The Caveman Craze: Is the Paleo Diet Right for You?
"The Caveman Diet" - also being referred to as the Paleo (as in Paleolithic Era), Stone Age, or Warrior diet, is one of the latest fad diets to reach the masses. In fact, a quick Google search for the Paleo Diet returns over 5 million results! But what exactly is it and should YOU jump on the old caveman bandwagon?
What's The Caveman Diet?
The general principle is "if a caveman didn’t eat it, then you shouldn’t," but the guidelines become increasingly specific depending on the book you choose to follow (The Everything Paleolithic Diet Book, The Paleolithic Prescription, The Caveman Diet, The Paleo Answer, etc.).
For example, The Paleo Diet offers 3 levels of the diet with varying amounts of ‘cheat’ foods allowed. This way you have the option of making a more gradual transition to the 3rd strictest level of dietary restriction rather than taking the cold-turkey approach.
What Can You Eat on the Caveman Diet?
Think tree nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds), meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, fruits, and non-starchy vegetables.
Thirsty? When the urge to wet your palate strikes, you have the options of water, coconut water, or (organic) green tea. All light, refreshing, and calorie-free options.
What Can’t You Eat on the Caveman Diet?
Cavemen did not have:
- Packaged and Processed Foods (e.g. granola bars, cereals, pastas, cookies, donuts, lunch meats, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, sausage, condiments, fast food, etc.),
- Sugary Beverages (e.g. soda, juice, fruit punch)
- Grains (e.g. breads, pasta, oats)
- Dairy Products
- Peanuts (Only tree nuts are allowed, so time to replace your creamy peanut butter with a jar of almond, sunflower seed, or hazelnut butter instead.)
I found the last three especially surprising, but as they were not readily available until the agricultural era when humans made the transition from hunting and gathering to farming, they are not allowed in the Caveman Diet.
Is The Caveman Diet Really Healthy?
As you can see, there are both positive and negative aspects to this type of eating style. Read on for a streamlined list of those very aspects.
Pros of the Caveman Diet
- Whole Foods: Consists of whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, and nuts; promoting a healthy intake of fiber, antioxidants, and healthy fats. Not to mention the push for more water!
- Less Additives: Trims down on the amount of sugar, sodium, and trans fat, by cutting out processed foods, sugary beverages.
- Emphasis on Exercise: Encourages physical activity (the caveman did not have the option to sit around watching TV, now did they?).
- Fills You Up: Tough to overeat on whole, unprocessed foods.
- No calorie limit.
- No expensive supplements required.
Cons of the Caveman Diet
- Cravings: Difficult to follow as it requires you to forgo all dairy, legumes, peanuts, salt, processed foods, coffee, and sugary beverages.
- Missing Food Groups: Omits entire food groups (grains, dairy, and legumes), making it more difficult to attain the essential vitamins and minerals we need. After removing America’s #1 source of calcium and vitamin D, dairy, many may be missing out on these valuable nutrients.
- Expensive: Can quickly become expensive as organic produce, wild game, wild caught fish, grass-fed and free range meat, poultry, and eggs are preferred (as they are truly the closest form of food as it relates to the paleo era).
- High Fat: May end up being too high in saturated fat. Some studies found the diet to provide 39% total fat.
- No peanuts or peanut butter. (Enough said.)
- Not feasible for vegetarians.
This Dietitian's Take?
Personally, I am not a fan of specialized diets like this and besides, I am far too hooked on my morning bowl of steel cut or old fashioned oatmeal to fall into this diet plan. As beans and organic Greek yogurt are staples in my diet, I would likely struggle to meet my protein requirements because I do not eat meat or poultry regularly.
On that note, if you are vegan, vegetarian, or even flexitarian, this diet is certainly not for you. However there are aspects of the diet which do offer healthful advice to improve the typical American diet.
It is well evidenced that by reducing the amount of processed foods (many of which are high in sugar, fat, and sodium) and replacing them with whole grains, lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats, we may be able to reduce our risk of obesity and chronic disease. Largely because these foods not only lead to an expanding waist line, but to rising blood sugar and cholesterol levels as well.
Yet, there is also loads of evidence showing whole grains, beans, and low-fat dairy (foods not allowed to Cavemen) are incredibly healthful and also reduce our risk of chronic disease.
One very interesting point that was brought to my attention is that although chronic disease was not likely prevalent in the day of the caveman, they had drastically shorter lifespans and even today the few isolated populations still following a similar type of diet also have shorter lifespans. Quite the thought provoking food for thought now isn’t it?
So, Bottom Line?
While it is wise to aim for a cleaner diet built on whole foods (fresh from Mother Nature), by skipping out on entire food groups you will also be depriving your body of essential nutrients necessary for health. If you do choose to do jump on the caveman bandwagon, it would be wise to supplement your limited food choices with calcium and vitamin D until you feel confident getting these nutrients from non-dairy sources.
One Final Tip…
If you are adhering to the rules of the caveman, I encourage you to seek out lean sources of animal protein. Fatty options abound in the meat and poultry category, often providing more cholesterol-raising saturated fat than we should have in an entire day! Thankfully, thanks to new labeling laws for packaged meat and poultry, we are now armed with the nutrition information we need to make healthy decisions.
Aim for skinless, chicken or turkey breast, lean or extra lean ground beef, chicken, or poultry, or most anything with the words loin (sirloin, tenderloin), round (eye of round, top round, bottom round), and avoid those advertised as being a ‘prime’ cut as they tend to be higher in fat.