Should You Eat Like a Caveman?

The pros and cons of the paleo diet.

I was in Whole Foods this weekend scanning the latest issues of the nutrition and wellness magazines that flank the checkout aisles. There was a new addition, Paleo Magazine: Modern Day Primal Living. I’ve heard about the paleo diet off and on for the past few years. One of my yoga teachers, who is also a martial arts instructor and a serious body builder, is dedicated to it. Some of my friends have also tried it in preparation for marathons and triathlons. However, Paleo Magazine seems to paint the paleo diet as a way of life suitable for anyone, not just serious athletes. My interest was piqued.

What is the Paleo Diet?

Short for paleolithic, the diet takes its inspiration from the caveman, hunter-gatherer way of life that took place during the Paleolithic Era, which lasted for roughly 2.5 million years and ended approximately 10,000 years ago with the advent of farming.

Paleo followers are allowed to eat fish, meats from grass-grazing animals, eggs, vegetables, fruit, fungi, roots and nuts. Grains, legumes, dairy, salt, refined sugar and processed oils and foods are out because they didn’t come into the human diet until people began to farm. Although organic green tea and coconut water are possible beverage options for users, water is the main drink.

How Did It Get Started?

In the age of disco, the shag and bell-bottom pants, gastroenterologist Walter L. Voegtlin was hard at work trying to develop a nutritional system that would eradicate the diseases and ailments of excess and affluence. Dr. Voegtlin reasoned that human genetics have been largely unchanged since the Paleolithic Era. Therefore, the increased instances of cancer and other modern day diseases must be the result of outside influences, such as nutrition. By going back to our ancestral eating habits, he hypothesized that we could significantly improve the health of modern-day society.

Benefits

Though highly controversial among historians, anthropologists, dieticians and doctors, paleo devotees boast that their tenets of nutrition provide the following health benefits.

  1. The fiber-rich diet helps the body maintain an ideal weight, lowers cholesterol and the associated risk of diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, and keeps you regular.
  2. Because of the removal of gluten and dairy, the diet is purported to reduce or eliminate food allergies for many people. Ninety percent of food allergies come from gluten and casein— a protein found in dairy products.
  3. In a number of scientific studies, the chemicals in processed foods have been linked to a wide variety of diseases, including cancer, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression, obesity, hypertension, heart disease and digestive track issues. The high levels of nitrates, mercury and salt of processed foods have been found to contaminate the body.

Challenges

With the benefits sounding pretty good, what could critics possibly have to refute? Plenty.

  1. Because the diet is heavily meat-based, there is a fair amount of concern about the adverse environmental effects of producing meat for more people. It takes approximately 10 times the amount of resources to produce one pound of meat versus one pound of grain.
  2. The diet does not take the role of exercise into account. In many scientific studies, the role of exercise alone has been found to reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke while speeding weight loss.
  3. Ratios matter. Just because someone selects their diet from the list of approved foods doesn’t mean they’re getting all of the nutrients they need. Balance and proportion are just as important as the specific foods someone eats. A food plan of mostly meats has proven to be harmful for cardiovascular and kidney health. The combo of foods we eat matters.

The Verdict

Like most diets, the paleo plan seems to have some distinct peaks and pitfalls. Taking a unbiased view of both sides of the argument, I still come back to the stance of a balanced policy is the best policy. Eat a wide variety of whole, unprocessed foods, exercise, drink plenty of water and reduce your stress level, and you’ll be well on your way toward the destination of good health.