Our high school science and history classes let most of us learn that there was a point in human evolution known as the Paleolithic period. It is a label applied to an entire period on earth and dates around 2.5 million to roughly 10,000 years ago; one of the most extensive spans of documentable history and is a period of significant change in the environment and humanity.
It is the era when we went from the hunter-gatherer model of existence to the more settled, agricultural life; when humans began to raise food instead of catching it or foraging for it, and many say it is why we have developed such issues as gluten intolerance. After all, it takes generations for humans to see genetic changes, and yet in a very short span we started eating a lot more grains than meats.
What is the Paleo Diet?
Either way, the Paleo period now serves as inspiration for the way of eating known as the paleo diet. There is not a single “diet”, however, but, as the team at Mayo Clinic says, it is more of a general plan that focuses on foods similar to those consumed by humans during the Paleolithic era.
This means that it is a way of eating that emphasizes lean meats and fish, vegetables and fruits, and many seeds and nuts in season. It is also a diet, as those experts explain, that limits foods common to the era when agriculture emerged around ten thousand years ago, especially legumes, grains, and dairy foods.1)
And by limits, most understand it to mean that the diet contains almost none of those foods.
Is The Paleo Diet Healthy?
Because it is based on a period that dates back to the “caveman” era in human history, the paleo diet is also referred to by many as the caveman diet. This makes many wonder if it is all that healthy. Those who argue against the paleo way of life say that we’ve evolved and benefited from a diversity of foods. The thing to remember is that the paleo diet does too. After all, it can contain all of the meat and fish, but also has fruits and nuts, veggies, and seeds, and lots of oils.
What it doesn’t include is processed foods like sugar, salt, dairy, and all kinds of grains. It doesn’t have peanuts or many legumes.
Is it a “whole foods” diet? Yes, it is most definitely going to feature a lot of whole foods, though you can find an ever-increasing number of recipes that stick to the paleo diet guidelines. And the benefits are quite profound.
As the team at Healthline explained in their look at paleo eating, hunter-gatherers had whole-food-based diets and led very active lives. They had almost no instances of lifestyle disease like diabetes, obesity, heart disease and more. Studies have shown that the paleo diet does cause weight loss, even if no calorie counting is done, while also boosting overall health (when exercise is part of the plan).2)
Why Eat Like a “Caveman”?
As the experts at Medical News Today also indicated in their review of paleo dieting, the reasons that people eat this way vary, but include:
- Weight loss
- Reduced risk for diabetes
- Decreased blood pressure
- Better digestion
- Improved energy and mental clarity3)
Are you guaranteed these benefits? No, but the same can be said of any diet or eating plan. In fact, Mayo Clinic compared paleo eating to Mediterranean as well as diabetes diets and found that the paleo diet’s exclusion of grains, legumes, and low-fat dairy made it better in many ways than other options.
In other words, it can be better than some of the most highly rated and approved ways of eating.
How to Eat Paleo
A bit of good news for those worried about trying to figure out yet another way of eating or a new plan to follow is that there is a right way to do the paleo approach. This is because paleolithic humans ate a staggering number of species. If modern people eat no more than 50 to 75 species during the year, the paleo human ate hundreds.
Remember, they were hunters and gatherers, and that means they ate a lot of what was available each season, and wherever in the world they might be. They ate a lot of animals and fish, but also a high number of plants and fruits.
Simple Paleo Shopping List
A basic food list for the modern human hoping to enjoy the benefits of paleo eating looks like this:
- Meats: Opt for grass-fed, pasture-raised, and organic as much as possible, and feel free to choose from unprocessed beef, lamb, turkey, chicken, pork, and game animals
- Fish and seafood: Opt for wild-caught and NOT previously frozen options, and feel free to choose from the entire spectrum, but especially salmon, trout, haddock, shrimp, shellfish and fatty fish like anchovies
- Eggs: Free-range, pasture-fed, and omega-3 enriched are best
- Fruits and Vegetables: Paleo eating means almost any plant foods, and going for a “rainbow” on your plate is best, and if organic and seasonal options are available, they are the most nutritious
- Tubers: Yams, sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, turnips, and other ground vegetables are fine and a good way to get carbohydrate in the diet (This is a point of contention in the world of paleo eating because some argue that tubers would not have been a major component in a paleo diet, and while there are some studies indicating tubers were a relatively minor food group, they were, nonetheless, part of the Paleolithic era, along with worms dug up while seeking tubers!)
- Nuts and Seeds: Any of the tree nuts such as almonds, walnuts, and macadamias are fine. Seeds of any kind are beneficial and great for protein and nutrients, as well as fiber
- Fat: EVOO (extra virgin olive oil), avocado oil, avocados, coconut oils and fats, and other healthy options can be added in abundance to the daily diet
- Spices: Watch salt intake and go for the whole options like sea salt or freshly ground Himalayan salt, but feel free to eat any other spices, including garlic, turmeric, cayenne and all the rest!
A Day of Paleo
And what does a day of paleo diet eating look like? Is it meat, meat and more meat? No, a good day would look like this:
- Breakfast: Avocado, kale, banana and apple smoothie OR a slice of melon and a serving of salmon
- Lunch: Greens with a serving of fish in an olive oil dressing OR broiled lean pork served on a pile of greens and veggies
- Snack: A piece of fruit, serving of vegetables, or half serving of protein OR a handful of roasted nuts and seeds
- Dinner: Roasted poultry with vegetable stuffing OR lean beef served with vegetables
- Dessert: A serving or two of fruit
Regardless of which options are chosen, you’ll also need to drink a great deal of fresh water and be sure to incorporate at least 30 minutes or more of regular exercise.
We cannot step back in time, but we can use examples from the past to provide our bodies with the kinds of whole and basic foods needed to ensure optimal health and wellness, and if that means eating like a caveman or cavewoman, then we should all give it a try!