Eating like our ancestors, eating like a caveman, eating like hunter-gatherers – no matter how you phrase it, it all comes down to the same thing: the paleo diet.
The premise of the diet is to mimic the ancient humans. This is done by removing products of modern agriculture (wheat, legumes, and dairy). Instead, paleo dieters eat meals full of meat, nuts, and vegetables.
According to author Michael Pollan, however, that diet isn’t what our ancient ancestors would have eaten. On an episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, he said, “I don’t think we really understand…well the proportions in the ancient diet. Most people who tell you with great confidence that this is what our ancestors ate-I think they’re kind of blowing smoke.”
We asked Mary Hartley, R.D. what her take on the paleo diet was, and she agrees with Pollan. “Over the last several years, researchers have learned more about early hominid diets. Early hominids from forested areas ate the fruit and tree nuts, but ancients for the savanna ate the grasses and sedges that grew there. (Millions of years later, those grasses would become domesticated cereal crops).”
Pollan agrees cavemen likely ate grains, and traditionally made bread is a healthy way to access their nutrients. While the white bread you buy at the store may not be the most nutritious, he suggests breads found at local bakeries can definitely be a part of a healthy diet, as long as you don’t suffer from any sort of gluten resistance.
According to Hartley, the gluten-free community sparked the paleo diet in the first place.
“Interest in the Paleo eating pattern came from the gluten-free community. It is a way to legitimize a diet that excludes grains, beans, legumes and root vegetables, dairy products, sugar, and salt.”
“The Paleo pattern limits foods to those consumed before the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago,” she added. “Paleo foods include fish and game, nuts, fruits, seeds, and foraged leafy vegetables. The paleo diet is gluten free.”
Though that sounds like a reasonably healthy diet, Pollan disagrees with what he feels is an over-emphasis on meat. Ancient humans probably did enjoy meat, but only when they could get it. He adds today’s meat options are different from what the hunter-gatherers would have experienced.
“They’re assuming that the options available to our cavemen ancestors are still there. Unless you’re willing to hunt your food, they’re not.” Most animals that are products of modern agriculture bear little nutritional resemblance to wild game. Pollan suggests eating meat in moderation and choosing pastured meat.
He also places importance on cooking our food as a way to access the nutrients. Cooking also may have been ancient man’s key to developing culture, ruling out the idea that a true caveman diet is raw.
“In a sense, cooking opens up this space for other activities,” Pollan said. “It’s very hard to have culture, it’s very hard to have science, it’s very hard to have all the things we count as important parts of civilization if you’re spending half of all your waking hours chewing.”
Based on Pollan’s opinions, you may draw the conclusion the paleo diet is too restrictive. It can be, if followers don’t find ways to supplement it.
“Whenever food groups are removed, diets must be carefully planned,” Hartley shared. “A poorly planned Paleo Diet will be deficient in certain vitamins, minerals, fibers, essential fat, antioxidants, etc. Paleo athletes must find a way to get enough carbohydrates.”
She added that it’s not entirely realistic to think that all cavemen ate the same diet. Adding more variety into the paleo diet may make it a more realistic representation of what ancient humans ate and a healthier diet option overall.
“Human populations in different regions of the world eat different foods. Diets of indigenous foods can be balanced, but every balanced diet did not look the same.”