Is It Healthier To Eat Like A Caveman?

by | Mar 7, 2012

Photo by Lord Jim

“What do you think of the Paleo diet which advocates zero grain consumption?”

The Paleolithic diet is one of the most rapidly growing diet trends of the past several years. Followers of the Paleo diet argue that humans have not evolved to eat agriculture-based foods and can only achieve optimal health by consuming a hunter-gatherer style diet. Thus the Paleo diet is completely devoid of grains and legumes, and also shuns dairy, salt, refined sugar and processed oils. The diet is composed primarily of meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, roots, nuts and seeds.

(The Wikipedia article on the Paleo diet is actually pretty good if you’d like to read up on the details. I particularly like the Opposing views section.)

Like most diets the Paleo diet has a little bit of good science behind it, but also a lot of logical leaps and baseless assumptions. The evolutionary argument that humans are somehow maladapted to agriculture-based diets is particularly unconvincing (resting on many unproven assumptions), yet is the fundamental premise on which the Paleo diet bases its recommendations.

The reasoning behind the Paleo diet is less interesting to me, however, than the impact of the diet itself. Will “eating like a caveman” really help you be healthier?

Possibly, but not necessarily.

The most obvious advantage of the Paleo diet is the lack of processed foods. There is ample evidence that societies on traditional diets boast far better health than those on modern, Western diets–and the hallmark of modern diets is food processing. Paleo diets therefore are low in sugar, refined carbohydrates, trans fats, excess salt and pretty much everything else that leads to “diseases of civilization.”

Paleo diets are also abundant in healthy, nutrient-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, fish and meats. I have no doubt that anyone willing to stick to a Paleo eating plan will have a healthy weight and remain virtually free of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and may even have lower rates of cancer.

But the question still remains, is it necessary to eat Paleo to be healthy?

This is where I take issue with the Paleo philosophy. While a diet completely free of processed foods is undeniably healthy, the Paleo diet goes beyond this and demands considerable sacrifice.

Paleo diets do not allow for any grains or legumes. This pretty much eliminates every traditional cuisine on earth including Japanese, Italian, Indian and Greek. Not only is this a culinary tragedy, it ignores the fact that these cuisines feed some of the world’s healthiest and longest-lived individuals.

Traditional, global diets that exclude highly processed foods but also include grains and legumes have been some of the most successful for health. Diseases of civilization are only problematic in Western cultures where processed foods make up a large proportion of the calories and few whole food are consumed.

Proponents of the Paleo diet argue that it is necessary to eliminate grains and legumes because they contain “antinutrients,” substances that can interfere with the body’s absorption of other important vitamins, minerals and proteins. However, well-nourished individuals who eat a varied diet of unprocessed foods (including grains and legumes) are not nutrient deficient and are generally healthy.

Given that it is possible to thrive on a diet that includes some grains, legumes and even small amounts of processed foods, one must question if giving up the culinary joys of travel and global cuisine are really worth the sacrifice.

In my experience, food substitutions and modified recipes designed to mimic traditional meals can sometimes be tasty but can never replace true authenticity.

Another contention I have with the Paleo diet is the assumption that the same eating patterns will work for everyone. People’s lives differ in countless ways. We each have different levels of daily activity, demands on our time and food preferences. We also have different genetic backgrounds, which can result in significant differences in metabolism and hormone levels. These individual variations make dietary needs different for each of us.

Because of our individual differences, there is undoubtedly a percentage of the population that thrives on the Paleo diet and finds it easy to stick to and achieve results. Hooray! However there may also be a segment of the population (myself included) that finds living without grains and legumes to be chronically unsatisfying and unsustainable.

Try telling a foodie they can never eat cheese or drink wine again and see how far you get pitching a Paleo diet.

If you currently eat a typical Western diet with little variety and many processed foods, tend to have better success following rigid diet plans, and have no qualms about giving up or modifying traditional meals to meet your dietary demands, then you might have luck following the Paleo diet. However there is no reason to believe it is the only path to good health.

The best diet is the one that works for you. Finding a healthstyle you can embrace and enjoy is essential if you want to build a lifetime of healthy habits.

