Eat Like a Caveman?

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I consulted a holistic nutritionist the other day. She was an advocate of the "Paleo diet." When she found out I wrote for Diabetes Self-Management, she said, "You have to tell them about this way of eating." So I’ll tell you what I learned and what I think about it. You can make up your own mind and hopefully share it with the rest of us.

“Paleo” is short for “Paleolithic,” which means “Old Stone Age.” (Paleo = old; lith = stone.) The Paleolithic era ran from about a million years ago, when our ancestors started using stone tools (weapons, really), to about 10,000 years ago, when they developed agriculture. The period after the beginning of agriculture and settled communities, but before the use of metals, is called the Neolithic, or “New Stone Age.”

The Paleolithic era covers about 99% of human history. The idea of the Paleo diet is that we should eat like our ancestors ate. (When I say “ancestors,” I don’t mean Finns or Slavs or anyone that recent. We’re talking farther back than that, when we were all wandering around, and most of us were in Africa.) We evolved to eat the kind of diet the Paleos ate, and all this Neolithic stuff with breads and sugars really isn’t right for us. At least, that’s what the Paleo advocates say.

Certainly, those Stone Age people didn’t get diabetes, at least not Type 2. (We don’t know for sure about Type 1.) So it might be worth thinking about. What did those old-timers eat? And would it be good for us now?

Well, without agriculture, they didn’t grow any grains. They might have found a few stalks of corn growing wild, but there was no bread or crackers. Sugar was rare. You might luck into some sugar cane you could chew, dig up a beet once in a while, or find a small berry, but that was about it. No milk — animals hadn’t been domesticated yet. They had fire, but no oil, so you couldn’t fry anything. So what’s left?

Our Paleo ancestors were hunters and gatherers. So Paleo fans tend to advocate eating lots of meat, along with fruits and vegetables. Sounds kind of like, Atkins, doesn’t it? It’s certainly low-carb.

But is that really what the hunter-gatherers ate?

In reality, they didn’t live so high on the hog. They might score a big animal (say a buffalo or a deer) once in a long while, but more often it was probably squirrels and rats. And the animals weren’t fat, like today’s meat. They were scrawny, because animals had to hustle for food, too.

Today’s meat is usually fed on grain to make it fat. (And if it fattens the cows, what do you think it does to you?) So the meat our ancestors ate doesn’t exist anymore, unless you hunt your own. (Grass-fed cattle are somewhat healthier to eat than grain-fed ones, though.)

In some places, the Paleo diet ran heavily to grubs and insects. Some people still eat them. Some modern hunter-gatherers, like the San of the Kalahari desert in Namibia, eat mostly plant food, such as nuts and melons. Probably the Paleos ate more vegetables than meat, too.

The fruits then weren’t like the fruits now. Modern fruits have been bred and fertilized into humongous lumps of fructose without much fiber. Back then, in summer, people might get some berries, nuts, or even a small apple. But nothing like now. Most often they would gather vegetables and roots.

Living Like a Stone-Ager
Our Paleo ancestors were probably hungry much of the time. A few lived where food was plentiful, but most endured long periods of famine. Living like that, their bodies learned to hold on to every calorie. Their bodies could store fat like champions and hated to give any of that fat up, because they knew they would need it soon. That’s why it’s so hard to keep weight off. Our Paleo genes are programmed to like being fat. It makes them feel safe.

So can we eat like the cavemen, and should we try? Maybe. One healthy thing about their diet was the high amounts of fiber. Today, most of us don’t get nearly enough fiber. Foods are too refined, usually giving them a high glycemic index and tending to cause constipation. Unlike the Paleos, we’re not going to chew up woody roots, but eating lots of stems and roots and leaves (e.g. asparagus, beets, lettuce) is really good for you. It keeps you filled up (not hungry) and unconstipated, and tends to keep your glucose levels regulated. The healthy, sensible diets like the Mediterranean and South Beach diets all have a lot of fiber.

It certainly seems that pre-agricultural people were healthier than the soft-carb eaters of the agricultural world. Low-carb advocate Dr. Michael Eades reports studies of prehistoric skeletons showing that Paleolithic hunter-gatherers were much healthier than the Neolithic, grain-eating people who followed them.

Some, like online natural health guru Dr. Joseph Mercola, recommend a no-grain diet, but this may not be realistic for many of us. Low-grain, however, is a reasonable idea. Whole grains (Neolithic era) are certainly better than refined grains (television era.) And processed foods probably aren’t right for us at all.

Fish and nuts were certainly Paleo, and they’re still good today. Other than that, I don’t know. I’m not ready to rely on grubs and worms for my protein.

What about you? Have you thought about Stone Age eating for yourself? How is that working out?

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