A few years ago I was introduced to the ‘Caveman Diet’.
The theory goes like this. Civilisation is an eye-blink in our history, and we’re not adapted to the things we eat today, which make us ill in consequence. We should be eating the same food that Ugh Ugh the Cave Man scoffed in 35,000 BC – raw nuts, grains, fruit, vegetables.
To which I said then – and still say now – rubbish!
Not only are humans geared to eat cooked food, we look like we do because of it. If we had to munch raw nuts, fruit and grains all day (and it would take all day to get the calories), we’d have jaws like an orang-utan. (I had breakfast with one once, but that’s another story…)
The science is clear. An ability to control fire – which may have begun 700,000 years ago – allowed early hominins to cook. Cooking reduces the energy needed to digest food, increasing the yield. One side effect was the drop in tooth and jaw size. It was also reflected in biochemistry.
As for the ‘cave man’ diet – well, there wasn’t one. A lot depended on where people were. Even today, African hunter-gatherers have a wider range of foods available than people living on the edge of the ice sheets.
Neandertal family group approximately 60,000 years ago. Artwork by Randii Oliver, public domain, courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.
The diet near the ice sheets was typified by that much maligned character, Cucu! the Neandertal. About ninety percent of the Neandertal diet was meat, and big game meat at that. Get this – Cucu! the Neandertal would head out armed with a heavy thrusting spears, and go into combat with mammoths and rhinocerii. Seriously. Skeletons have been found with upper body injuries identical, in form, to the ones rodeo riders get while steer wrasslin’. (What’s Neandertal for ‘yeeee-haaw!’?)
I’ve ridden elephants. There is no way I would want to go into combat with one, armed only with a spear. As for rhinos…well, uh…
The other issue is that there’s no return path to Ice Age foods for us. We’ve selectively bred everything we eat today, and studies have shown that our biochemistry has adapted to suit. Today’s main wheat strain didn’t even exist 100 years ago (the guy who bred the super-wheat we use now only died recently).
The ‘cave man diet’, in short, is fantasy. Paleo-nostalgia.
So why does it work for some people? Part of the reason is that modern foods contain additives. Commercial chicken, for instance, is full of antibiotics, so if you’re intolerant to penicillins, it won’t do favours. All sorts of issues follow from immune system dysfunction – so, on the cave man diet, some people feel healthier.
So does this mean we’ll eventually adapt to being able to lie on couches with our Game Boys and TV remotes, surrounded by the detritus of chips, pizza and cola drinks?
Well, maybe, but something tells me not.
What are your thoughts?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013