The Paleo (short for Paleolithic) diet, also known as the Caveman Diet, may sound like a strange and faddy idea. Maybe it comes across as a bit too odd for you to give it a try. But really it's not as quirky as is may first appear – it's mostly about eating the kind of foods our ancestors ate, and that's important. In this article we'll find out why.
Not So Fast
Evolution is a slow process, at least as far as mere mortals like us are concerned. We evolved over a period of hundreds of thousands of years eating a particular kind of diet: one consisting mainly of protein and fat with, perhaps, a few carbohydrates from berries and starchy native plants. During the long era of 'hunter-gathering' we had not yet begun to grow our own crops for food. We had to rely on the foodstuffs that were available from the environment around us. In my part of the world (the Highlands of Scotland) that happened to be shellfish from the windswept, rocky coasts. And there is a great deal of evidence here in the form of 'shell middens' which are great piles of shells, discovered by archaeologists, heaped up outside the mouths of the caves where my distant ancestors once lived.
These hardy ancestors survived. We know this because, otherwise, we would not be here to ponder the mysteries of their diet. It may have been a hard existence but we should not assume this in all cases. There's a good chance that, in some parts of the world at least, food was abundant and readily available.
What's 'Paleo' All About?
Paleo, as I mentioned in the intro, is short for Paleolithic. It refers to the period very roughly 750,000 years ago up to about 15,000 years ago during which humans first began to make chipped-stone tools. The idea behind the so-called Paleo Diet is that we should eat the kind of foodstuffs that humans from that historical period ate. The reasoning behind this is that we have not yet evolved away from the adaption to the kinds of food they ate back then. 15,000 years really is not long in evolutionary terms and it would be a big ask for humans to have been able to adapt completely to our very different modern diet within that time.
Sugar and Starch
If you think about human diet in the terms and over the timescales I've mentioned above you'll begin to see that large quantities of carbohydrate-rich food, containing lots of sugar and starch, are a recent addition. Perhaps it's the case, as advocates of low-carb and Paleo-type diets claim, that our bodies are just not adapted to deal with all this stodge. We assume that our ancestors did not suffer greatly from problems of obesity because they had little food to eat and spent most of their time running about chasing it. But maybe that's just not true. In the places where food was readily available our ancestors may have led relatively sedentary lives. Maybe they did not become obese because they were living on a diet to which they were properly and fully adapted.
What if we are now seeing the terrible consequences of this great dietary change in our modern epidemics of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and even cancer?
Facing Up & Losing Weight
Perhaps it's time to face up to the idea that our modern diet is nutritionally lacking. We assume that it's healthy for us to eat foodstuffs like bread and pasta because that's what we have been told for the last 40 or 50 years. But the research behind human diet is really in its infancy, so it's way too early to claim that we have all the answers.
Personally I would rather trust a diet that humans lived on for hundred of thousands of years than one they have lived on for perhaps just a couple of centuries. Maybe I'm just lucky in that I really love the kinds of foods you can eat on low-carb and Paleo diets. I know from around 8 years of personal experience that, when I switch back to a carbohydrate-heavy diet, my weight increases very rapidly. I can lose the weight again quickly when I switch back to Paleo. This is not scientific evidence but it works for me.
I'm also lucky that I live right by the sea. I can go down to the beach, get some clams, cook them up, eat them, then throw the shells back down on the shore. I'm making my own little Paleolithic shell midden down there!