Why I don’t like the Caveman Diet

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.

Neanderthal family group approximately 60,000 years ago. Artwork by Randii Oliver, public domain, courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.
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


28 thoughts on “Why I don’t like the Caveman Diet

  1. Regarding adapting to lounging with TV remotes et al while munching processed food without the current consequences of doing so, like you, I doubt it. As you know, I have done a lot of experimenting with food, and for me, the paleo diet did not work.

    What I have found works best for me is the principles of Ayurveda, which maintains there are no bad foods–as ayurveda is 5,000 years old, it pre-dates processed and refined food–however, we are more sensitive to certain foods at times and should adjust our diet accordingly. Ayurveda is much more than this, of course, but essentially follows the six tastes in food: the hot tastes of pungent, sour, and salty; the cold tastes of bitter, astringent, and sweet. Obviously, balance is key.

    Another fine post, Matthew, and thanks so much for posting on this fascinating topic


    1. Thank you – yes, I agree. I never got anything out of the paleo diet either (quite apart from my scientific objections to the reasoning behind it). Balance is everything, and sensitivities absolutely vary – for myself, sometimes, I find, even across a day.

      Incidentally, I find it fascinating how often eastern thinking carries wisdoms that we have to re-discover, often the hard way. As you know I’m something of a fan of western science, but I often think the rush to rational empiricism has been at the expense of equally valid thinking in other cultures.

      One of the biggest dietary problems today, I suspect, is the way industrial technology has solved the Cave Man problem – finding enough to eat, period. And it’s done it in a commercialised way that isn’ great for health. The ease with which fat-and-salt laden food can be cheaply bought while the foods we should be eating languish worries me sometimes. I don’t know about the US, but there were concerns here in NZ at one point that some teenagers were getting scurvy on the back of a fast-food snack diet.

      What makes it worse is that care is needed here in NZ anyway – the soil lacks key human micro-nutrients such as selenium, which we have to obtain by supplements if we’re to have it at all..

  2. Well Matthew, I’m a pescetarian hoping to become a fully fledged vegetarian. In the few years before I stopped eating meat I only bought free range organic. But one to many abattoir documentaries put paid to that. There are a lot of theories about what we should and shouldn’t eat and it does get confusing. My advice: try them and see if you feel better, healthier, more vitalised. If not, try something else until you do. I do miss those Mammoth Burgers though! 🙂

  3. You are so comical, Matthew! I love the way you think! Some people of today can function on vegan diets but not me. I need my chicken and pork. I do love veggies and nuts too. I agree we would have to have a mouth full of large powerful teeth to grind down all the hard seeds, nuts and plants in order to break them down and process them otherwise we may have problems in the end! I think Homo Sapiens still have a tendency to store fat for the winter and lose some in the summer. This has a strong correlation to ancient man when they did not have as much clothes for warmth. I for one am glad to be born in a more civilized (? maybe) time. I am not the type to go out hunting for my food. I’d rather find it in the supermarket.
    Enjoy reading your curious views on varied topics. Very entertaining!

    1. Thanks. Yeah, I prefer to get my food from the supermarket too. Have to admit, having ridden an elephant myself, I couldn’t get past the image of a Neanderthal hurtling about on the back of a Mammoth going ‘yeee-haw’…

      The development of hominin jaws through diet isn’t my view – it’s the current paleontological understanding. I did an undergrad degree in that field years ago & have kept it up to date. The more we learn, the more interesting it seems to become. Especially when we start thinking about Rodeo riding Neanderthals (though it’s actually another serious view, if you can get past the image of the Mammoth riders – they did a statistical comparison of Neanderthal; injuries, shown in the skeletons, with a databse of rodeo injuries. It matched exactly.)

  4. Scurvy! Yikes. My kids are very fussy and very skinny so I give in more than I want to just to fill them up. I’d like to think we have a good enough mix but I know we could do a bit better.

    1. Yeah, sad but true. There are various drives to get parents to put healthier foods into kids’ lunchboxes, but it doesn’t seem to work too well nationally – and when that’s combined with convenienbce take-away foods, which a lot of families seem to grab these days, it’s a fast trip to the wrong end of the food pyramid.. Some of the teens are risking ricketts too – this fashion for ‘hoodies’, slumping along without any sun getting on the skin. Sigh.

  5. My father works in the meat industry, so I’m very familiar with the antibiotic chicken situation. We have an inside joke in the family that that’s why chicken soup is so effective against the flu. I have noticed with myself that antibiotics don’t really work, and I don’t even eat that much chicken.

    I don’t know how it is elsewhere, but in South Africa free range and organic foods are incredibly expensive next to the mass produced stuff. And any fresh veggies cost much more than the frozen ones. I’d love to eat organically grown produce and free range meat, but it’s simply not financially possible.

