The caveman diet promotes eating like our ancestors to achieve better health. Only this is not how our ancestors ate.
The caveman diet promotes eating like our ancestors to achieve better health. Only this is not how our ancestors ate.
Maria here. If you’ve been following me for a while, you may know that I tend to pick on the caveman diet (else known as the paleo diet.) This is not because I hate it or think you should not go for it (on the contrary, I think different diets work for different people), but rather because I dislike the faulty claims about the paleo diet being what our ancestors ate, or that we haven’t evolved to consume other foods, etc.
These are logical fallacies that I find quite irksome.
So I asked Rachael, our in-house RD, to examine the caveman diet from a nutritional perspective while also covering some of the claims I just mentioned. Enter Rachael:
Unless you’ve been living in a cave (pun intended), there’s a good chance you’ve heard of the caveman diet.
I’ve watched many of my friends cycle through fad diets, posting pictures of their “paleo brownies,” and “paleo cookies” and then wondering what they’re doing wrong when they aren’t getting the results they want long-term.
“Clean eating,” “natural,” “organic vs non-organic food,” and “paleo” are all popular buzzwords that are currently making the rounds on social media, but there’s still a lot of confusion about what it all really means. Even working in the nutrition field, I find myself getting confused with all the fad diets out there.
The paleo diet is based upon foods that mimic what our hunter-gatherer ancestors supposedly ate 10,000 years ago as the Paleolithic era came to a close.
Proponents of the diet claim that the human race evolved to follow a specific diet consisting of the foods readily available to them. They believe that, as a race, our physiology has not changed much since the Paleolithic era, and we should be following a diet similar to what our hunter-gatherer ancestors did.
The modern diet, they claim, is responsible for the increase in “diseases of affluence,” such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
The diet encourages consumption of:
Conversely, the paleo diet strongly discourages intake of:
Don’t worry, though—following the paleo diet doesn’t mean you actually have to go in your backyard and forage for food.
Instead, you could enjoy a delicious breakfast of steak and eggs, some hearty paleo nachos for lunch, roasted chicken for dinner, and maybe even some paleo-friendly blueberry cake to top it all off. Exactly like how our ancestors ate!
But is there really any evidence to support the paleo diet? And can a diet that encourages steak for breakfast really be good for anyone? Let’s look at the facts.
The foundation of the Paleo diet—the idea that we have not evolved since before our hunter-gatherer days—has been repeatedly debunked.
A 2015 paper published in Nature looked at DNA from humans in Europe and Asia, ranging from 8,000 to 2,000 years old. They found thousands of places in the DNA where changes indicated a degree of environmental adaptation, including changes in the digestion of fatty acids, the digestion of milk, celiac disease, disease resistance and skin color.
According to the researchers:
“Europeans of four thousand years ago were different in important respects from Europeans today despite having overall similar ancestry.”
Other research has focused on dietary variations and alterations in genetics since our Paleolithic days.
Perry et. al compared the DNA of populations with high and low levels of starch consumption. They found that individuals from areas that consumed more starch were almost twice as likely to inherit extra copies of the AMY1 gene, which increases amylase enzyme in the saliva to enhance starch digestion.
So why try to adhere to a caveman diet when our bodies have worked hard to adapt to a modern diet? It just doesn’t make sense.
In her a TEDxOU talk debunking the paleo diet, archaeological scientist Christina Warinner noted:
“People, when they spread out across the world, colonized the continents, they ate local foods, and of course they were extremely variable. So when we speak about Paleolithic diets, it’s very important to speak of them in the plural.”
People in different areas around the world followed very different diets based on what resources were available in their region and the season.
Warinner also points out that they’ve found stone tools from 30,000 years ago that were used to grind up grains. Furthermore, fossilized dental plaque confirms that our ancestors were eating barley, legumes, and tubers, which completely invalidates one of the key points of the paleo diet.
