When our caveman ancestors roamed the earth thousands and thousands of years ago during the Paleolithic era, they relied on hunting and gathering to survive. Over time, along with the rise of agriculture — and eventually computers and other modern conveniences — humans became more sedentary. The result: greater health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and food intolerances.
But could going back to our prehistoric roots improve overall health? That’s the premise behind the paleo diet, which has gained a steadily growing following over the last few years. Here’s everything you need to know to decide if this blast from the past is the answer to a healthier life for you.
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Back to the Basics
While times have certainly changed since the Fred Flintstone days, the human body hasn’t quite evolved to keep up, with the digestive tract about 99 percent similar to a caveman’s digestive tract, explains JJ Virgin, nutrition and fitness expert and author of The Virgin Diet. This could explain why so many people have trouble properly absorbing and digesting added and artificial sugars, processed foods, gluten and other relatively “modern” foods.
“When you eat a candy bar or other processed foods, your body says ‘What the heck am I eating?’ It doesn’t recognize those fake foods,” says Virgin. “The paleo diet goes back to the whole, unprocessed foods your ancestors ate thousands of years ago.”
That entails eating foods consumed by prehistoric humans, including fresh fruits, vegetables, grass-fed meat, poultry, eggs, fish, seafood and nuts. On the other hand, it also means avoiding foods that were unavailable during that time period, such as refined sugars, grains, vegetable oils, dairy and processed packaged foods, says Loren Cordain, Ph.D., author of The Paleo Diet, who is considered the founder of the movement. “By following these nutritional guidelines we put our diet more in line with the evolutionary pressures that shaped our current genome, which in turn positively influences health and well being,” he says.
Why? The environments in which they live, explains Cordain, shape all organisms’ genes. “If you were to try to feed shrubs to a lion or meat to a cow, both would suffer nutritional deficiencies, illness and disease because of evolutionary discordance between their genome and the newly introduced environmental selective pressures,” says Cordain. “In a similar manner, newly introduced foods during the Neolithic, Industrial and modern eras are discordant with our species’ ancient and conservative genome, and can also result in illness and disease.”
What’s for Dinner?
Deciding to rewind back to prehistoric times? A typical paleo dinner menu might look something like this:
- Nut and Olive plate
- Salad of organic, non-GMO mixed greens and veggies
Nuts and seeds, both healthy fats, were a big part of the Paleolithic diet, as were weeds and vegetables. They likely found olives, too, says Steven Masley, M.D., author of The 30 Day Heart Tune-Up.
- Free range, grass-fed wild boar cooked in animal fat
“Animal protein in a paleo eating plan should be lean and clean,” says Masley. “Most people just say, ‘hey I’m doing paleo’ as they chow down on bacon, hamburgers, chicken nuggets, and skip the bread, but this is hardly the case.”
The diet excludes fatty cuts of meat and animal protein fattened on grain. Wild fish, deer and elk are all on the menu, but grain-fed beef and pork are not. Pheasant, wild turkey, chukar, dove, quail and other wild birds are acceptable, while hormone, pesticide-enriched chicken is a big no-no.
- Berries sweetened with honey
Our prehistoric ancestors didn’t eat grains. They seldom had sugar, although some honey on occasion was an exciting find, says Masley. And don’t even think about an after dinner aperitif, as our ancestors didn’t have alcohol. “Considering that most people drink alcohol in excess, meaning more than one serving per day if they drink, all the alcohol just gets converted into sugar,” he says.
Paleo for the Modern Man and Woman
Of course, in a world of supermarkets and convenience, most people who adhere to this “ancient” nutrition plan aren’t out hunting and gathering their dinners. Following the diet exactly as our ancestors did would mean barely eating on certain days, limiting the consumption of meat to when it’s available, and only eating foods grown within a reasonable foraging distance. Instead, today’s paleo enthusiasts choose bits and pieces of the diet that fit into a more modern lifestyle.
You likely won’t find deer, pheasant and elk in a grocery store, but free range, organic chicken is fairly easy to get your hands on, says Masley. Just be sure to read the labels. “Free range, certified organic” ensures you aren’t getting meats from animals that were fed hormones and antibiotics or fed a corn or grain diet. And while not as easy to find as chicken and turkey, free range, grass-fed beef is another paleo-friendly option, and can be purchased at health food stores or directly from a local farm. And don’t forget to stock up on plenty of fruits, vegetables and nuts.
The Dairy and Grain Controversy
What about dairy and grains? Some of the controversy surrounding the diet centers on removing the two food groups entirely, which opponents say leaves the diet nutritionally unbalanced. They also argue the diet eliminates some really healthy foods, like yogurt, quinoa, beans and whole grain oats.
Missing some tasty and nutritious foods? Maybe. Nutritionally unbalanced? Not necessarily. Cordain says excluding grain and dairy actually increases the trace nutrient (vitamin, mineral and phytochemical) density in your diet because fresh vegetables, fruits, seafood, fish and grass produced meat and poultry contain greater vitamins and minerals overall than grains and dairy.
Take a Walk on the Wild Side
In order to best complement a paleo eating plan with exercise, think survival.
“Our caveman and cavewomen ancestors did short, intense bursts of exercise, say, when a hungry saber tooth tiger chased them,” says Virgin. “And they lifted heavy stuff. So a paleo diet would probably also include weight resistance and high intensity interval training.” (This could explain why the diet is so popular among the CrossFit crowd.)
Humans were active six to 12 hours per day, and likely walked 10 or more miles per day, says Masley. So while you don’t need to jump into a bull ring and be chased for old times sake, in order to make eating paleo worthwhile, Masley recommends a minimum of one hour of brisk activity daily, with two or three weekly strength training sessions.
Dozens of studies over the past few years have examined the purported benefits of eating like our ancestors, many with promising results. It’s been found to be even more beneficial than the Mediterranean diet for people with type 2 diabetes by improving glucose tolerance.
The diet is also heart healthy, helping to improve cardiac risk factors like weight, BMI and blood pressure, a number of studies have shown. And when Swedish researchers looked at the effects of the diet on 10 obese, postmenopausal women, they found that the women ate 25 percent fewer calories and lost an average of 10 pounds over five weeks. The women also saw improvements in BMI, waist to hip ratio, diastolic blood pressure and cholesterol. It also lowered levels of triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood that can increase heart disease risk. While this was a small study of a very specific group of women, it did clearly produce positive results.
Of course, like any way of eating, you can take the paleo diet to extremes, says Virgin. But overall, if done properly, the diet can be very beneficial.
“When you eat a whole, unprocessed foods diet you’re not getting added sugars or preservatives and other junk that you’d get in processed foods,” she says. “You balance blood sugar levels, your body shifts into fat-burning mode, and you feel better when you eat this way.”