Eat Like a Caveman?

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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  • Vivian

    I’ve been ‘Stone Age’ eating almost since I was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes 3 years ago. The change in my eating habits came through constant glucose testing and then eliminating all food that spiked my blood sugar levels. Only later did I learn that this eating style had a name. After about 6 months of food elimination (and food addition, since I had been a vegetarian), I found I could completely control my blood sugar levels in the normal range if I ate ‘Stone Age’ style. My Stone Age approach includes lots of grass-fed and wild-caught meat and seafood, copious amounts of non-starchy, organic greens and vegetables, limited amounts of organic fruits (mostly berries, but sometimes I splurge on an apple or some grapes or cherries – I massively fail on the seasonal part of Stone Age), along with raw nuts and hard-boiled eggs. Oils are limited to coconut and olive. Without much effort I lost 75lbs and came off my blood pressure meds, along with maintaining blood sugar control, and eliminated a number of other minor health issues. I haven’t felt this good since my (long ago) 20’s. I never eat grain any more – don’t even think of it as food at this point – but I can’t say as I’ve thought about going so far as to eat a grub or insect or two…

  • Laura Irizarry

    I was diagnosed with pre diabetes and I’ve done a lot of reading since then, I’m trying the green diet and the diet is void of all grains,sugar,starch except from the fruits and veggies in it. The theory behind it is, you body needs oxygen and it will get plenty from the green leafy veggies. A cell that is fully oxygenated is puffed up (full if you will) round, nothing can sit on it, so it will be harder to penetrate and thus this might keep bad things from invading your cells and reproducing. Also balancing the ph to 6.5 will help with the acidic situation of most diabetics. Well I let you know how I make out in 3 months.

  • Michael.Massing

    I’ve just been through both arms of a clinical trial comparing a (reconstructed and adapted) paleolithic diet with the ADA-recommended diet. I learned and benefited from both arms. I believe I showed greater improvement of insulin resistance in the ADA arm; this seemed to surprise the researchers: apparently that is not the trend in their research to date. On both diets, my daily blood sugars trended down. On the paleo diet, in addition, my overnight glucose spiking lessened and trended down. This spiking had not responded much to the ADA diet, nor to about a year’s worth of metformin at a gram a day.

    The most interesting aspect of the paleo diet was the extent to which it seemed to have wiped clean my sense of satiety. Both resarch diets were calibrated for no waight loss, lest that be a confounding factor in the results. After completing each arm I reduced my daily caloric intake, and lost weight. In particular after completing the paleo diet, what it took to feel sated each day seemed to decrease dramatically, and I’ve been losing weight at an accelerated rate without feeling a bit deprived. This is similar to the reaction I had when I drastically reduced consumption of baked goods immediately after my (delayed) diagnosis as a type 2.

  • acampbell

    There’s definitely a Paleo diet following, but there are a few facets of this eating approach that I have to question. First, just because certain foods were not available during the Stone Age, such as grains, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re unhealthy for us. Granted, some grains are not all that healthy – but that’s primarily because much of the nutrition has been stripped away during processing. Whole grains have much to offer, nutrition-wise, and have been linked to lower rates of heart disease, hypertension, stroke and diabetes. Second, it’s hard to understand why legumes (lentils, black beans, chick peas) are discouraged on the Paleo diet. These are an excellent economical source of plant protein that provide fiber, B vitamins, iron, calcium and phytonutrients. Third, the Paleo diet recommends aiming for a very high percentage of calories from animal protein, albeit, leaner animal protein sources, which raises health, economical and environmental issues. Finally, my understanding is that diet soft drinks are permitted, within moderation. Hmmm – so diet cola is okay, but brown rice and peanuts aren’t… It’s also hard to argue why vegetarians, as a whole, tend to be much leaner and healthier, than meat eaters.

  • David Spero RN

    Thanks for commenting, Amy. I tend to agree with most of what you wrote. I could believe, though, that many people might be intolerant of foods (such as grains and dairy), that were just introduced to their family’s diet in the last 100 years or so. So I think when people are having health problems, they might want to look at cutting down or cutting out dairy and grains. But don’t assume that will help – it’s just one possibility.

    As I said in the article, I think the modern “paleo diet” is very different from what the real paleos ate. They got most of their calories from plant food, too, just not from grains. So it was a lot of work and took a lot of finding and chewing to get your calories then.

    The main problem with today’s food, as you say, is over-refining. So I think we pretty much agree.

  • Paleo
  • Mike at Paleo Diet Info Blog

    Thank you David for making a post about the Paleo Diet.

    I would like to remind everyone that actually, the Paleo Diet is the way we all (yes, every human being) used to eat for 2,000,000 years. We thrived on this diet as a species – it is the diet (in the sense of approach to food) that nature selected for us.

    For those readers who are interested in the facts, Dr. S. Boyd Eaton of Emory University in Atlanta has published a great article in the New England Journal of Medicine titled “Paleolithic Nutrition” that provided some great insight into this topic.

    -Mike Masterson