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Recreating the Caveman Diet

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By looking into the past, we may just discover how to lead healthier lives.

By Philippa Roxby, Health reporter, BBC News Posted Dec 1, 2010

caveman diet A team of scientists has begun exploring what can be learned from the diet of cavemen who lived more than two million years ago. Research will focus on how the food eaten by hunter-gatherers could enhance modern day nutrition.

Our ancestors in the Palaeolithic period, which covers 2.5 million years ago to 12,000 years ago, are thought to have had a diet based on vegetables, fruit, nuts, roots and meat.

Cereals, potatoes, bread and milk did not feature at all. It was only with the dawn of agriculture (around 10,000 years ago) that our diets evolved to include what we think of as staple foods now.

So are we programmed to eat what we do today – or are we better suited to the diet of our ancestors?

Global brand giant Unilever has brought scientists and experts from fields as diverse as evolutionary genetics, anthropology, food science and botany together to find out the answer.

Plant diversity

Dr Mark Berry, who is in charge of the research at Unilever, says the aim is to create a healthier diet for people today, drawing inspiration from that period.

“The main hallmark of the Palaeolithic diet was a huge diversity of plants. Nowadays we try our best to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. They ate 20 to 25 plant-based foods a day,” said Dr Berry.

So contrary to common belief, Palaeolithic man was not a raging carnivore. He was an omnivore who loved his greens. He would have gathered seeds to eat, used plants and herbs for flavoring and preserving fish and meat, and collected wild berries.

Their need for other essential nutrients would have been found in fish, while pulses provided additional proteins. (Ed.: Pulses are leguminous plants which produce edible seeds, such as peas, beans, or lentils.)

In contrast to the cereal crops we rely on now for the basis of our food, the pre-farming diet contained fewer carbohydrates, less fat and more vegetables. So was it a healthier diet?

“It seems so,” said Mark Thomas, professor of evolutionary genetics at University College London. “Palaeolithic man may have died earlier than we do now, but he didn’t die of bad nutrition.”

“Palaeolithic man may have died earlier than we do now, but he didn’t die of bad nutrition.”

Previous research has shown that the diet and lifestyle of hunter-gatherers was characterized by a lower incidence of “diseases of affluence” such as type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

Adapted to milk

Although we have adapted to a very different diet over thousands of years, Professor Thomas says: “There is a mismatch between the diet we’ve evolved for and the one that we have.”

He cites milk as an example of something humans have adapted to over time.

“Ten thousand years ago, humans had access to milk but couldn’t drink it. We couldn’t digest it. Now we’re 100% adapted to a milk-rich diet.”

But the plants eaten by our Palaeolithic ancestors were entirely different.

They bear little relation to the vegetables, plant and cereal products we see on our supermarket shelves today.

Professor Monique Simmonds, head of the sustainable uses of plants group at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, who is an expert in this area, explained why.

“The development of agriculture meant crops were grown on a large scale to make money. Instead of growing indigenous material, farming encouraged the production of crops like wheat, which have an international market.”

And so our diets began to shrink and crops became more and more refined until, in 2010, only a few varieties of wheat and maize remain.

At Kew, Prof Simmonds is trying to find out what was in those original plants before we started to play with them.

“We need to decrease our reliance on refined sugar and a heavy carbohydrate diet, and replace some of the things we have lost,” she says.

“The natural genes of plants species we collect at Kew will give us an insight into the wild relatives of the crop plants we know today.”

By looking into the past, we may just discover how to lead healthier lives.


Posted in Food and Health Tags , ,
  • stewart

    the low carb diet. is healthy but more expensive. fast food = high carbs, low cost, more obesity. eventually the low cost catches up with you in higher health care costs.

  • Angeline

    I'm convinced that our ancestors discovered everything in their environement that was at all edible and/or tasty. Hunter gatherers in all but the poorest regions eat an impressive list of foods. I don't see why our ancestors would not be the same.

  • axel

    Hunter-gatherers, except in the poorest regions eat an impressive list of food. I do not see why our ancestors did not have the same relationship .

  • miikky

    Nice blog,valuable informations.I just bookmarked it.Keep it like this.

  • Luge

    How do they know the Paleo humans ate 20 – 25 plant foods per day? The caveman was likely an opportunist and ate what was available. After a kill they may have eaten meat for days. When hunting was poor they probably ate anything that didn't make them sick.

  • Peter Stockwell

    If we want to eat a Palaeolithic diet we should give up beef and lamb and eat deer and bison meat. Sadly the mammoth, which was widely eaten, is no longer with us due to overkill by humans. The Australian aboriginals, who until recently lived a hunter gatherer existance, would also recommend witchetty grubs.

  • Pritpal Sharma

    Nice topic…………..

  • guest

    The caveman diet may have been high in protein, but the paleolithic diet is not sustainable for the world's population today. Mass produced foods are needed and these are usually cereal based. I don't think we'll ever be going back to the cavemen diet.

  • Melissa

    A great source of information for this type of diet is Mark’s Daily Apple: I’ve been following this way of eating for over a year now, and I’ve never felt (or looked!) better!

  • Tye

    I'm afraid cost trumps nutrition, which explains the obesity epidemic. People just don't have the money for steady diets of healthful foods. McD and the like win every time.

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