The Caveman Diet: The Original Human Diet
The Paleo Diet, also known as the “Caveman Diet”, is a nutritional protocol that is intended to mimic the diet of our ancestors, who were hunter-gatherers that lived during, and survived through, the Paleolithic era. Overall, it is a low-carb diet, but differs from other low-carb protocols in very specific ways, as well explain below.
This particular diet is actually our favorite dietary protocol here at HealthSnap, with the Ketogenic Diet being a close second (note: the Paleo Diet and Ketogenic Diets are actually quite similar). We strongly believe, and the research agrees with us, that the Paleo Diet is the healthiest way to eat because it is the only nutritional protocol that takes into consideration our genetic makeup.
So, why mimic the diet of our ancestors? How is the diet aligned with our genetics?
The theory behind the diet is that our genetic makeup today is virtually the same as that of our ancestors who lived 40,000 or so years ago during the Paleolithic era (genes are very slow to change, evolution takes place on VERY large timescales). The Paleolithic era was one of the harshest moments in time for the human species, and yet we are the only species of human to survive this era (the Neanderthals, for example, did not survive).
During this era, we experienced diverse environmental conditions, exposure to certain food sources, as well as variable food availability. We had to survive on the African savannah, as well as on the sea shoreline during the Ice Ages. We likely experienced periods of feast and famine, as food sources were scarce. We had to be hunter-gatherers (working in teams to hunt and gather food), we had to be fit, we had to be mobile, and we had to be smart in order to survive.
It’s obvious that we were genetically fit to survive this period because we are the only species TO survive this period. Our genetics must be something quite special. Thus, any lifestyle choice that closely aligns ourselves with our genetics would seem like a prudent one.
This doesn’t mean that we need to go the Arctic to experience the extreme cold to mimic the Ice Ages (although science is showing that there are many health benefits of periodic cold exposure), or that we need to starve (although science is showing the benefits of intermittent fasting, which is fasting for brief periods of time). What about dressing like a caveman, acting like a caveman, or giving up all modern technology? NO. What it does mean is that mimicking the energy (a.k.a. food) availability and density we experienced during that time may be a healthy thing to do. Why?
The advent of farming and agriculture occurred only approximately 10,000 years ago. If our genes are slow to change, and we carry the same genetic makeup of our ancestors, this means that the consumption of edible grains and dairy products through farming and modern agriculture is quite simply alien to our genes. In short, the only thing that has changed in 40,000 or so years is that the environment that our genes are expressed in.
So, what exactly did our ancestors eat? What should we eat on a Caveman Diet?
Since the diet is modeled after our hunter-gatherer ancestors, this means that we should aim to eat the foods that hunter-gatherers ate during that time period. Or rather, eliminate the foods that they likely never experienced. So let’s start with a list of what to NOT eat. A list of foods that they likely never experienced, and thus should be avoided on a caveman diet, is the following:
FOODS TO AVOID
- Grains and refined carbohydrates (wheat, barley, rice, bread etc.)
- Legumes (beans, lentils, peas, peanuts, etc.)
- Sugars, soda’s, candy
I know, all the fun things, right?
This leaves us with the following:
FOODS TO EAT
- Grass-fed and free-range meat (ruminants like cows were meant to eat grass, not grains which they are fed today)
- Wild-caught seafood (not farm raised salmon)
- Fresh organic vegetables (not GMO-based vegetables; from a statistical and risk analysis point of view, messing with the genetics of mother nature by genetically modifying foods is a dangerous thing, and can have unforeseen consequences)
- Fresh organic fruits (although sparingly because modern fruit is high in simple sugars)
- Nuts, seeds, spices, and some tubers
How do we know cavemen ate this way?
Again, since the farming is a relativity recent invention in the context of the lifetime of our species, we likely never experienced edible grains or dairy (other than breast milk) in our diet. Furthermore, sugar consumption, if it took place at all in the ancient world, occurred via the consumption of fruits, which were only seasonally available.
We can also look at fossil evidence, which shows that our species utilized stone tools to cut meat and bone marrow. Not only that, but our large brain is also evidence of our diet. By consuming nutrient-dense meat, instead of large amounts of vegetation (like ruminants or gorillas), humans were able to trade stomach mass for brain mass, allowing us to become smarter. An added benefit to this is that, due to a smaller stomach, humans gained mobility advantages compared to other species. All of these things were critical to our survival as a species.
So, Is The Paleo Diet Healthy?
A plethora of research in biology, biochemistry, and other disciplines indicate that the Standard American Diet (SAD), or any other similar diet which contains large amounts of refined foods, sugar, and unhealthy trans fats, is the root of modern disease and health complications such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, depression and autoimmune disease. Some reasons why the SAD is detrimental to our health?
1) Chronic consumption of high carbohydrate foods leads to metabolic dysfunction
Our genetics are not adapted to consumption of large quantities of carbohydrates. As mentioned above, we were never continuously exposed to high carbohydrate foods. Consuming large amounts of carbohydrates leads to elevated blood sugar levels and thus elevated levels of insulin (insulin helps bring glucose into cells so that it may be used for energy). If we consistently consume large amounts of carbohydrates over time, chronic insulin release can make us become insulin resistant (resistant to the action of insulin). This leads to the development of metabolic syndrome. Not only that, but chronic insulin signaling (i.e. the effects that insulin has on other cellular processes) can impact the expression of oncogenes and thus the increased risk of cancer development. Higher carbohydrate diets have also been associated with higher mortality rates. By consuming lower levels of carbohydrates, we can improve our blood-sugar and insulin sensitivity, help prevent the expression of oncogenes, and potentially improve our lifespan.
