What exactly is in the Paleo or Caveman diet?
The Paleo Diet is a “new” yet old idea for a healthy, ideal diet. Short for the “paleolithic diet”, the name refers to the bygone era back before civilization, before fast food joints, before markets and big farms, when we lived a simpler life, living off nature’s bounty. Yes, back when we were cavemen. In fact, the diet or variations of it are also sometimes referred to as the Caveman Diet or the Stone Age Diet. In its barest essence, the paleo diet is about eating the way humans ate way back then before our diet was corrupted and modified in all sorts of ways.
So what is the theory behind these diets?
Evolution is a miraculous thing. It allows animals to adapt over time to new diets, environments, and more. Yet evolution typically takes a long time. By a long time, I mean thousands to millions of years. While very small changes can occur on shorter time scales, major adjustments take a very long time. On this evolutionary time scale, modern human civilization and history is but a brief blink of an eye. In other words, while our exploration and understanding of the Earth and universe, our organization of society into complex civilizations and our technology have grown tremendously in the last several thousand years, our biology and bodies have not changed very much. So why shouldn’t we still eat the way we ate way back then?
By the way, I don’t intend to offend any vegetarians or vegans by my discussion of these diets. While meat is definitely a part of the caveman diet, there are other aspects to the theory behind these diets that can be applied to vegetable-only diets as well.
Modern man is quite far from his not so distant ancestors. And I don’t just mean in terms of technology and civilization. Our modern diets are quite dramatically different from what humans ate thousands of years ago, before technology, large societies, organized farming and more. For one, we eat a huge amount of refined grains and sugars, in just about everything we eat. Our ratio of these types of foods to other more natural foods is way out of whack. But even worse, we eat a huge amount of things that are not meant to be food! Almost everything we eat has chemicals in it. Whether it is synthetic margarines and oils or just packaged foods that contain stabilizers, preservatives, colorants and more. The amount of real, honest to goodness food from the Earth that most modern humans eat is tiny. Everything has been processed, modified, packaged, frozen and ends up far removed from the raw ingredients it started as. Even many of the so called “healthy diets” that people go on to loose weight, drop cholesterol, feel healthier, are far off base as well.
On the one hand, it should be pretty obvious that all the refining and additives in foods is unnatural. And most people equate unnatural with unhealthy, even if they don’t know why. While there is no specific disease that is associated with all the additives and modifications we make to our food, a diet that is high in them is literally bombarding our bodies with tons of chemicals that are never naturally occurring in a living organism. While science may not yet understand the impact these things on the human body and our health, do you want to bet on the fact that it won’t have some negative impact over a lifetime?
In addition to the obvious, the chemicals in our diet that are not supposed to be there, there are other reasons to believe that a paleolithic type diet would be better for us. One of the fundamental reasons why most types of modern diets are wrong is related to evolution.
Evolution allows animals to adapt to new environmental, social or dietary changes. However, evolution typically takes a long time, literally hundreds of thousands or millions of years. Major changes can take even longer. Our bodies evolved over millions of years to optimally make use of the types of diets that were available to us. What do you think apes and cavemen ate? You guessed it, they were basically hunters and gatherers, long before civilization and organized farming developed. So what did they eat specifically? Animal meats (from the hunters), whole, naturally growing vegetables and fruits, leaves, even bugs (haven’t you seen those videos of chimps catching termite grubs on sticks and eating them? Chimps are our closest relatives!).
Do you think cavemen gathered tiny grains, ground them up and then cooked breads, cakes, cookies and more? No, not likely until much later as civilized farming became abundant. At the most, some larger starch sources that were easy to collect and grind may have been used (acorns, etc.), but even that was likely much later. So why do we think that the diets we eat today are anywhere close to what our body was developed to accept, to grow and to thrive on? Our digestive system and cells of our body evolved when those were the only food sources available, we are optimized for them.
Because evolution takes so long, we have not changed much physically from those distant ancestors from thousands of years ago. Our bodies have not had the chance to adapt to make ideal use of refined grains and sugars without there being some risk of disease. Why do you think diseases like diabetes and some cancers have become more and more prevalent? Well, we can’t say for sure, but much of it may very well be related to our poor diets which stress our system with too much sugar, too much refined grains and carbohydrates and not enough of all the good things it expects. Not as good for us as the ancient primal diet or paleolithic diet of our ancestors.
By the way, if you don’t believe in evolution, you may have already stopped reading. But if you are still here, you don’t even have to believe in evolution to believe that the paleolithic diet and its relatives have merit. You would agree that when God, or whomever or whatever you believe made us and the universe, created us, it was a very long time ago and the world was a different place. There were no factories, no massive farms, no refined grains and sugars, no food additives. We ate differently back then. Even relatively recently. So if we were designed (by evolution, by God, by Zeus, by whatever you believe) for those times, it still follows that today’s diets are not ideal.
The Solution (The Paleolithic Diet and its relatives)
Obviously, it is very hard to turn back and correct hundreds or thousands of years of mistakes in how our food is prepared and the types of diets we eat. Practically everything we buy has refined sugars or grains, additives and who knows what else. But we still can make changes that limit these things that are bodies don’t expect and don’t know what to do with biologically. Proponents of the paleolithic diet say that it is the ideal way to solve the problem.
