A Caveman Diet?

Would a Paleo diet work in today’s world? Would it be an optimal way for everyone to eat?

Although we might envision a past Garden of Eden or a tribe of hunter-gatherers for whom life was simple and food was unprocessed and free of additives and pesticides, how realistic is it for us to adopt the diet from the Palaeolithic Era? Well, it is unrealistic for a number of reasons.

For one, anthropologists are uncertain as to what early humans actually ate. There are only hints and the evidence is far from explicit. There are no shopping lists, dinner menus, piles of bones, peach pits, strawberry stems or nuts, tubers or dried greens for us to examine. Plant food is more vulnerable to deterioration and its contribution to the diet is the subject of raging debate among anthropologists. Whereas images of the era typically depict hunters with spears, many contend that apart from the northern regions, gathering was a more safe, effective and productive way to acquire the family’s food.

While early diets included game, it is estimated that two-thirds or more of the calories came from leafy greens, fruits, nuts, seeds and other plant parts. Naturally, diets varied greatly from one region to another. Back then, wild fruits were higher in minerals and protein and lower in sugar than fruits cultivated for today’s tastes. In diets of the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert and the Hazda of Tanzania, up to 95 percent of the calories came from plants. More recently, the traditional Hopi diet centred on purslane, other wild greens, corn, a mineral-rich plant ash preparation, beans, dried melon and peaches. Humans evolved from a diet that was far more alkali-forming than standard diets today. When humans switched to eating grains and large quantities of animal products, they placed an immensely greater acid load onto our kidneys and the rest of our system.

Modern humans who aspire to a caveman diet generally drive to the natural foods market or subscribe to an organic delivery service for their veggies, fruits and meat. Early humans had to work hard to obtain food, chasing game and clambering up and down hills to gather fiddlehead ferns, the inner bark of certain trees, berries and leafy greens. The wildlife our ancestors consumed had far less fat and a better quality of fat than beef has today – even when it is organic beef from cattle that grazed on grass instead of grain when being fattened for market.

Today, a diet based on game and wild plant foods, hunted and gathered by those consuming it, is achievable by a miniscule percentage of people. Even if killing animals is not an issue for you, the so-called caveman diet we might adopt is a far cry from that of our ancestors. To be realistic, life wasn’t so easy back then; Palaeolithic skeletons show a life expectancy of 35.4 years for men and 30 years for women, shortened by infant mortality, accidents and natural hazards.

If your priorities include good health and a concern for the environment, you can integrate the best features of the diets of early humans. You’ll end up with menus centred on whole plant foods: vegetables such as squash and yams and plenty of greens, fruits, seeds and nuts. Legumes make more sense than cholesterol-laden (even when free-range) meat and poultry or fish that is farmed or harvested from polluted oceans. Omit the refined sugar, flour, fats and oils. You’ll end up with a way of eating that supports your health and the health of the planet.

References

While early diets included game, it is estimated that two-thirds or more of the calories came from leafy greens, fruits, nuts, seeds and other plant parts. Naturally, diets varied greatly from one region to another. Back then, wild fruits were higher in minerals and protein and lower in sugar than fruits cultivated for today’s tastes. (1, 2)
1. Milton K. Nutritional characteristics of wild primate foods: do the diets of our closest living relatives have lessons for us? Nutrition. 1999;15:488-98.
2. Milton K. Micronutrient intakes of wild primates: are humans different? Comp Biochem Physiol A Mol Integr Physiol. 2003;136:47-59.

In diets of the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert and the Hazda of Tanzania, up to 95 percent of the calories came from plants. More recently, the traditional Hopi diet centred on purslane, other wild greens, corn, a mineral-rich plant ash preparation, beans, dried melon and peaches. (3)
3. Kuhnlein HV et al. Composition of traditional Hopi foods. J Am Diet Assoc. 1979;75:37-41.

Humans evolved from a diet that was far more alkali-forming than standard diets today. When humans switched to eating grains and large quantities of animal products, they placed an immensely greater acid load onto our kidneys and the rest of our system. (4, 5, 6)
4. Sebastian A. et al. Estimation of the net acid load of the diet of ancestral preagricultural Homo sapiens and their hominid ancestors. Am J Clin Nutr. 2002;76:1308-16.
5. Minich DM, Bland JS. Acid-alkaline balance: role in chronic disease and detoxification. Altern Ther Health Med. 2007;13:62-5.
6. Frassetto L, Morris RC Jr, Sellmeyer DE, Todd K, Sebastian A. Diet, evolution and aging–the pathophysiologic effects of the post-agricultural inversion of the potassium-to-sodium and base-to-chloride ratios in the human diet. Eur J Nutr. 2001;40:200-13.

Vesanto Melina is a dietitian and co-author of nutrition classics Becoming Vegetarian, Becoming Vegan, Becoming Raw, Raising Vegetarian Children, the Food Allergy Survival Guide and the Raw Food Revolution Diet. For personal consultations, phone             604-882-6782       or visitwww.nutrispeak.com

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