A lot has changed in our diets over the last 10,000 years, so let me bring you up to speed. 8000 BC marked the approximate end of the Paleolithic Era and the beginning of the Neolithic Period. Homo sapien, which had become the dominant member of the homo genus, was a hunter gatherer of animals, birds, fish, fruits, nuts and berries. These homo sapiens planted the early roots of civilization by building permanent settlements, establishing agriculture, domesticating animals and opening the first Starbucks.
A few thousand years passed and man had domesticated more animals and developed specialized tools for hunting and agriculture. Then in what is known as the Mesolithic Period, many groups evolved into food producers rather than food gatherers. The first cultures known to produce grains developed during this time in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley. Of course, grain has to be ground, milled or processed to be edible so the process of producing cereals soon followed. The Romans expanded the scale of processing grain to meet the needs of their expanding empire and were the first to sift milled grains into flour. Shortly thereafter, the first Dunkin Donuts opened at the Colosseum. Fast forward 2000 years or so and flour has gone from a Roman symbol of wealth to a villain.
Absurd? Perhaps, yet while the foods we eat and our daily level of activity has changed radically our genes have remained largely the same over the past 10,000 plus years. Does it follow that the dramatic rise of obesity and degenerative disease may stem from mankind’s recent adaptation of processed foods, many of which contain grains or products, such as gluten, which come from processing grains? This is a contention behind what is alternately called the Paleo or Caveman diet.
Supporters of the diet, such as Colorado State University professor, Loren Cordain, PhD contend the modern diet is responsible for the obesity epidemic and the rise in heart disease, diabetes and other chronic conditions.
“Clinical trials have shown that the Paleo Diet is the optimum diet that can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, blood pressure, markers of inflammation, help with weight loss, reduce acne, promote optimum health and athletic performance,” said Cordain, author of The Paleo Diet.
Not everyone is so quick to recommend this approach to eating. American Dietetic Association spokesperson Heather Mangieri, MS, RD said, “This diet has some great aspects, but the limitations make it another diet that people go on but can’t sustain for a number of reasons, including a lack of variety, [cost], and potential nutritional inadequacies” because certain food groups are eliminated.
Keith Ayoob, EdD, RD, assistant professor at New York’s Albert Einstein School of Medicine, added, “People who eat diets high in whole grains, beans, and low-fat dairy tend to be healthier because these foods are nutrient-rich and there are mountains of research about the health benefits of diets that include, not exclude these foods.”
Even if you don’t eat like a caveman all of the time, limiting your intake of processed foods, refined flour and dairy products may offer health benefits. Cordain suggests trying the diet for two weeks to see if you find it beneficial.
Intrigued? Here are a few caveman-inspired ideas you can include in your diet and lifestyle:
Eat like a caveman. No, you don’t have to spear an antelope and cook it over a fire pit, but that’s the spirit! Paleo enthusiasts argue that it’s not calories alone that cause weight gain, but sugar and refined carbohydrates, which spike our blood sugar and trigger the insulin, which signals our body to store energy as fat. A simple strategy to avoid refined carbs is to eliminate fast and convenience foods from your diet.
Move like a caveman. Just because you’re hairy and you sweat at the gym, doesn’t mean you’re caveman fit. Change up your routine often and get outside to reap the benefits of adapting to unstable terrain (build your stabilizing muscles), running on grass (easier on your knees and plantar fascia), and breathing fresh air (a stress reliever). Oh yeah, leave the iPod home once in a while for even greater benefits.
Rest like a caveman. Our ancient brethren may have had some stress between hunting for food, surviving the elements and running from wolves, but it doesn’t compare to the constant level of stress we face today. Our constant exposure to electronic devices, our sedentary jobs and the addiction many of us have to Facebook, texting and the Kardashians, leave little unplanned, stress-free downtime. What about real, deep sleep? How many of us sleep with our phone next to the bed or leave the tv on or bring a tablet to bed?
Think like a caveman. First of all, turn off the damn tv and put your phone in the other room, so you can think. Constant attention to the media, incessant worries about money, stress from work and concerns about your son’s grades won’t be alleviated by this season of The Walking Dead. Maybe not thinking so much will allow the frontal lobe of your brain to calm down and your body will follow…seriously, try 5 minutes of silence or sit outside and listen to the breeze or take a warm bath or a walk in the rain.
Be a caveman. We have much in common biologically with our friends from 10,000 years ago. We have to eat. We need rest. Movement is good for us. Adopting a cleaner, paleo-style diet will benefit our health. Is that enough? The next step is to get back to the important basics, which include strengthening our closest relationships, reconnecting with nature and spending time in silence.