The Caveman Diet, also called the Paleolithic (or Paleo), Stone Age, and Warrior diets, is a plan based on eating plants and wild animals similar to what cavemen are presumed to have eaten around 10,000 years ago.
Why turn back the hands of time and eat that way? The premise is that our bodies are genetically programmed to eat like our Paleolithic ancestors.
Proponents claim it’s the biologically appropriate diet that suits us best, with the proper balance of nutrients to promote health and reduce the incidence of chronic diseases.
The Paleo diet is a very healthy diet, says Loren Cordain, PhD, Colorado State University professor and author of The Paleo Diet.
“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,” Cordain says.
Supporters of this nutritional approach have published papers and books, and created web sites, to promote it. They argue that today’s typical Western diet is responsible for the epidemic levels of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and more.
The Paleo or Caveman diet is not without controversy. Some nutrition experts assert that humans have adapted to a broader diet including whole grains, dairy, and legumes. Others question the evidence for the diet’s evolutionary logic.
And even though grains and dairy seem healthful, Cordain says our “genome has not really adapted to these foods, which can cause inflammation at the cellular level and promote disease.”
The diet is based on the foods that could be hunted, fished, and gathered during the Paleolithic era — meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, tree nuts, vegetables, roots, fruits, and berries.
But a true paleolithic diet is impossible to mimic because wild game is not readily available, most modern plant food is cultivated rather than wild, and meats are domesticated.
At best, you can eat a modified version of the original diet that’s gluten-free and includes lean meat, organ meats, fish, poultry, eggs, vegetables, fruit, and nuts. It’s a wide variety of foods.
You won’t find any dairy, grains, sugar, legumes, potatoes, processed oils, and any foods that were grown after agriculture started.
On this diet, you’d skip salt and any drinks other than water, coconut water, or organic green tea.
You can satisfy your sweet tooth with raw honey or coconut palm sugar, but only in limited quantities.
Some versions of the plan encourage fasting, eating raw foods, and eliminating nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, eggplant).
Some plans allow a little flexibility, like adding some processed oils from fruits and nuts, such as olive and flaxseed oil.
Supporters suggest eating organic plant foods, wild-caught fish, and grass-fed meats because they’re closer to the nutritional quality of the foods of our ancestors.
Supporters of the Paleo Diet say people are genetically programmed to eat like cavemen did before the agricultural revolution. They also say it’s a way to cut the spiraling cases of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic conditions plaguing American adults.
You may not need to eat this way all the time. According to Cordain, eating like our ancestors 80% of the time offers health benefits. He suggests trying the diet for two weeks to see if you feel better on the plan.
The plan encourages people to be physically active on a regular basis. After all, hunter-gathers had active daily lives seeking food, water, and shelter. Though you don’t need to do that, you do need to move.
A diet that includes whole, unprocessed foods is the basis of most all healthy diet recommendations. But so are whole grains, low-fat dairy, and legumes.
Including these food groups will help meet nutritional needs and contribute to a well-balanced diet plan. You can satisfy dietary requirements without these foods, but that requires careful planning and supplementation.
If the Paleo or Caveman diet appeals to you, be sure to supplement the plan with calcium and vitamin D.
Eliminating all grains, dairy, processed foods, sugar, and more will most likely lead to weight loss. But it may be tough to follow this plan long-term due to the diet’s strict nature.