2) Grains, legumes, and dairy, which are common staples in the Standard American Diet, are immunogenic foods
Grains are seeds of grass and don’t have fight-or-flight mechanisms. Anything without a fight-or-flight mechanism of protection evolutionarily develops other means of defense. In plants and seeds of grass, these are chemicals called lectins. Research is starting to show that all autoimmune diseases are linked to the gut somehow. The reason for this is that lectins from grains and legumes can, over time, punch holes through the gut, resulting in what’s known as a “leaky gut”. Our gut houses the largest concentration of immune cells in the body because the gut is the only area where the outside world can come into contact with our insides. Once the gut is penetrated, large particles of undigested food can pass through the intestinal lining where they don’t belong. These large particles of food show a striking resemblance to our own bodies proteins, but are just ever so slightly different that they trigger an immune response. And because the immune system is triggered, antibodies are formed. But, since these large particles show resemblance to our own bodies proteins, these newly made antibodies not only target these large foreign particles, but they can also go on to attack our own bodies proteins.
Finally, microRNA’s and certain peptides found in dairy and milk (other than breast milk), are foreign to the human body and are also recognized by our immune system, triggering inflammation.
By adopting a Paleo Diet lifestyle, we automatically remove these offending items from our Standard American Diet, putting us in a better position to improve our healthspan and lifespan. A brief outline of all of the health benefits of the Paleo Diet are listed below (there are a ton of references & stated benefits of the diet, too many to list in this one post, so we will list some of the most important and relevant ones here, and save the others for a more in-depth analysis in another post):
BENEFITS OF THE PALEO DIET
- Promotes healthy insulin levels, metabolism, and improves metabolic syndrome
- Protects against autoimmunity and can improve autoimmune symptoms
- Promotes a healthy gut: a strong gut wall and healthy gut microbiome diversity
- Decreases inflammation
- Promotes cardiovascular health: improves blood lipids, cholesterol, and omega-3:omega-6 ratios
- Can help prevent and reverse
- May help prevent and treat cancer
Wait, but didn’t our ancestors live brutal lives and die young?
Yes, they led brutal lives, and most died quite young, but this is not due to what they ate. The ones that did survive youth were free from modern degenerative disease in old age and had strong bones (as evidenced by fossil records), and likely lived quite long.
For a simple explanation, check out this video by John Durant on The Colbert Report.
For a more detailed explanation, check out this paper by Dr. Loren Cordain.
The Bottom Line
Adopting a Paleo Diet can be a very wise and healthy lifestyle choice. To get started right away, here are a few pointers:
- Eat meat (preferably grass-fed), fresh vegetables and fruit (preferably organic), nuts, and fish (preferably wild-caught).
- Avoid grains, legumes, potatoes, carbs, and sugar. Limit alcohol consumption.
- Skip one meal every now and then (perhaps once a week).
- Add variation in everything you do:
- Don’t jog for hours, but go on walks with bursts of sprinting in between.
- Exercise briefly with varying intensity. Lift weights, and go to the gym a few times a week (30 minutes – 1 hour each time is more than enough)
- Relax, keep stress low, and get plenty of sleep.
Final Parting Thoughts
There is something important to be said about Paleo. We are human. We should align our lives with our genetics. We should work with nature rather than against her. And it just so happens that nature did not intend for us to eat sugar in high quantities. And a high quantity doesn’t just mean the candies, sodas, etc. in addition to our base diet. It also means the carbs, because carbs by definition are sugar (i.e., multiple sugar units linked together). Nature also didn’t intend for us to eat immunogenic foods like grains (which are seeds of grass), or large amounts of grassy foods for that matter (humans can’t digest cellulose, one of the primary components of grassy foods, while ruminants like cattle can do this, as they have specialized machinery in their gut to do this).
Finally, while by nature the Paleo Diet is low carb and aims to minimize carbs and sugar, it’s also important to recognize that you can’t avoid carbs and sugar altogether. You invariably get some carbs and sugar from vegetables and from fruits (especially modern fruits which are bred to be very high in sugar). The point here is that quality and quantity matter. Keep the carb/sugar intake very low (to prevent chronic insulin release and blood sugar spikes), and get the carbs (and fiber) you need from non-starchy vegetables and fruits (note: fiber is an important staple of a healthy diet, but it is a common misconception that you need grains to get fiber).
Even if you did try to avoid all carbs, it turns out your body compensates by making sugar! It does this by breaking down glycogen stores in muscle, and by synthesizing glucose from other building blocks in a process known as gluconeogenesis, but more on these topics in another post! For now… Peace, Love… and Paleo!
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Other Links & Resources
- Research & Clinical Trials supporting the Paleo Diet:
- Paleo Diet Books:
- More introductory Paleo resources:
- “How to Keep Feces Out of Your Bloodstream (or Lose 10 Pounds in 14 Days)” – https://tim.blog/2010/09/19/paleo-diet-solution/
- The Paleo Diet for Autoimmune Conditions – https://www.thepaleomom.com/start-here/the-autoimmune-protocol/
- “How to Reverse Aging with Art De Vany” – https://tim.blog/2017/05/12/art-de-vany/
- “Art De Vany on The New Evolution Diet” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MsLyp8XloCE
- “De Vany on Steroids, Baseball, and Evolutionary Fitness” – http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2010/03/de_vany_on_ster.html
- Robb Wolf on Evolutionary Medicine – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NglsDFJVG8&t=4231s
NOTE: Nothing in this post is written or intended to be medical advice or to replace medical advice. We are not doctors. We are merely individuals with a passion for health, fitness, nutrition, and scientific research.