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You are hereHome › Eat Like a Caveman: Nutrition Lessons from the Paleolithic Era
Eat Like a Caveman: Nutrition Lessons from the Paleolithic Era
Eat Like a Caveman: Nutrition Lessons from the Paleolithic Era
If you’ve ever sat in front of the chimpanzee exhibit at a zoo and watched them in action, you probably didn’t leave bragging about how much humans resemble our ape ancestors. But the truth is, only 1 percent of our biological makeup has appeared since we split from the great apes seven million years ago, meaning our physiology and its workings are still very similar to what they were back then.
And that’s the premise of the Paleolithic diet: that eating like our hunter-gatherer predecessors is more aligned with the workings of our bodies and can prevent “diseases of civilization” such as diabetes, heart disease, asthma and more.
Proponents of the Paleo diet don’t suggest humans hunt for meat or gather roots and berries to be healthy, but they do recommend eating foods that were available in pre-agricultural times. That means giving up dairy, sugar, processed meats, legumes and grain products and replacing them with starchy roots, nuts, seasonal vegetables and fruits and lean meats such as poultry and fish.
Paleo diet–approved foods are high in soluble fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals, omega-3 and monounsaturated fats and low-glycemic carbohydrates—the kind of nutrients that allowed our ancestors to have strong, lean and active bodies.
The slowness of change
It‘s only been about 10,000 years since humans started settling down, moving away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and cultivating grains and legumes. That may sound like a long time, but not in terms of biological adaptations, says the grandfather of the Paleo diet, S. Boyd Eaton. In his book The Paleolithic Prescription (Harper & Row, 1988) Eaton explains, “Tens of thousands of years are often necessary for minor changes to occur, hundreds of thousands or even millions for more significant changes.” In other words, our bodies have not yet adapted to eating these crops—not to mention the sugar, dairy, oils and refined flour the modern-day diet includes.
So what happens when you eat foods to which you aren’t well adapted? “When we feed our bodies food that we have not adapted to, dyspepsia, degeneration and disease will follow,” says Doug Willen, DC, and author of Quantum Paleo (Fight Productions, 2012). For example, grains contain anti-nutrients such as lectin and gluten, both of which have been linked to inflammatory reactions and digestive diseases like leaky gut. What’s more, the high glycemic index ratings of grains such as wheat, rye, barley, rice, oats and corn produce a rise in blood glucose levels. Repeated occurrences of such spikes have been associated with diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.
The story is similar with legumes: Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t consume them because they needed to be cooked in order to be edible. Legumes also contain lectins, as well as phytates, which inhibit nutrient absorption and cause inflammation. A strict interpretation of the Paleo diet suggests avoiding all beans, peanuts, soybeans and chickpeas.
It’s no surprise that sugar is completely off limits, as are trans fats. Dairy is a little more complicated, as it may have been available to hunter-gatherers intermittently. However, the majority of Paleo advocates suggest avoiding dairy because most people are deficient in the enzymes that break down its sugars.
“My take is most people don’t do well with dairy and are better off eliminating it,” Willen says. Keep in mind, no other animal in the entire kingdom drinks milk beyond infancy.
What can you eat?
There seems to be a range of Paleo diet philosophies—some more lenient, allowing the consumption of cultured diary products, and some super-strict, even forbidding the consumption of certain nuts such as cashews. However, all followers center the bulk of their meals around vegetables, especially root vegetables like turnips and parsnips (potatoes are off limits). Lean protein sources including chicken, turkey and fish, as well as game and organ meats, are encouraged; conservative amounts of grass-fed beef are OK, but fatty cuts of meat and anything processed is out.
Paleo dieters eat nuts and seeds for healthy fat, eggs for protein and fruits for vitamins and antioxidants, as well as a touch of sweetness. “The harder fruits like apples and pears, along with berries, are the ones I recommend most. And avoid fruit juice,” Willen says. You need the fiber in the skin and pulp of fruits to help “time release” the sugars in your body. Keeping blood sugar levels steady is one of the Paleo diet’s greatest goals.
Science says . . .
Improvements in blood sugar levels and weight loss have garnered the Paleo diet quite a public following, and a small group of researchers in Sweden have begun to test the premise that pre-agricultural Paleolithic diets might be the secret to improving modern human health.
For example, in a 2007 clinical trial published in the journal Diabetologia, 29 diabetic and prediabetic volunteers with heart disease were put on one of two diets: A Paleolithic diet focused on lean meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, starchy roots, eggs and nuts; or a Mediterranean diet focused on whole grains, low-fat dairy, vegetables, fruit, fish, oils and margarine. During the 12-week study, both groups lost body fat and showed improved markers of diabetes; however, those in the Paleo group lost 70 percent more body fat and showed a significantly greater normalization of blood sugar than those in the Mediterranean group.
So does that mean we should all be eating a strict hunter-gatherer diet? Not necessarily. Each person carries a specific set of genetic adaptations, as well as his own food sensitivities. “Everyone is biochemically individual. I tell patients to try it for themselves for 21 days and see how they do,” Willen suggests. Go ahead and channel your inner caveman, and see what it does for you.
Linda is a nutritional anthropologist and freelance writer in Portland, Ore. Her work has been featured in Body & Soul, Fitness, Glamour, Natural Health, Yoga Journal and many other national magazines. She is also the author of the User's Guide to Natural Remedies for Depression (Basic Health Publications, 2003).
May 9th, 2012