Many people, who don’t even know about the paleolithic diet, the primal diet or the caveman diet, have recognized that something is wrong with our diet and our health. Organic foods are abundant and are a definite improvement. However, some people go on diets like totally gluten free diets which are popular of late. I actually agree that wheat glutens and other things in many grains are not the best things for us and for our digestive system. Cavemen did not eat many of these things. We weren’t designed to handle them in the paleolithic diet. So no wonder so many people have sensitivities to them or that they may play subtle (or dramatic) roles in some health problems. But the solution isn’t buying “gluten-free” foods in my opinion, it is limiting or eliminating those types of foods altogether. A bit of gluten probably never hurt anyone, but a diet full of it certainly may. That is one part of the paleolithic diet.
So what is the whole solution? What can modern man do to take back his dietary and holistic health from the civilized food industry? You can make the choice to eat more like a caveman! Hence the paleolithic diet or the stone age diet. We have been conditioned to believe that animal fats are bad for us. But we DID evolve eating meat! No, it wasn’t and shouldn’t be the primary source of calories (as it should be for a cat or lion) but it is one important part of a healthy diet for humans. But stick to natural meats that haven’t been processed, grass-fed beef, free range chicken, fish, etc. Limit or eliminate foods with refined sugars and grains. If you do eat them, stick to whole grains as much as possible and limit your total intake of them. Eat a large amount of organic, natural, whole fruits and vegetables. These and unprocessed animal meat products are some of the most natural types of foods that our bodies grew up on evolutionarily.
There is some debate about the place of dairy in the paleolithic diet and others of these types of diets. While we have certainly been made to digest human milk when we are young, we probably didn’t evolve drinking cow milk. Dairy implies herding cows, sheep or goats which probably came later in the evolutionary timescale. Therefore, the hardcore caveman diet advocates would say that no dairy is paleolithic diet friendly. I personally take that with a grain of salt because, frankly, cheese is one of the best foods on the planet! But I do try to limit my intake. I don’t drink milk much and don’t eat cheese or other dairy products on a daily basis.
However, you adapt the paleolithic diet to your life, it seems clear to me that eating more like a caveman or gorilla, living out in the wild, living off the naturally abundant, easily accessible foods, is best for even our modern human digestive system and physiology. Some of the things we were taught to fear, like meat, are a natural part of our diet and in moderation are an important part of a diet. Far better than diets with protein based solely off soy (which again was not abundant in ancient diets) and fats based solely off artificial and processed oils.
General Principles of Paleo Diet
Rather than list every food you can eat, I’ll go over some of the general principles to follow in crafting a stone age diet. If you “think like a caveman” you’ll be on the right track. In general, think about what types of foods you might eat if you were living off the land, no farms, no supermarkets, no 7-Elevens on every corner. What types of food might you catch and gather? This line of thinking will get you a long way toward figuring out the caveman diet.
Avoid Anything “Unnatural”!
Obviously, thousands of years ago there were no processed foods. No refined sugars or grains. No food additives or preservatives. No pesticides. No pre-packaged foods. No foods that required a huge farm or factory to harvest and/or process. If you keep these things in mind, you basically have the essence of the paleo diet and its derivatives. Whole, natural foods, preferably organic (so that they do not contain pesticides and other additives) are some of the best things for you. Raw vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.
Minimize or Eliminate Processed Grains and Sugars
Even though grains may seem “natural” and healthy, many have noticed that humans do have trouble digesting some grain products, hence the whole “gluten free” movement. Think about it. Most grains like rice and wheat have tiny little grains, and just a few per plant. To get enough to clean, grind up and process and then use to make breads, pastas and such takes a lot of effort! Until big farms and farm equipment evolved, it wasn’t practical or even something that early man probably considered. Therefore, these types of grains were probably a very small part of the human diet. Our bodies are not built to handle large amounts of them. If you do eat sugars and grains, try to limit them and restrict them to the most “natural” form, whole grains and natural sugar sources, not highly refined sugars.
Animal Meat and Fats Are OK
We were gatherers, but we were also hunters of course. Animal meat was most certainly a proportion of the caveman diet. Everything in moderation of course, the stone age diet is not an “all protein” diet. Balance is key. Natural animal fats and oils are probably the best for us and much better for our systems than many refined or artificial fats and oils (see what happened with trans fats?). Other refined oils were probably much less of a component of our ancient diets. Things like olives and olive oil are quite healthy and natural. But beyond eating the olives themselves, the oils were probably not much of a component of these diets. Dairy was probably not a significant proportion of the human diet until much later when animals were domesticated.
Well Balanced Diet
You’ve been hearing it since you were a kid, a well-balanced diet is important. Well whether the cavemen knew this or not is not known. But it is likely that their diets did not consist of a majority of any one type of foodstuffs. Balance is key. Animal meats and fats are ok but not exclusively. Vegetables and fruits alone would likewise be unbalanced, hard to get enough protein and iron. Try to combine as many different things as possible.
Check out our Paleo Diet Recipes
Want some ideas for recipes that fit within these types of diets? No problem, this is kinda a no-brainer but here are some guidelines and ideas.