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Surprising Science

The Caveman Diet

The human digestive system, which developed according to the diets of our cavemen ancestors, hasn’t evolved to compensate for our drastically different modern diets and lifestyles. Is it time for a back-to-basics approach? 

What’s the Big Idea?

The human digestive system developed over 2.5 million years, with one simple underlying function: maximizing our chance for survival. 

But then humanity jumped the curve – we invented agriculture. Through the processing of grain into bread, and through domestication and eventual industrialization of food production, we were soon consuming more and different types of fats and sugars than were possible to our cavemen ancestors.

Adherents of so-called Paleolithic diets believe that in the 10,000 years or so since the invention of agriculture, humans’ digestive systems have still not adapted to these newly available foods. In response, they restrict their nutritional intake to foods that would have been available to our ancient ancestors in an effort to mimic what they believe is humanity’s natural state.

Why Is It Groundbreaking?

Gastoenterologist Walter L. Voegtlin published “The Stone Age Diet” in 1975, becoming one of the first modern advocates for this dietary back-to-the basics approach. He has since received much scientific backing for the idea.

Last year, Dr. Staffan Lindeberg from the Department of Medicine at the University of Lund in Sweden published an article linking today’s modern diet to many of what he calls “Western diseases,” including coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia, congestive heart failure, obesity, high blood pressure and acne. Based on his study of the isolated Kitava tribe near Papua New Guinea, who subsist exclusively on vegetables, fruit, fish, and coconuts, Lindeberg’s findings demonstrated drastic reductions in some “Western diseases”; others were nonexistent. His prescription: paleo-dieting.

Caveman dieters vary in their rigor, but most agree on banning of grains, legumes, and refined sugars. Typical caveman ingredients include meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, offal, eggs, insects, vegetables, fruits, roots, squash, mushrooms, nuts (not peanuts!) and herbs and spices. But the preparation of these ingredients is where the camps divide, ranging from fully cooked and seasoned meals, to a raw chucks of grass-fed beef eaten with bare hands.

Why should you care?

We’re living longer and more productive lives than ever before, so what does it matter if we’re aligned with nature or not, you may ask. However, statistics show that chronic disease and obesity, particularly in western countries such as the United States, are on the rise. Interpret the numbers how you will (and every diet guru does), there’s something disarmingly simple and alluring about the caveman diet.


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