Have you had enough of the latest celebrity diets, magic pills and tips promising instant fat loss? What if we told you that there might be nothing 'new' about them? And they might have been tried and tested already! When, you ask? Hold your breath… around 10,000 years ago! NO, we are not making this up. Evolutionary medicine has been talking about the Caveman Diet for a while now, along with other features of the stone age lifestyle that are more contemporary than we may think. Find out more with GT…
The Art of Stone Age Living
First popularised in the mid-1970s by gastroenterologist Walter L. Voegtlin, the Paleolithic diet studied the presumed diet of humans dwelling between 2.5 million to roughly 10,000 years ago. This ancestral diet, mostly wild plants and animals available for consumption to hunter-gatherer hominids, underwent a major shift to a grain-based diet, with the development of agriculture. But, the study suggests, natural selection had too little time to make the optimal genetic adaptations to the ‘new’ diet. So what would the Paleolithic doctor recommend? Well, a diet that resembles that of our ancestors, of course. This would consist mainly of fish, grass-fed pasture-raised meats, eggs, vegetables, fruit, fungi, roots, and nuts. Quite a mouthful, yes, but excluding grains, legumes, dairy products, potatoes, refined salt, refined sugar, and processed oils. In 1988, nutritionist S. Boyd Eaton also noted, “we are the heirs of inherited characteristics accrued over millions of years; the vast majority of our biochemistry and physiology are tuned to life conditions that existed at the end of the Paleolithic era.” Eaton, however, included agrarian foods in his version of the Paleolithic diet. For instance, skimmed milk, whole-grain bread, brown rice, and potatoes prepared without fat were on the menu, on the premise that the diet retained the same macronutrient composition.
To Grain or Not to Grain?
Perhaps today the question is a larger one. Researchers from University of Kansas, led by psychologist Steve Ilardi, recently decided to look into the 'diseases of modern civilisation' – obesity, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, cancer and particularly depressive illness. Then, they went back to the Paleolithic diet. Given that we are genetically adapted to cave-dwelling times, they ask, can a stone age overhaul in our lifestyles reverse undesirable physiological and metabolical changes in human beings? They even have a six-point answer: Yes, with increased exercise, consumption of omega-3 fatty acids, exposure to sunlight, sleep, social connectedness and anti-ruminative behaviour. As modern humans and especially as city-dwellers, we are less active outdoors, eat junk, stay cooped in cubicles of artificial light, work late and like to go into hiding when we feel low. But what about our Paleolithic counterparts? The story back then was definitely different. Hunter-gatherers walked for miles. They got lots of exposure to daylight. They slept when the sun was down. And they ate differently. Ilardi notes, in line with many obesity experts, that our appetite and desire for certain tastes trace back to this time, when food was an uncertain commodity. But, he adds, the cave-dwellers lived contentedly. Indeed, many of the elements of Ilardi’s regimen — including exercise, bright light, enhanced sleep and improved social interaction — have been proved to be mood-boosters for most patients.
But Hold On
CT scans of mummies dating back up to 5,000 years – and encompassing agrarian, forager-farmer and hunter-gatherer lifestyles across four populations (ancient Egyptian, ancient Peruvian, Ancestral Puebloan and Unangan) – show clear and similar indications of atherosclerosis and heart defects across all three lifestyle types and all four populations, rising in each case with age. Besides suggesting that atherosclerosis is probably an inherent disorder of human aging, this also indicates that a Paleo diet may not protect against such diseases. Katharine Milton, a professor of physical anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, states that "there is little evidence to suggest that human nutritional requirements or physiology were significantly affected by such diets at any point in human evolution." To counter this, however, Ilardi cites the example of the Kaluli people, a modern-day hunter-gatherer group in Papua New Guinea, where he found only one case of depression. "They are too busy to sit around brooding. They get lots of physical activity and sunlight. Their diet is rich in omega-3, their level of social connection is extraordinary, and they regularly have as much as 10 hours of sleep." Ten hours? "We need eight. At the moment we average 6.7," he says.
So Should we Go Flintstone?
Whether or not one agrees with the Paleophiles, it is difficult to ignore their findings altogether. After all, our sedentary lifestyles make us ideal candidates for better diets and activity regimens. As compared to ancestral humans, modern humans are proven to have increased body fat and substantially less lean muscle, which is a risk factor for insulin resistance. Besides being prone to the other diseases of modern civilisation. Agreed, it would be difficult to duplicate an extreme Paleo regimen of eating raw, or uncooked food in modern times. But eating food free of additives, healthy oils and the like… sounds doable? Or should we just post this on a cave wall? You tell us.