Do you follow a Paleo diet? What do you think?

Originally published February 22, 2010.

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146 Responses to “Is It Healthier To Eat Like A Caveman?”

  1. Giovanni says:

    It’s really hard to tell anyone to follow a certain diet and assure that it will work for them. Our bodies are so different and unique form one another, following general guidelines sounds like a sure fire way to failure or arousal of other problems. Looking at different cultures and trying to compare is even worse. Being Italian, I know that we have a very high level of grains in our diet…BUT our lifestyle requires it. We are constantly on the move. The average day for us is walking around from 8-2 resting till 4 and walking again from 4-11 on average. Just to get to my house I had to walk up a massive 4th floor with no elevator, multiple times a day. So as u can see we are burning thru the grains and converting this into fuel. Without a nice plate of pasta i think I would have passed out :) Now take your average western day. Wake up get in your car sit down, go to work most likely sit down for 7-8 hrs, try to get some workout in for 1-2 hrs, then go home and sit on coach for rest of the night. So as u can see “average” western requirements with a high grain diet would bring your internal piping system to a complete halt :) So.. really take a look at your lifestyle and adjust from there. I follow somewhat of a paleo diet, but I do not embrace it as a religion which a lot of people seem to be doing. I started by removing grains, diary and legumes completely for 30 days then slowly reintroduced them to see how my body was reacting. I just plainly feel better by limiting grains, consuming raw cheeses, swapped over to Almond milk which is way tastier. My body seems to function better and I have an overall better body composition. Being Italian this seemed extremely difficult to approach. But instead I’ve been doing great. I embrace all the Mediterranean veggie and meat plates of which there are a plethora. I limit the pasta to special occasions with Family or when I’ve really had a tuff workout and I feel my body would use the extra carbs. Overall I feel in the best shape of my life thus far. I really think you need to analyze your lifestyle and make adjustments from there. The requirements for a person that does very little exercise or none compared to a mid level athlete are extremely different. Just don’t think that just because we didn’t eat in 1000’s of years ago we can’t eat it now. We’re smarter then that. Use that grey matter and make sense of it all and how it relates to your body and lifestyle requirements. Remember your inside are a piping system make sure you don’t clog it up. Otherwise your just creating a breading ground for inflammation and other “crap” literally.

  2. Hi there

    I am a Dietitian/Nutritionist and I followed a Paleo Diet amongst other fad diets which I was trialling for my blog. I found to really difficult to follow and would not be able to keep it up long term. (mainly due to my energy levels and reduced ability to exercise)

    However out of the 3 I trialled (Paleo, Dukan and Lemon Detox), I felt the Paleo was the most balanced and nutritionally balanced of the lot.

    Hats off to anyone who can keep it up. It wasn’t for me though

    You can check out my thoughts on my blog here

  3. Nigel says:

    I’m way overweight through eating too much. I must add that I put a part of this down to consuming quite a lot of modern processed foods. I started having a go at paleo type eating and found that I do not really miss bread, pasta, noodles, cakes and etc. I have been easing myself into it as I had bought porridge oats and a sack of potatoes and I am not going to waste food. I have not really increased my exercise much and find that I am losing about a pound per week in weight. THAT will do me. I have now finished the porridge and am eating nuts, seeds and berries with my milk. Instead of sandwiches at lunch, I have meat or cheese and things like celery, radishes, tomatoes, beetroot (with vinegar), cucumber and more if it takes my fancy. My wife cooks our normal evening meal and she has cut down on my potatoes but upped the other veggies a bit to compensate. I also have medicinal chocolate (70% cocoa solid) and wine as they contain anti oxidants and I believe that any diet should contain some treats.

  4. Karen says:

    I’ve followed Paleo (80/20) for 2 years and feel great. I’ve maintained at my goal weight after losing 60+ lbs. The 20% is weekend splurges of cheese in a salad or on a burger, or 2 glasses of wine, etc. I LOVE this giving up the grain, sugar, processed foods and legumes! Never felt better.

  5. Tim says:

    You make the point of a “well-nourished” individual can absorb and digest legumes & grains better. What is the definition a of well-nourished individual? and would you say that the majority of people (not everyone) are under nourished??