In fact, it’s questionable how similar a paleo diet today would even be to what our ancestors ate because our food is so different. Take a look at how much peaches, for example, have changed over the course of 6000 years. How authentic can a caveman diet really be when we have modified our food so drastically?
With the caveman diet, you’re excluding plenty of healthy nutrients from your diet.
This is also a dairy free diet, so you’ll need to get your calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 from other sources.
Legumes are out of the question, so that means you’re missing out on a good source of fiber, protein, and B-vitamins.
And as for grains? The chronic disease-busting benefits of whole grains, plus all the fiber, vitamins, and minerals will be totally lost with a paleo diet.
Despite claims about grains being “inflammatory” due to their gluten content, the truth is that going gluten-free does not have any real benefit unless you suffer from a sensitivity or celiac disease.
An article published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics actually found that gluten could have health benefits, citing reductions in triglyceride levels and blood pressure as well as boosts in immune function associated with gluten intake.
They also noted that intake of whole grains is inversely associated with BMI and there is no data available to support that a gluten-free diet causes weight loss.
There’s also evidence suggesting that our consumption of cooked grains and carbohydrates could be responsible for the increase in our brain size 800,000 years ago. In fact, our body has adapted to efficiently eat carbohydrates; we even have three times as many copies of the gene that produces the enzymes needed to break down carbohydrates as other primates.
While it certainly is possible to meet your needs with a paleo diet, it does make it a little harder when you’re cutting out entire food groups. And why make it any harder than it needs to be, especially when there’s no real benefit in doing so?
Just because our ancestors were eating a “natural” diet free of processed foods does not mean that it was any healthier than our modern diet. In fact, when it comes to natural vs synthetic foods, natural doesn’t automatically translate to better.
This is an excellent example of an appeal to nature. According to Wikipedia, appeal to nature is “an argument or rhetorical tactic in which it is proposed that ‘a thing is good because it is natural, or bad because it is unnatural.'”
This is not always true.
Take, for example, the fat intake in the caveman diet. Some advocates of the paleo diet point to the fact that the diet of our ancestors consisted of an amount of saturated fat well above the 10% limit set by the American Heart Association.
But is saturated fat bad for you? While saturated fat doesn’t necessarily cause heart disease, it has been linked to increased levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which can lead to narrowed arteries, making it harder for blood to flow through the body.
Furthermore, the paleo diet relies heavily on seafood and meat, encouraging intake with pretty much every meal.
While seafood is definitely beneficial, the FDA recommends sticking to around two servings per week to minimize exposure to mercury.
Additionally, too much meat can also have some negative health consequences.
A review published in PLoS Med notes that meat contains several carcinogenic compounds that could contribute to the development of cancer and the World Health Organization recently categorized processed meats as carcinogenic and red meat as a “probable carcinogen.”
Does this mean a vegetarian diet is right for everyone? No, but a diet encouraging high meat consumption may not be the best choice either.
The paleo diet also allows for wide variation. The diet lays out the rules of which foods are encouraged and discouraged on the diet, but the rest is pretty much open to interpretation.
Following a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds with some meat added for protein can be healthy. Filling up on processed granola bars just because they’re labeled as “paleo” and overdoing it with the saturated fat and meat at every meal is a completely different story.
Finally, if nothing else convinces you that the paleo diet may not be “The World’s Healthiest Diet” as it claims to be, take a look at the Hiwi people.
This group of modern hunter-gatherers resides in Venezuela and their diet follows similar principles to those of our Paleolithic ancestors.
Gastroinestinal and parasitic infections run rampant in this population, killing off many before they even reach adulthood. And with an average life expectancy of just 27 years, the Hiwi people don’t exactly exemplify good health, complaining frequently of hunger and fatigue.
That’s right: despite following a genuine paleo diet, they aren’t all that healthy.
There are a few good things about the paleo diet.
