While nutrition science continues to evolve and the media are bombarding us with novelty diet plans and healthy eating secrets, maybe the answers we seek lay in our distant past. Some experts believe all we need to do is eat like our Stone Age ancestors to be healthy. The Caveman Diet, also called the Paleolithic Diet (or Paleo), Stone Age, and Warrior diet, is a nutritional plan similar to the eating habits of cavemen around 10,000 years ago. But why go back in time and adopt these habits? Is this yet another strict and exclusive diet? Are there any proven health benefits? What about the potential risks? In this week’s article discover the facts about the very interesting and also controversial paleo diet.
How did it all start?
This nutritional concept, which was first popularized in the mid-1970s by gastroenterologist Walter L. Voegtlin, has become one of the popular modern diets and, as most of them have, has started a debate. Centred on commonly available modern foods, the contemporary Paleolithic diet consists mainly of grass-fed pasture raised meats, eggs, fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts, fungi, roots and excludes dairy products, grains and potatoes, legumes, refined salt and sugar, and processed oils.
What can you eat?
The Paleolithic diet consists of foods that can be hunted and fished (meat and seafood) and can be gathered (eggs, vegetables, mushrooms, fruit, nuts, seeds, spices and herbs). Moreover, it is important to consume only lean cuts of meat, free of food additives, preferably wild game meats and grass-fed beef since they contain higher levels of omega-3 fats compared with grain-produced domestic meats. On the Paleolithic diet, practitioners are permitted to drink mainly water, and tea is also considered a healthy drink, but alcoholic and fermented beverages are strictly forbidden! Furthermore, eating a wide variety of plant foods is recommended to avoid high intakes of potentially harmful bioactive substances, which are present in some roots, vegetables and seeds. Unlike raw food diets, all foods may be cooked, without restrictions. However, raw Paleolithic dieters do exist and they believe that humans have not adapted to cooked foods, and therefore they only consume foods which are both raw and Paleolithic.
To put this into real terms, for someone on the Paleolithic diet, about 56–65% of their food energy comes from animal foods and 36–45% from plant foods. The main recommendation is a diet high in protein (19–35% energy) and relatively low in carbohydrates (22–40% energy) and high glycaemic index carbohydrates such as potatoes are avoided, with a fat intake (28–58% energy) similar to or higher than that the average of Western diets. Currently there is no specific recommendation for the proportion of plants versus meat or macronutrient ratios.
Why choose Paleo?
Clinical trials have shown that the Paleo Diet is the optimum diet that can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, blood pressure, markers of inflammation, help with weight loss, reduce acne, promote optimum health and athletic performance.
So, what is the rationale behind the paleo diet? According to its supporters, this diet offers the proper balance of nutrients to promote health and reduce the incidence of chronic diseases, and therefore, it is the biologically appropriate diet that suits us best. The main argument is that our bodies are genetically programmed to eat like our Paleolithic ancestors and that human genetics have scarcely changed since the dawn of agriculture. Therefore an ideal diet for human health and well-being is one that resembles this ancestral diet. Additionally, modern human populations could benefit from adopting traditional diets allegedly similar to those of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers as they are free of diet related diseases and improved health outcomes when compared to other widely recommended diets.
Inevitably, as the centuries pass and food production processes as well as people’s eating habits change, key nutritional characteristics of the human diet are now completely different compared to the Paleolithic era; to name a few: glycemic load, fatty acid composition, macronutrient composition, micronutrient density, acid-base balance, sodium-potassium ratio, and fiber content. These dietary compositional changes have been theorized as risk factors in the pathogenesis of many of the so-called “diseases of civilization” and other chronic illnesses that are widely prevalent in Western societies, including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, obesity, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, autoimmune diseases, cancer, vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
How does it work?
Supporters of the Paleo Diet say people are genetically programmed to eat like cavemen did before the agricultural revolution. They also say it’s a way to cut the increasing cases of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic conditions plaguing adults in western societies. That’s because a diet rich in lean protein and plant foods contains fiber, protein, and fluids that work together to satisfy, control blood sugar, and prevent weight gain and type 2 diabetes. However, it is not necessary to follow this diet on a daily basis. Eating like our ancestors 80% of the time can offer health benefits. In addition, this plan encourages regular physical activity, you may not need to hunt your next meal but a cardio session at the gym would be a great alternative!
What do experts say?
The paleolithic diet is a controversial topic as it is often regarded as a very exclusive diet whereas nutritionists promote a balanced diet which includes all food groups in moderation. As for the main argument of the paleo supporters that hunter-gatherer societies had lower rates of lifestyle related diseases, critics have argued that this may be due to shorter average life spans, reduced overall calorie intake and a various other factors, rather than dietary composition. There is evidence that even those ancient populations suffered from atherosclerosis and even cancer which suggests that these are inherent disorders of human aging and not only lifestyle related.
Nutrition experts stress the importance of a healthier diet based on whole foods, lean meats, fruits, vegetables and less sugar, sodium, and processed foods. But they also typically include low-fat dairy, legumes, and whole grains based on the research supporting the role of these foods in a healthy well-balanced diet. There is solid evidence that people who eat diets high in whole grains, beans, and low-fat dairy tend to be healthier because these foods are nutrient-rich and excluding them from the diet is not a wise choice. According to experts, the paleo diet has some great aspects, but its limitations make it another diet that cannot be sustained long term for a number of reasons, including a lack of variety, nutrient inadequacies due to the elimination of certain food groups and also due to the cost.
Food for Thought
Including these food groups will help meet nutritional needs and contribute to a well-balanced diet plan. If the Paleo or Caveman diet appeals to you, be sure to ask advice from a nutrition professional as it requires careful planning and supplementation to avoid deficiencies. Eliminating all grains, dairy, processed foods, sugar, and more will most likely lead to weight loss. But it may be tough to follow this plan long-term due to the diet’s strict nature. Once again the main message again is that many diet plans will achieve the desired weight loss but this does not make them good for your health. And keep in mind that moderation is the key; include all food groups in the right quantities and engage in regular exercise to work your way to a healthier and happier you!
By Kleio Bathrellou
Associate Nutritionist & Certified Sports Nutritionist