  6. Viola says:

    While I agree with the Paleo notion that grains and legumes (and nuts!) contain anti-nutrients – phytic acid, to be specific – it should be noted that most of these foods can be processed to make them more digestible and nutritious. Soaking and sprouting (12-24 hours) can significantly reduce the levels of phytic acid. They also help to release nutrients that are necessary for germination and growth, nutrients that are also good for us (unsoaked seeds contain nutrients that inhibit growth). Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon Morell is a good reference for learning how to properly soak and sprout nuts, seeds, legumes and grains.

  7. Mary says:

    I’m starting a month-long experiment cutting out dairy, grains, and legumes. I then intend to add them back one at a time to see how I tolerate them. I have concerns that one or more of these causes my occasional hand eczema. I’m convinced that autoimmune conditions are cause by food intolerance (I also have Hashimoto’s).

  8. Dee says:

    Well I guess it makes sense if you live in a society that does not grow wheat or beans e.g. Jamaica it makes sense…. Hm

  9. EatLessMoveMoore says:

    CarbSane and others have long since debunked the paleo diet, so you’re in good company…

  10. SanDesigns says:

    My husband and I have been following the Primal diet (very much like the Paleo diet) for at least a month now and I am thrilled with how I feel and how I have lost a lot of belly fat (dropped about 3 sizes for jeans). Cheese IS allowed as well as an occasional glass of red wine, Cream is allowed (which I use for delicious sauces for our fish and meats). We enjoy feta cheese on our organic greens salads (from Costco) along with salmon, red pepper, celery, hard boiled egg slices, avocado, dressed with home made EVOO/vinegar or lemon juice dressing.
    The fish we buy is wild caught and our beef and lamb are grass fed. For snacks we enjoy a big slice of mushroom pate’ from Trader Joe’s (no crackers, of course), a slice of cheese, a handful of macadamias or almonds or walnuts, half an avocado, celery dipped in almond butter. No bread, pasta, rice or beans anymore (all fillers we were addicted to that kept our bellies big and sapped our energy). NOW we no longer live to eat… We eat to live (and find that we aren’t hungry for big meals anymore). We love all the things we eat now…. and the wonderful results! It’s a win, win situation.

  11. Jon O'Shea says:

    I can only comment based on my personal experience, but I have never been able to last more than a few months on the Paleo diet. The lack of carbs/grains really puts a dent in my mood and energy levels. Still, it’s amazing how popular it’s become.

  12. Claudia says:

    I just started the Paleo diet following the principals of the primal blueprint. I must say i absolutely LOVE the way I feel. I do have Hashimotos thyroid disfunction and I am hoping for some releif of most of the symptoms (hair loss, no energy, overweight, high cholesterol etc).
    BTW if you do follow Primal you are allowed 1-2 ounces of full fat organic cheese and full fat creamer in your coffee with a pinch of sugar yum! The best part of this diet is that I have completely learned to follow my own body’s cues to hunger and if you are not hungry you are encouraged not to eat! Like if I am not hungry in the mornings I will take about 1 oz of nuts and seeds and munch on them till around 11:30 or so and then I have a Big Ass Salad (author calls it that) and an apple afterwards then when I get home i nible on some veggies dipped in a little gluten/sugar free ranch dressing, and for dinner last night I had bison burgers grilled on top of a grilled portabella mushroom topped with roasted red peppers, caramelized onions, and just a tiny sprinkle of natural blue cheese. And I had a small glass or red wine. So far in just 5 days I have lost 3 lbs and I feel amazing!!!!!

  13. Jeff says:

    I really liked this article. Thanks for writing it.

  14. Leslie says:

    I see the paleo diet as another fad. Man has been eating grains in the form of leavened and unleavened bread products for over 20,000 years. I would suggest that the real problem is what we have done to cereal grains and sugar with modern processing methods. For at least a couple centuries we have been eating dead wheat flour with all the nutrients that were good and healthy removed. Wheat, etc. can be very healthy and complementary to a diet. I would argue that it is the industrialized farm that has created the problem with digestion, not our own genetic make up.

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