The caveman diet, also known as the paleolithic diet, combines the carnivorous appeal of popular low carbohydrate diets with the interest factor of evolutionary biology. The plan is based on the notion that replicating the diet of early humans will promote health and prevent so-called diseases of affluence such as obesity, type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Some evidence supports the claims, but skeptics question whether the diet is healthy or sustainable.
Anthropologists believe humans evolved over millions of years, with the first hominids appearing nearly 2.5 million years ago. During this time, early humans lived as hunter-gatherers and consumed a diet based on roots, berries, seeds, leafy greens and meat. Proponents of the caveman diet assert that the human body, having adapted to rely on these food items for nutrition, will be healthiest when fed a diet that replicates this early lifestyle.
Humans lived as hunter-gatherers for hundreds of thousands of years before the advent of agriculture. It was only comparatively recently on the evolutionary timeline, a mere ten thousand years or so, that the first agronomists discovered food was much easier to find if they had planted or raised it themselves. The paleolithic diet is built on the premise that our bodies are not adapted to a grain-based diet, and that foods produced solely by agriculture may be deleterious to your health.
As a result, foods grown by agriculture, such as grains, tomatoes, beans, and a host of other foods most people think of as healthful, nutritious foods, are off limits on the caveman diet.
Early versions of the caveman diet focused primarily on the ratio between protein, carbohydrates and fats in the diet. The University of Colorado identifies the ratio of these macronutrients in the standard American diet as providing 15, 35, and 50 percent of daily calories, respectively. By contrast, Creighton University outlines an ideal paleolithic diet as having a ratio of 30 to 35 percent protein, 40 percent fat and 25 to 30 percent carbohydrates.
More recent versions of the diet go further, and assert that the source of nutrients is as important as the proportions of the nutrients themselves. For example, fish and nuts should provide the majority of fat in the diet, with an emphasis on omega-3 unsaturated fats. Similarly, fruits and vegetables should make up the bulk of carbohydrate sources and starchy grains should be minimized.
In general, foods that have a place in the paleolithic diet include:
- Lean meats: Include extra-lean beef or pork, white poultry meat, organ meats, and game meat.
- Eggs: Limit to six a week, or eat only the whites.
- Fish and Shellfish: Any kind is acceptable, but use caution with long-lived fish that may contain mercury or other contaminants.
- Fruit: Any fruit is generally considered compatible with the paleolithic diet.
- Vegetables: The diet includes most vegetables, but starchy vegetables are discouraged. The strictest proponents advise against some vegetables, such as green beans, that have only been part of our diet since the advent of agriculture.
- Seeds and Nuts: Consume raw or roasted, unsalted nuts daily.
Foods to Avoid
While few would argue with a diet based on lean protein and unprocessed vegetables, some of the foods considered off-limits may seem counterintuitive. Most would agree that limiting sodium, as advocated by would-be cavemen, makes good dietary sense, but other foods prohibited on the diet plan are the subject of some controversy. The paleolithic diet discourages:
- Dairy Foods: Early humans only consumed milk as infants and perhaps sporadically when they killed a lactating animal. As a result, dairy products are not included in the paleolithic lifestyle.
- Cereal Grains: Cereal crops, including cereal-like crops such as amaranth and quinoa, were not widely used as a food source until the advent of agriculture.
- Legumes: Beans, tofu, lentils, and peas are among the foods often listed as 'superfoods' for their concentrated protein and isoflavonoids, but they are not recommended for the caveman diet.
- Starchy Vegetables: Avoid starchy tubers, including potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava and tapioca.
- Salty Foods: Salted nuts, any processed foods, or added salt are not recommended for the caveman diet.
- Fatty Meats: This includes not only the obvious choices like bacon and sausages, but also T-bone steaks, chicken legs, and lamb chops.
- Juice and Soda: Avoid these beverages due to sugar content and other food additives.
- Sweets: The typical paleolithic woman would have occasionally feasted on a patch of particularly ripe berries or, if she was very lucky, raw honey. Other sugars were absent in the diet of early humans, and as a result, are not included in the paleolithic diet.
Criticism of the Caveman Diet
While the caveman diet plan contains some sound dietary advice - there is certainly no harm in avoiding excess sugar, sodium, and saturated fat - critics point out that some evidence suggests early hominids ate a mostly plant-based diet. Other criticisms of the diet note that it provides too much protein for the average person and may be lacking in calcium and fiber. Additionally, a diet that focuses solely on foods available to our ancestors would, by necessity, rule out most of the spices that add flavor and antioxidants to your food.
If you choose to give the paleolithic diet a try, do so with the same caution you would use to implement any high protein diet. Pay a visit to your doctor to rule out any pre-existing conditions, such as liver or kidney disease, that increased protein could exacerbate. If you decide this plan is not for you, remember that you can still enjoy the health benefits of increased fish, nuts and vegetables even if you continue to eat grains, legumes or dairy.