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Paleo vs Modern Diets - Key Differences

What Did the Cavemen (and Women) Eat?

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Updated July 10, 2007

What is meant by Paleolithic?

Paleolithic people were hunter-gatherers. All their food came from what they could hunt and find around them. For most of the period, most of the cultures tended to be nomadic, following food sources.

The period after the Paleolithic period is called the Neolithic, which began approximately 10,000 years ago. At this point, agriculture made it possible for people to settle in one place. People’s lives became more sedentary, although still active by today's standards. Especially, people started growing sources of starch, especially grains, which could be stored. Another big innovation in the later part of the Neolithic period was the development of pottery, which made it easier to cook and transport staple foods.

Writers espousing Paleolithic diets point to evidence regarding both prehistoric people and more recent hunter-gatherer populations that agriculture increased chronic diseases such as heart disease in these populations.

How do Eating Patterns and Nutrition Vary Between Paleolithic and Modern Times?

There are a number of major differences between our diets and those of the "cavemen."

Types of foods

Early on, before fire was controlled, only food which could be eaten raw was consumed. This ruled out grains, legumes, and some tubers such as potatoes. Even when early people started to use fire to cook food, they were mainly limited to roasting or toasting it. Besides meat, a few roasted nuts or grains by the fire were pretty much it. Additionally, before animals were domesticated (around 5,000 to 6,000 years ago) milk and dairy products were not consumed.

Obviously, any refined sugars other than occasional honey, or any processed foods, were totally out.

What exactly was eaten by early people clearly varied according to geography, but most of the diets are thought to be at least half animal foods (including insects), and many up to 70 percent food of animal origin. Gathering enough plant food to support highly active people simply wouldn't have been feasible in most places.

Despite this, large amounts of vegetation were consumed; some estimates are that in many areas early humans ate up to 6 pounds of greens per day. This is a lot of greens -- about a grocery-bag full, but this produces only about 400 to 700 calories. However, the nutrient load of those greens is huge, producing many times the minimum daily requirement of most vitamins and minerals. Of course, other parts of plants were eaten, including nuts and fruit, though we probably couldn't recognize the ancestors of the sugary fruit we eat today.

Fats

A key difference that has been identified between Paleolithic Diets and today's standard diet is the difference in the types of fats we consume:

We consume far less omega-3 fat. This is the type of fat we commonly think of as being in oily fish and flax seeds, but it turns out that game meats contain more omega-3 fat than domesticated animals. Greens also contain this type of fat -- in small amounts to be sure, but many early people ate a LOT of greens. (Probably the reason game meats have more omega-3 fats is because they eat greens.)

We consume more saturated fat. When we fatten up our cattle on grain and corn, we increase the amount of saturated fat in the meat. Early people ate more fish in many places, as they would have had to be near a water supply. Much of our saturated fat comes from dairy products, which Paleolithic people didn't eat.

We consume more omega-6 fat. One of the big points that authors of paleo-diets make is that our consumption of omega-6 fats has skyrocketed at the same time that the amount of omega-3 fats has declined. This is mainly due to the large amount of soybean oil and seed oils such as corn oil in our diets.

There is mounting evidence that this decrease of omega-3 fats along with the increase of omega 6 fats contributes to the inflammation that underlies many of our modern chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis.

Note: Different authors vary on their estimates of the total amount of fat these early people ate and what should be recommended for those attempting this type of diet. Cordain (The Paleo Diet) points out that game meats are naturally low in fat, and that we should seek low fat sources of protein. Others disagree, positing that the higher-calorie fats in organ meats, bone marrow, etc, would have been prized and that the percentage of fats in the diet would have been higher.

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