It emphasizes fruit and vegetable intake, meaning you’re getting lots of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. You’re also getting plenty of protein, which promotes satiety and helps cut cravings and can ultimately lead to weight loss.
It also promotes heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats and plenty of omega-3 rich foods, including fish, nuts, and seeds.
The paleo diet also discourages processed foods. While not inherently bad, limiting your intake of some highly processed foods, like chips and sweets can be a good thing as these foods are often high in sodium, trans fats, and calories.
The caveman diet is popular among those looking to lose weight as it’s easy to stick to, doesn’t require strict calorie counting, and is more flexible than other more restrictive diets.
The diet promotes intuitive eating versus rigorously tracking macronutrients and calories, which can definitely be beneficial in fostering a healthy relationship with food.
But do the health benefits of the paleo diet outweigh the numerous limitations and restrictions? That’s for you to decide.
The truth is that our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate what was available to them because they had limited options, not because they were concerned about following a balanced and healthy diet.
In fact, with most cavemen dropping dead before they hit 30, it’s arguable that nutrition was probably not much of a priority at all for most of them.
Our food supply has developed and evolved throughout the years, and our diets should definitely follow suit.
Technological advancements, like enriching food products with common food additives, vitamins, and minerals plus pasteurizing raw milk and other foods to kill bacteria, have only helped us to meet our needs and sustain a healthy diet.
If humans in the Paleolithic era had those kinds of options available to them, do you really think they would keep on scavenging for their food?
Completing ditching the dairy, grains, and legumes is definitely going to be a challenge if you decide to follow the paleo diet. On the other hand, this diet is more relaxed with portion sizes and calorie counting than other diets, allowing you to eat intuitively rather than following strict rules and regimens.
There’s no benefit to needlessly cutting out entire food groups, and you certainly won’t be doing your health any favors by loading up on the red meat and saturated fat. However, a carefully planned paleo diet can yield weight loss and be effective if done right.
The paleo diet does have some benefits in terms of nutrition by promoting intake of fruits and veggies. However, it cuts out beneficial nutrients in other areas, knocking down its score in terms of nutrition. It’s important to note, again, that with the wide variation in the paleo diet, the nutritional aspect of this diet really can vary quite a bit.
Ability to Harm: B
The caveman diet, while unnecessary restrictive, isn’t going to cause any real harm if you plan your diet out well. If followed long-term, you might see some negative effects if you’re consuming lots of red meat and saturated fat, but in the short term, the paleo diet does okay in terms of safety.
Overall Grade: C
Bottom line: the paleo diet has a few bright spots, like encouraging fruits, vegetables, seafood, nuts, and seeds, but it takes it to an extreme and eliminates several food groups based on bunk science and invalid claims.
Instead of subscribing to an outdated (literally) way of thinking, why not take the good things about the caveman diet and ditch the needless rules, regulations, and restrictions? After all, a well-rounded and nutritious diet will never go extinct.
Do you have any experience with the caveman diet? What are your thoughts on eating “like our ancestors?” Discuss below!
References:Dietschy JM. Dietary fatty acids and the regulation of plasma low density lipoprotein cholesterol concentrations. J Nutr. 1998;128(2 Suppl):444S-448S.
Genkinger JM, Koushik A. Meat consumption and cancer risk. PLoS Med. 2007;4(12):e345.
Gaesser GA, Angadi SS. Gluten-free diet: imprudent dietary advice for the general population?. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112(9):1330-3.
Hill K, Hurtado AM, Walker RS. High adult mortality among Hiwi hunter-gatherers: implications for human evolution. J Hum Evol. 2007;52(4):443-54.
Mathieson I, Lazaridis I, Rohland N, et al. Genome-wide patterns of selection in 230 ancient Eurasians. Nature. 2015; 528(7583):499-503.
Perry GH, Dominy NJ, Claw KG, et al. Diet and the evolution of human amylase gene copy number variation. Nat Genet. 2007;39(10):1256-60.