The Contemporary Caveman

There are cavemen living amongst us today, and their numbers are growing. They are scattered throughout society, young and old, male and female. But unlike those guys in the Geico commercials, they aren’t readily identifiable by a heavy brow and excessive body hair. Their appearance is in fact undistinguishable from our own. Usually the only way you can spot them is through behavioral observation.

Sometimes it takes a trained eye to spot the subtle differences between their pre-historic ways are our own. But if you know what to look for it’s easy to identify them. One of the most telling ways to spot these contemporary cavemen is to watch what they eat. Initially you might not notice the difference, because it’s really more about what they’re not eating that sets them apart.

They will only consume the foods that were available to their ancient ancestors, items that were around prior to agriculture and the domestication of animals. They avoid many of the major components of the modern American diet like dairy foods, fatty meats, grains, salt, processed oils, and refined sugars.  The foods that they will eat consist mainly of lean meats (preferably from grass-fed animals), eggs, fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

This quest to eat as our cave-dwelling relatives did is growing in popularity. It goes by several different names, such as the Paleolithic Diet, Paleo diet, Cave Man Diet, Stone Age Diet, Neaderthin, Pre-agricultural Diet, and Hunter-Gatherer Diet. The common theme running through all these plans is simple—if your early ancestors didn’t eat it – you shouldn’t either.

 Although these diets are promoted as a way to lose weight, the paleo movement is really more of a lifestyle choice, similar to vegetarianism. And while the two philosophies are radically different in terms of food choices, they both promise the same end result: an improvement in overall health and vitality.

At their core, these diets are all based on the theory that after millions of years of evolving as hunter gatherers, the radical change in the human diet brought on by farming has been detrimental to our health. Prehistoric diets were almost entirely free of saturated fat, sodium and sugar – factors that have a direct impact on the rising levels of obesity, heart disease and diabetes commonplace in current times.

The paleo movement was initiated following the publication of research and writings about the diet of our human ancestors. Loren Cordain, a professor at Colorado State University and the author of The Paleo Diet, says the genesis was a 1985 New England Journal of Medicine article which proclaimed that the “diet of our remote ancestors may be a reference standard for modern human nutrition”.  Although these writings were somewhat speculative and not in total agreement as to what that diet was, they did agree that it was radically different from the way we eat today.

The advent of agriculture and the domestication of animals radically altered the foods that we eat. Dairy products, grains, beans, and starchy vegetables were introduced, and our meats became fattier. Supporters of the paleo movement argue that our bodies weren’t ready for this wholesale change, and science may back this up. In many areas the archeological record shows that this shift to an agrarian based society was associated with a decrease in stature and a general decline in health.

Proponents of the paleo diet believe that the introduction of new foods and elemental changes to many existing foods have accelerated this process. The Industrial Revolution led to the large scale development of mechanized food processing techniques and intensive livestock farming methods. It enabled the production of refined cereals, refined sugars and refined vegetable oils, as well as fattier domestic meats, all of which have become major components in Western diets.

The Paleolithic (stone–age) era began approximately 2.5 million years ago when ancient man first learned how to make stone tools. It ended with the introduction of agriculture 12,000 years ago. If you include the several million years our hominid ancestors walked the earth without tools, we were hunting and gathering for upwards of 200,000 generations.

Those who follow the paleo principles argue that the human body hasn’t had time to adapt to the changes agriculture brought to our diet. To put things in context, agriculture was invented 500 generations ago, and 10 generations have lived since the start of the industrial age.  Only two generations have grown up with highly processed fast foods.

They point out that that even today, 12,000 years after we moved to an agrarian based society, our bodies seem to be ill-equipped to handle some of the foods we consume. Research shows that the human genome has changed less than 1/10th of one-percent since the introduction of agriculture. So while we are almost genetically identical to our cave-dwelling ancestors, more than 70% of the calories we consume in the U.S. come from foods (dairy products, cereals, refined sugars, refined vegetable oils and alcohol) that weren’t available to our Paleolithic ancestors.

The effect of these “unfamiliar” foods on our paleo digestive system can vary widely. Excess alcohol can poison us, and many of the most common food allergies (dairy, wheat, soy, and peanuts) are foods that would be unfamiliar to prehistoric man. While the symptoms of these  problems  show up immediately and it’s relatively easy to determine what brought them on, there are a host of other maladies and “lifestyle” diseases that sometimes take months or years to appear.  And although it is harder to pinpoint their cause, many seem to be related to the foods that we eat.

Weight gain, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes are all common ailments that have been brought on by our modern diet.  Proponents say that the paleo lifestyle has been used successfully in the treatment of all of those, plus systemic lupus, irritable bowel syndrome, allergies, acne, menopause, asthma, inflammation, arthritis, joint pains, food addictions, carbohydrate cravings, binge eating, mood disorders, and other health conditions.

So should we all return to our roots and go paleo?  There’s really no chance of that happening— the earth’s six billion people couldn’t survive without agriculture.  And very few of us have the will-power to make such a drastic change to our eating habits.  Many of the paleo principles are controversial and not accepted by most in the scientific and nutrition fields.  Even so, adopting even a few aspects of the Paleolithic diet could prove to be extremely beneficial.

Reducing the fatty meats, processed oils, the milk products, the refined grains, the salt and all the added sugar from our diets would have a dramatic effect on our bodies and our health.  And replacing those foods with high fiber, nutrient rich fruits and vegetables couldn’t hurt either.  So if you’re unhappy with your weight or simply seeking to obtain optimal health, returning to a diet that is closer to your stone-age roots is something you might want to consider.

For more information on the Paleo diet you can follow the links embedded in this article.    There is also an even-handed Wikipedia article with more details here.

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1 Comment

Filed under Nutrition, Weight Loss

One response to “The Contemporary Caveman

  1. I was curious to see how it is possible, without losing weigh these fancy schemes. I was not disappointed. I eat more than before, but better, I found many tips for my life, I think I do not feel hungry or deprived. I lost 10 pounds in less than a month, I feel good and want to go further. I am so happy, is really useful.

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