portion of their nutrients by the time they get anywhere near your table, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still reap the health benefits of this ancient fruit.
If you’ve just started paying closer attention to your protein intake for fitness and/or general wellness purposes, you may find yourself feeling overloaded with information.
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