Alberta Cancer Foundation

Should we be eating like cavemen?

You may have heard of the Paleo-type diet – some call it eating like a caveman. Versions of this diet describe the way our ancestors ate in the Paleolithic era, about 10,000 years ago. Supporters say our bodies evolved with a hunting-and-gathering diet and that we are physiologically more suited to it than a post-industrial diet, which is, evolutionarily speaking, very new.

Paleo-type diets mean eating only foods that we once needed to hunt (meat and fish) or gather (eggs, tree nuts, vegetables and fruit). Dairy foods, grains, sugar, legumes (beans), potatoes and oils are not included because these newcomers appeared after the agricultural and industrial revolutions.

Supporters of the Paleo-type diet say the modern Western diet is at the root of many diseases, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression and infertility. They say that our ancestors didn’t suffer from chronic diseases as we do now. Supporters of paleo-type diets also claim that eating what they call “real” foods can reduce pain, increase energy and improve cholesterol levels.

Can switching to this way of eating match the hype?
Our ancestors simply didn’t live as long as we live now. They typically died long before old or even middle age when diseases such as diabetes and heart disease typically start appearing. To say that their way of eating prevents disease is oversimplification at best.

Our ancestors lived very different lives before the industrial revolution. They ate what didn’t eat them, working very hard physically to catch or gather food. Survival guaranteed physical fitness, which in turn was a requirement, not an option. And food surpluses didn’t exist before agriculture, so people ate only what was available locally, always on the lookout for their next meal.

Many diets claim to cure illness or disease. Chronic conditions are caused by many factors – not just dietary intake. Obesity is a condition that is influenced not only by how much we eat, but also by other factors, such as genetics, sleep, stress and physical activity.

Diets with strict guidelines of what to eat and not to eat make it challenging to succeed. Often, being very restrictive leads to all-or-nothing thinking, meaning that one must follow a diet 100 per cent of the time, or not at all. This mindset is common among those who follow restrictive or weight-loss diets. It’s not a helpful way to think, as people often report feeling like failures if they don’t achieve their diet goals.

Some recommendations of the Paleo-style of eating are not supported by research. These diets emphasize protein from meat and this may be a problem. Protein is necessary for good health. However, to reduce the risk of cancer, we recommend limiting red meat intake to less than 500 grams (18 ounces) per week with very little of this amount from processed meat. (Processed meats are smoked, cured, salted or chemically preserved. Think ham, bacon, pastrami and salami.) Paleo-type diets also recommend the removal of all grains from the diet. But evidence supports use of whole grains playing an important role in reducing the risk of certain diseases, such as heart disease.

Are there any helpful messages from the Paleo or caveman way of eating?
Certainly. Having seven to 10 (or more) daily servings of vegetables and fruit can help with weight management and cancer risk reduction. Eliminating added sugar may be ideal, but impractical for most people. Reducing added sugar or serving sizes of foods containing it is a great place to start and likely a more achievable goal.

If you’re looking to change the way you’re eating, start by setting goals that are realistic for you and your lifestyle. Do you want to eat more vegetables and fruit? Start by stocking for fridge and freezer with fresh and frozen vegetables. If you make them available, you are more likely to eat them. Plan a healthy plate. Fill half your plate with vegetables and fruit, and divide the other half equally between meat (or a meat alternative) and whole grains. If you want to reduce sugar intake, think about your next birthday celebration and start by saying “I’ll take half a slice please.” And it might be beneficial to copy our ancestors by increasing our overall activity level, too. Resolving to eat healthier is always a great idea, and taking small steps can evolve into lasting lifestyle changes.

Karol Sekulic is a registered dietitian with Alberta Health Services who has expertise and interest in the areas of weight management, nutrition and communications.

Karol Sekulic is a registered dietitian with Alberta Health Services who has expertise and interest in the areas of weight management, nutrition and communications.

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