5000 years ago harvesting and replanting a handful of wild seeds seemed like a great idea. It provided predictable food supplies that involved less running around, and the big mammals were probably getting increasingly rare through over-hunting. Skip forward to present day and that handful of seeds have been cultivated into a handful of staple crops that now account for the bulk of our diets, while the foods that we are genetically adapted to eat form an increasingly small component. We are also very aware that our modern diets are not doing us much good.
So what is it to eat like a caveman? Firstly it does not involve Mammoth burgers or exclusively raw meat. The aim of the Paleo diet is to create a diet that is recognised and digested by the body in the same way as the diet that we are evolved to eat. Some people say “if a caveman didn’t eat it, neither should you”. Cavemen didn’t drink smoothies, nor did they all have access to a limitless supply of coconuts. Really we are talking about avoiding or cutting down on food groups that were not around 10,000 years ago, or that have been so heavily cultivated as to be unrecognisable. That means
- NO grains, including the “pseudo-grains” – no wheat, barley, rye, oats, quinoa, amaranth, rice, buckwheat, millet, teff, corn.
- NO refined sugars or artificial sweeteners
- NO dairy (except ghee but we’ll get on to that later)
- NO legumes – beans, pulses etc
- NO potatoes – opinion is split on this one. Modern potatoes are basically nutritional empty balls of starch. Eat sweet potaoes instead.
- NO alcohol – a tough one. The Ugg family probably got hammered at certain festivals, but everyday alcohol was not available.
- NO processed anything
The good news is that you can eat as much as you like of anything else.
- LOTS of vegetables
- Meat and fish – try to eat as broad a variety as possible
- Good fats – saturated fat is fine, so cook with coconut oil, ghee or duck fat. Use olive oil or nut oils on salads
- Natural sweeteners – honey, maple syrup, but in moderation
A typical meal on the Paleo diet would involve some protein, whether a piece of meat or fish, a handful of nuts or couple of eggs, a tablespoon of healthy fat from coconut oil, ghee, olive oil or avocado, and a whole heap of vegetables. Again, as broad a selection as possible.
The Paleo diet is really about eating simple, nutritious foods. It is about avoiding processed foods and refined sugar. It is about eating less grains, less dairy products and drinking less alcohol. It is about a eating a broad variety of vegetables, fruit, nuts, meat and fish. For a diet that is often portrayed as wacky, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly way out about that.
A note on ghee. So let me get this right, I can’t eat dairy but I can cook with ghee? As I said, the Paleo diet is about creating a metabolically similar diet to a pre-agricultural one. It so happens that ghee is solid animal fat, which our caveman ancestors would have eaten a lot of, and it has the problematic milk proteins and sugars removed. So while dairy products like milk and cheese can cause digestive problems for some people, ghee is generally well tolerated by everyone, and is a great oil to cook at high temperatures with as it does not form deadly trans-fats.