What is the CaveMan Diet? The caveman diet is often referred to also as the Paleolithic diet, or “paleo diet” for short. The basic premise of the diet is that man evolved on a fairly consistent hunter and gatherer diet, and that the over the last 10,000 years the agricultural revolution has introduced foods that our bodies were not naturally equipped to process. The caveman approach advocates returning to ingesting foods similar to what we ate before the agricultural period, under the premise that genetically we are fully optimized for these types of foods.
Overview of the Primitive Approach
As briefly touched upon above, the caveman diet, or paleo diet as the more mainstream term, argues that our bodies evolved for millions of years eating a fairly consistent set of food that, from an evolutionary perspective, was optimal for proper functioning – including maintaining health and weight loss. Understanding this diet entails learning a little more about the timeline of human evolution. While agriculture seems to have been around for a long time, from an evolutionary perspective that simply isn’t the case. The best evidence based on current science is that modern man emerged approximately 2.4m years ago – but prior to that there was another 2+ million years of evolution of our more primate based ancestors.
Agriculture and the foods it produces that are part of our mainstream diet today are estimated to have gained prominence approximately 5000 years ago. When asking what is the caveman diet, a better question might be “how did our current diet evolve”. Until about 5000 years ago, wheat, rice, corn, and other grain products did not make up a measurable part of our diet (based on my reading). It’s truly been over the last few hundred years that our diet has shifted to consuming a massive amount of these types of food. The introduction of meat from animals fed grain products (not to mention soy and other items), pesticides, and other “modern” contaminants have served to completely alter our eating habits – is it any surprise that we now see obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other ailments that were almost unheard of a few hundred years ago?
5000 years, and of course a few hundred years, pales in comparison to 2.4m years – which is the period when our bodies were optimizing to a fairly unchanging diet. Reading this article is a very good start to understanding the elements of our prehistoric diet, and why it is what our bodies need.
Paleolithic Diet Benefits
Researchers and followers of the caveman diet consider many “modern” diseases that are prevalent in the world (especially in Western societies) to be caused by a shift away from prehistoric food types in favor of largely agricultural products. Diseases they feel are impacted (increased prevalence) by this dietary shift include:
Benefits that some researchers (Dr. Loren Cordain and numerous others) have shown to be achieved by followers of this prehistoric eating approach include:
- Healthy weight loss
- Healthy fat loss
- Correction of autoimmune disorders
- Correction of inflammatory bowel disorders and other bowel related issues
- Avoidance of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes
- Correct and avoid gout
- Improve hypertension
- Reverse and prevent obesity
- Improve osteoporosis
- Reduce risk of, and improve recovery from strokes
- Improve asthma conditions
So I get all of this, but what foods did cavemen eat? At the highest level, the diet adjusts your food intake to the modern equivalents of what our prehistoric Neanderthal ancestors ate:
- Lean meats including beef, chicken, pork, duck, bison, and others (see separate discussion on differences between wild game versus current day domesticated meats)
- Organ meats
- Wild game meats
- Unlimited fruits and vegetables
- Healthy nuts such as walnuts, almonds, cashews
- Various seeds
Seems fairly straightforward right? The problem is that the “food pyramid” in use in the US and elsewhere in the world actually has this somewhat inverted, and focuses more on “whole grains” and “dairy products” – which are not considered foods that a caveman had access to or ate during their evolution – and thus you won’t find them on this approach.
To this point, the guidance from the perceived diet of Paleolithic Man specifically prohibits eating the following “modern day” foods:
- Any grain product [bread, corn, cereal, crackers, etc]
- Any refined or added sugars
- Rice – regardless of whether white or brown
- Dairy products
- Peanuts, including peanut butter
- Legumes (beans such as pinto, black beans, etc.)
- Peas (all variants)
- Soy foods of any type
- Starchy foods such as potatoes
- Soft drinks of any kind, as well as fruit juice drinks
- Fatty meats (historically pasture raised beef and other types of meat was extremely lean compared to grain fed, pen raised cattle of today)
- Foods with high concentrations of added salt (i.e. bacon, sausages, etc)
Dr. Loren’s book “The Paleo Diet” also has a category of foods to be eaten in moderation, which includes (not the complete list):
- Oils such as Olive, avocado, walnut, flaxseed, and canola oil
ABC also did a short segment that had Robb Wolf on it – you can view it below:
Hopefully this information, based on numerous published works, is answering your questions – as you see it is a new way to think about eating, and may require you to disregard a lot of “modern” dietary guidelines that, in all honesty, are being pushed in the same period that we see diabetes, obesity, heart disease, stroke, and cancer at record levels and climbing. Makes you wonder right?
Controversy Around the Paleo Approach to Eating
As with any diet plan, there is plenty of controversy around this approach to eating, and its impacts on your health. What is especially difficult to tease out is pure research based findings versus marketing hype, especially given the enormous trillion dollar agricultural and dairy industries, which heavily influence public perception as well as government policies.