    Fruits and nuts? Great snack food (but again, much more expensive than sweets and chips), but definitely not for my complete diet.

    1. The use of antibiotics routinely in the food chain is extremely worrisome. And of course we’re entering an era now when antibiotics are becoming consistently less effective on the back both of that, and of over-prescription into the human population. A magic bullet…until it isn’t.

      It’s expensive to get organic foods here in NZ too. Best chicken I ever ate was in Rarotonga, where they’re effectively wild – total free range.

  6. Don’t get me started Matt! I am an omnivore, period. I have been in arguments with vegetarians and vegans and dietitians and doctors who don’t seem to understand that. I have 32 teeth which are designed to eat a wide variety of foods including meat. I have a digestive system that allows me to eat a wide variety of foods. I’ve eaten most things both raw and cooked. I prefer most of my food to be cooked. It tastes and digests better. The question is not what but how much. of each type. That argument changes with each new Medical convention.

    1. Me too. You’re absolutely right – we’re omnivores and variety and control of quantity are the keys to it. I got pointed at the ‘Cave Man’ diet for health reasons, but it didn’t seem to ring true to me. The major problem was that the logic was founded on a kind of warm fuzzy fantasy about how people lived back in the ice age and before. And a lot of medical fads, I find, tend to fall into similar categories. The irony is that occasionally a fad works – but not for the reasons stated by its promoters.

  7. Oh Matthew! I will try to keep this reasonably short as you have hit on a favourite bug-bear of mine with this! The pseudo-science of it annoys me too, especially when it is then used to insist that this is ‘the’ answer and that we ‘all should’ be eating this way. Anything that claims to be the one answer for any human problem gives me the irrits, but it is especially true for dietary evangelists. Apart from anything else, I object to the idea of the paleo or cave-man dietary fad on social justice and sustainability grounds. What entitled, overfed westerner came up with the idea that we should all be eating salmon and blueberries all day long? That’s great if you can afford it and you are willing for most of the world’s population to die to support your lifestyle. We have the population we have now because we discovered the farming of grains. I’m sure a lot of people do get on better without them, but I suspect it’s partly because the way we eat most of our grains is highly processed. If you cut out grains, in a modern western diet, you also cut out doughnuts, cakes, muffins, biscuits, pastry and a whole heap of other things that we overeat. If you do that, you will almost certainly be healthier. Likewise if you eat closer to the source – raw salads, and meat and veges that you cook yourself. But it doesn’t then follow that there is some magical connection to your ancient forebears. Correlation is not causation! If you go out and hunt the fish yourself, and forage in a national park for wild roots and berries, I will pay more attention. (After I bail you out.) Pah! Nonsense. If it makes you feel healthy and happy, go for it. But don’t try to pretend its science or the second coming.

    1. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head – and when you look at it, the ‘paleo diet’ leans very heavily on modern systems and production. It also isn’t necessarily better for people, though I am sure it will help some (albeit for reasons that aren’t what they think). And, absolutely – if it works, go for it. That’s good – but I quite agree, the paleo-diet doesn’t have a scientific basis.

  8. There are so many facets to this post I almost want to write a book about it.

    I’m someone with additive allergies, and let me tell you, it’s super hard sometimes to find local food that is at least preservative & additive free (even though I’m surrounded by agriculture).

    I’d never go so far as the paleo diet – I think it is no different than Atkins, or whatever other diet/cleansing thing you choose. For the most part, I think balance is the key to feeling healthy, and being knowledgeable about what you are putting in your mouth.

    Clearly we’ve evolved since Cucu! the Neandertal, I think most definitely to a point where we can manipulate things beyond evolution, sometimes to our betterment, and sometimes to our detriment.

    Thankfully, I can still enjoy potato chips (most of them are even made in Manitoba!).

    1. I got pushed towards the paleo diet because of what looked like, but weren’t, allergies – the issue wasn’t actually that I was allergic to everything, it was to do with intolerances to a couple of additives that seem to winkle their way into an awful lot of foodstuffs.

      Took a while to track down, during the course of which I went through one bruising encounter with an ‘allergist’ whose main focus seemed to be pulverising me into submission with his ego – every time i opened my mouth he told me I was wrong, and when he found I had no allergies, he diagnosed me as having a defective personality. Sigh. I paid the guy, but he was so abusive that I did wonder about laying a formal complaint about his conduct..

      I got to the bottom of the problem later, including an allergy the ‘allergist’ had missed (I suppose he was distracted by his effort to crush my spirit) and given what was actually happening, the paleo diet wouldn’t have made a difference even if my own training in paleoanthropology hadn’t made the flaws obvious.

