Eat like a Caveman? A doctor's take on the Paleo Diet.

The growing popularity of the Paleo Diet has been one of the most interesting diet fads in recent years. Based around Paleolithic (pre-historic human) hunter-gatherer food sources, the “caveman” diet takes eating ‘whole’ and unprocessed foods to the next level and makes amazing health claims. But is eating like prehistoric man for you?

No Soup (or bread or noodles or cake) For You!

The paleo diet omits anything derived from modern agricultural and domestication methods - the staples of human diets everywhere for the past 5,000-10,000 years. No grains, no beans, no dairy products, no salts, no sugars and no processed oils. What’s left, you say?! Essentially, the paleo diet allows only for fish, meat (preferably wild or grass-fed pasture raised), vegetables, fruit, roots, and nuts. There is still some debate about the best animal-to-plant ratio within the paleo community, but most recommend regular servings of each.

It’s Evolution (and genetics), Baby!

Proponents claim it’s the “ideal diet” because it’s based on how our distant ancestors evolved (the basis of our genetics) over hundreds-of-thousands of years. Undoubtedly, many of our “modern-era” farmed and processed foods, when eaten in large quantities, are largely responsible for chronic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, etc. Paleo-diet advocates claim that omitting agriculture-based foods can improve or correct many of these “modern” health conditions. Studying human diets is a complex arena, but there have been a few small, short-term scientific studies to support such assertions with respect to metabolic syndrome. However, many paleo diet supporters also claim modern diets (especially grains) are to blame for allergic conditions, autoimmune disorders and more.

Versus McD’s

Overall, the paleo diet is much “healthier” than the American value-meal centered diet and there are many aspects of it that are healthful. As meats are fulfilling and plant-products are light in calories per weight, it would be difficult to consume excessive amounts of calories when following a strict paleo plan. I suspect much of the weight loss (and improved metabolic markers) associated with the diet is simply due to lower calorie intake. Have you ever tried to eat 1000 calories of vegetables? Me neither! In fact, some paleo guides say counting calories isn’t necessary at all. Generally, the paleo diet can meet most key nutrient requirements - expect maybe Calcium for women. Also, dietary Vitamin D is very hard to get from food alone, so many paleo diet plans recommend a daily sunlight or nutritional supplement.

Bread-lovers Rejoice

As a physician (and lover of my wife’s baked treats), I do see a few potential concerns with the paleo diet - as did the US News and World Report expert nutrition panel. Practically, the paleo diet would be extremely difficult for anyone to follow consistently in modern society. I feel it's generally a bad idea to recommend treatments (including nutrition plans) that have a high chance of non-adherence. Also, while I agree with the general sentiment that our diets are overly reliant on simple-carbohydrates, there is a large difference in the quality of nutrition among different types of carbohydrates. Carbs with a lower glycemic index are generally a good source of calories and fiber. Scientifically, there is nothing unhealthy about having whole grains, beans or dairy in moderation. Also, severely restricting carbohydrates could be dangerous with some medical conditions. If you are still determined to “eat like our ancestors”, it would be much more reasonable and healthier to mimic an early 20th-Century Mediterranean fisherman than a caveman.

“Dr. Neu” is the physician and owner of NeuCare Family Medicine. He is a board-certified Family Physician (American Board of Family Medicine) and Fellow-candidate in Wilderness Medicine.

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Information contained here is intended for general health education only. All personal health and medical issues should be managed by a health professional.

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Tagged: atkins diet, paleo diet, caveman diet


christy kennedy 5 years, 11 months ago

Their relatively short lifespan had to do with the dangers of living in the wilderness. Put them in a bungalow in a safe neighborhood and most hunter-gatherers would live long and healthy lives.

jamielightblog 5 years, 11 months ago

Interesting perspective! I don't think I could do paleo, myself (no chocolate? no beans? no way...), but I commend those who do. There's a lot of temptation out there!

Eric Gruber 5 years, 11 months ago

I'm a (most of the time) fairly recent Paleo user/follower(?).

The author mostly grasps what the Paleo Diet is about. Not unlike religion, there are different schools of thought regarding some of the finer points (some say milk is OK, others not).

I do know this: on it, I feel great, don't get the mid-afternoon snoozies like my co-workers do, and all around have better energy levels. I don't find eating on this plan hard at all. Maybe for some who can't put down unprocessed food for anything, but really, how hard it is to just eat better quality food and skip the drive-thru?

Ryan Neuhofel 5 years, 11 months ago

Glad to hear you found a diet that works for you. I generally think the Paleo Diet is healthy, but would find it hard to recommend do to the many restrictions. If something has a high expectation of failure, I try to avoid it at all costs - just as I do when considering prescribing a pill that someone has to take 3-4x per day!

Actually, a "most of the time" ( approx. 70%) Paleo Diet with a few whole grains, small amount of dairy and unsaturated oils is basically a Mediterranean diet. So maybe I can comfortably recommend a Paleo diet with occasional waivers for a slices of whole wheat bread, cheeses and olive oil!

Marilyn Hull 5 years, 11 months ago

I've been trying Paleo for the last six weeks (haven't yet mastered the no sugar part). I have intersitital cystitis (IC), a chronic bladder condition, which has its own somewhat daunting set of dietary restrictions.

For reasons I don't understand, Paleo is working wonders for my bladder. I'm pain free for the first time in years.

My guess is that I have an undiagnised intolerance to something in grains--gluten maybe?

Ryan Neuhofel 5 years, 11 months ago

Actually, that is a point I should have made: the Paleo Diet is gluten free if followed strictly. However, as people with Celiac disease will tell you, there are many "processed" and "imitation" meats that DO contain gluten additives.

As I said in the article, in recent years gluten has been blamed for a myriad of health conditions (including allergic, inflammatory and autoimmune) recently, but not any studies to my knowledge have proven a causal relationship - outside a formal diagnosis of Celiac Disease (sprue). However, there a many anecdotal reports of people "feeling better" or decreasing symptoms of an illness with a gluten-free diet.

Marilyn Hull 5 years, 11 months ago

It is great to have a local doctor's opinion on all of this. Could be my improvement is coincidental.

I'm looking forward to better medical studies into all of this. And I agree that calorie restriction is calorle restriction.

The good news is I am eating more veggies, lean meats, nuts and seeds, and less pasta.

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