Some specific objections to this prehistoric approach that have been raised include:
- Impractical to feed the world’s populations – wheat and other grain products take a lot less resources to produce large volumes of food compared to foods on the diet. Projections have been created by several researchers that indicate it would be impossible to feed the world’s population if wheat, grain, rice, and other prohibited foods were removed from the food supply. Not only can vast volumes of these foods be produced with minimal resources, but they can also be stored for long periods and transported easily.
- High protein diet risks – including increased (versus claims of decreased) risk of heart disease and kidney problems. Note that it is extremely difficult to perform a controlled study, and the type of meat and protein eaten (saturated fat and Omega 3 profiles) is often not fully known even in the studies that were performed. An often cited study of high protein diet risk from a coronary artery disease perspective can be found here, while a counterpoint based on studying modern day hunter/gather tribes in places like Africa is here.
- Modern day diseases are caused by a sedentary lifestyle and lack of exercise, versus any specific dietary changes (this one is hard for me to support given the research around how our bodies process sugar, and refined carbs, and the impact on blood glucose levels and insulin production, which have been proven to wreak havoc over a long period).
- Concerns around calcium intake if dairy is removed. This is largely not a concern for me based on my readings, and Dr. Loren as well as others explain the sources of calcium on the caveman diet, and why your body also excretes less calcium based on the levels of other minerals and vitamins.
My Review of This Primitive Approach
Given that there is not a single, definitive, branded version of the “Caveman Diet”, but rather flavors of it based on various interpretations of prehistoric eating habits and conditions, my review is based on several different sources of information:
- Reading several online articles from university studies as well as sites like WebMD and others.
- Reading (cover to cover) Dr. Loren’s “The Paleo Diet”.
- Purchasing/Reading (start to finish – Kindle edition) Robb Wolf’s “The Paleo Solution”.
- Purchasing/Reading Isabel De Los Rios’s “The Diet Solution”
- Implementing the diet solution program in my life, going on month 3 at the time of this article.
As someone with over 20 years in the high tech industry, and with 2 degrees in engineering, the science and reasoning behind the caveman diet appeals to me, and reading the gory details of what happens after you eat a piece of bread versus a fruit/vegetable/lean meat is dramatic.
All three books above go into a fair amount of detail about refined carbohydrates (aka wheat etc), and the dramatic reactions your body has in terms of blood glucose and insulin production with these types of foods versus the ones recommended if eating “like a caveman”. Furthermore, the very complex, inter-related affects of nutrients entering your body from one source of food versus another is enlightening – i.e. the fact that you may need less calcium when on this approach due to other nutrients preventing calcium loss was intriguing.
If you’ve read my bio on this site, you know I started with the Diet Solution after a lot of research. This diet touches upon the same science and approach as the Paleo approach (and in fact references it often in context of possibly needing to go to that extreme based on your medical and weight loss needs), but is what I would consider a “softened” version of the caveman approach. I’ve created a comparison of the Paleo Versus Diet Solution you can read for further information.
My Personal Results
I’ve lost almost 2 belt notches off of my waist in 3 months on the Diet Solution (with the more restrictive caveman variants implemented over the last month), and recently my in-laws told me my skin looked “glowing” which was a bit unexpected!
I do feel better on the diet, and recent blood work showed my cholesterol and triglycerides all showed an improvement from last year (although still high, which is why if you follow me on twitter you’ll know I’m cutting out red wine for a few months to see if that is the culprit).
If you decide to embark on this type of diet, or simply want to learn more, I would recommend the Diet Solution for a more gradual introduction with a lot of great support including recipes, online forums, etc., or if you want to go straight to the more restrictive, purer form of the caveman diet than I would start with Robb Wolf’s book, as I found it to be a much easier read than Dr. Cordain’s.
Avocados are an excellent source of more than 10 vitamins and minerals, and contain monounsaturated fats which have been show to help lower blood cholesterol if used in place of saturated fats. They also are a great source of Lutein which is an important antioxidant linked to lower risk of eye disease.
One of the best things about the Caveman diet is rediscovering foods that you may have taken for granted in the past – or not even been aware of!
Resources for The Caveman Lifestyle
While I think my content is of course awesome, answering what is the caveman diet can be augmented by some truly authoritative materials on this approach. As I mentioned above, I’ve read both Robb Wolf’s Paleo Diet Book as well as Loren Cordain’s. I’d strongly recommend that you start with Robb’s as it is an easier read, and I found the information to be laid out in a more easy to follow format.
If you are already on the Caveman eating plan, I’d highly recommend checking out his newest book “The Paleo Diet Budget Shopping Guide” that provides guidance around the shopping experience – which can be a little challenging in terms of the right foods, where you should spend more money versus less, how to not break the bank being on this diet, etc. I plan on doing an in-depth review of this new book in the near future, so stay tuned!
This is one of a series of books that has a wealth of Paleo Recipes. I have not yet reviewed this, although I will be posting some sample recipes from this series on my site shortly [keep an eye on the "Paleo Books" section of my site]. You can read more about what is in this book by clicking on the image.
This is another book from the author of the above “Paleo Eating for Modern People”. I haven’t reviewed this one yet either, but plan to in the near future. In the meantime you can click on the book to learn more about it from the author’s web site.