      You’re quite right. Balance is everything.

  9. I have to be Devil’s Advocate here and would like to point out that Neanderthal’s died out, exactly during the expansion of our own sub-species started to spread out across Europe from Africa. Therefore, stating what Neanderthal’s ate and linking it with us is a bit of a weak link, yes there were from the ‘human tree’ but not our particular sub branch. The reason we developed smaller jaws may be because we learned to use tools and so we didn’t need to chew nut shells to get at nuts. Actually, Neanderthal’s also used tools, and maybe, given time, they would have developed smaller jaws too if they hadn’t become extinct. Finally, about diet and the fabled ‘cave man diet’ the argument is that we were all hunter gatherers – not farmers. So we didn’t drink milk (lactose intolerances that people have) or eat grains and bread (gluten intolerances) because such foods were not in our cave man diets. We spent more time gathering food from the forests and had the ‘treat’ of meat and game kills which were less common than the everyday sustenance we found more regularly from the forests. Today, people are less active but they tend to programmed genetically to eat more than they need and to store fat, hence the obesity epidemic. The arguments for ‘cave man diet’ is really to eat more natural foods, free from man made junk, salt, fat, colourings, artificial additives and preservatives, and less to no foods that we didn’t eat before we became ‘farmers’ and messed around with nature. Anyway, that’s my two penneth. Interesting topic of discussion. I’ve enjoyed reading about what people think very much.

  10. Ah, the Paleo Diet. I can’t even begin to tell you how much freelance work these people have given me. I’ve edited dozens of eBooks about it. It’s interesting. I think there’s something there, as it surely makes you think about what you eat, which a lot of people don’t do, but I agree that our bodies are more equipped to what we eat these days. I certainly won’t be trying to it out. 😛

  11. I think Twilight Zone did a show on people adapted to a future of electronics. I vaguely remember thinking how great it would be to have some of those things.
    As to the “Cave Man diet”, I agree with most of what you said. I think by raw grain they meant seeds like pumpkin, sesame, sunflower, etc. A healthier diet for us now is one that has more fresh fruits and vegetables in relation to meats and fats. Also plenty of fresh water. We have too much of “polluted” foods. All those additives are not healthy, no matter what the government tries to convince you about.

  12. While I think most diets (including probably this one) are fairly poorly thought out, I’m not quite as skeptical on this one, as I think there is a point to it.

    The point would largely be that people are, even now, still more genetically inclined more towards diets that our early hunting and gathering, or subsistence farming/hunting ancestors ate than the one we’re eating now. Indeed, but quite some measure. The failure in the thesis behind this diet is that, as you note, ancestral humans lived all over, and both logic and some evidence would suggest that various cultures have evolved different in this respect. In other words, Mediterranean people, where farming has long existed, would be more adapted to a grain farming type of diet than, perhaps, Scandinavians, and so on. Therefore, in a modern world, where many people have a complicated ancestral heritage, no one diet based on an ancient one is going to be obviously the one that our DNA is demanding. So we can only take it so far, but we can take it some ways.

    FWIW, I should get credit for this diet as I accidentally lived on it before I was married. Wild game and things that came from the family garden were all that I was eating, and for one reason or another (not just diet) I was indeed lighter weight than I am now. I guess I eat a modified version of this now, as I don’t have time, sadly, to garden, but wild game and grass fed volunteers from our cattle are a major part of what we’re eating.

    1. I think one of the outcomes of a paleo style diet is that it cuts out all the additives that are poured into processed food these days. This has to be a plus as we’re certainly not geated to cope with too many of them. One of the concerns I have is the way ‘paleo’ has been commercialised. When I see sachets of factory-made ‘paleo muesli’ on sale I can’t help thinking that things have moved away from the original intent – this stuff won’t be any diffferent, really, from any other factory processed food.

      1. Paleo muesli? That is odd.

        What that illustrates, however, is the modern urban concept that you can have a natural life in a box. You can’t. A more primitive diet may in fact be good for you, but part of that is a more primitive life as well. You can’t really buy primitiveness at the grocery store, no matter how much we might want to fool ourselves.

        I think incorporating a more primitive diet, or perhaps a more natural diet, may have something to it, but then actually undergoing the type of effort that it took to sustain that diet has something to it as well. In other words, I guess, if you want to eat like a Lapp, well, you might have to live a little like a Lapp as well.

        1. I think that’s true. And I think populations do adapt, fairly quickly, to the nature of their diet – hundreds rather than thousands of years. The evidence is that humans have selected for a gene to digest cow’s milk, for instance, only since cows were domesticated.

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