When our caveman ancestors roamed the earth thousands and thousands of years ago during the Paleolithic era, they relied on hunting and gathering to survive. Over time, along with the rise of agriculture — and eventually computers and other modern conveniences — humans became more sedentary. The result: greater health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and food intolerances.
But could going back to our prehistoric roots improve overall health? That’s the premise behind the paleo diet, which has gained a steadily growing following over the last few years. Here’s everything you need to know to decide if this blast from the past is the answer to a healthier life for you.
Back to the Basics
While times have certainly changed since the Fred Flintstone days, the human body hasn’tquite evolved to keep up, with the digestive tract about 99 percent similar to a caveman’s digestive tract, explains JJ Virgin, nutrition and fitness expert and author of The Virgin Diet.
This could explain why so many people have trouble properly absorbing and digesting added and artificial sugars, processed foods, gluten and other relatively “modern” foods.
“When you eat a candy bar or other processed foods, your body says ‘What the heck am I eating?’ It doesn’t recognize those fake foods,” says Virgin. “The paleo diet goes back to the whole, unprocessed foods your ancestors ate thousands of years ago.”
That entails eating foods consumed by prehistoric humans, including fresh fruits, vegetables, grass-fed meat, poultry, eggs, fish, seafood and nuts.
On the other hand, it also means avoiding foods that were unavailable during that time period, such as refined sugars, grains, vegetable oils, dairy and processed packaged foods, says Loren Cordain, Ph.D., author of The Paleo Diet, who is considered the founder of the movement.
“By following these nutritional guidelines we put our diet more in line with the evolutionary pressures that shaped our current genome, which in turn positively influences health and well being,” he says.
Why? The environments in which they live, explains Cordain, shape all organisms’ genes. “If you were to try to feed shrubs to a lion or meat to a cow, both would suffer nutritional deficiencies, illness and disease because of evolutionary discordance between their genome and the newly introduced environmental selective pressures,” says Cordain.
“In a similar manner, newly introduced foods during the Neolithic, Industrial and modern eras are discordant with our species’ ancient and conservative genome, and can also result in illness and disease.”
What’s for Dinner?
Deciding to rewind back to prehistoric times? A typical paleo dinner menu might look something like this:
- Nut and Olive plate
- Salad of organic, non-GMO mixed greens and veggies
Nuts and seeds, both healthy fats, were a big part of the Paleolithic diet, as were weeds and vegetables. They likely found olives, too, says Steven Masley, M.D., author of The 30 Day Heart Tune-Up.
- Free range, grass-fed wild boar cooked in animal fat
“Animal protein in a paleo eating plan should be lean and clean,” says Masley. “Most people just say, ‘hey I’m doing paleo’ as they chow down on bacon, hamburgers, chicken nuggets, and skip the bread, but this is hardly the case.”
The diet excludes fatty cuts of meat and animal protein fattened on grain. Wild fish, deer and elk are all on the menu, but grain-fed beef and pork are not. Pheasant, wild turkey, chukar, dove, quail and other wild birds are acceptable, while hormone, pesticide-enriched chicken is a big no-no.
- Berries sweetened with honey
Our prehistoric ancestors didn’t eat grains. They seldom had sugar, although some honey on occasion was an exciting find, says Masley. And don’t even think about an after dinner aperitif, as our ancestors didn’t have alcohol. “Considering that most people drink alcohol in excess, meaning more than one serving per day if they drink, all the alcohol just gets converted into sugar,” he says.