Should we really aspire to eat like cavemen?

Has our body not yet caught up with our modern diet? Credit: UNSW Sydney/Ian Joson

“Ancestral” diets like the paleo diet are hugely popular in Australia, but experts from UNSW Sydney and the Australian Museum have questions.

What happens when you take a caveman out of the cave and drop him off at a fast food restaurant?

Some scientists say we experience this in modern society. We evolved into a hunter-gatherer diet during the Paleolithic era, a period from about 2.6 million years ago to about 10,000 BC. Our bodies are not yet accustomed to agriculturally produced and highly processed foods, with serious health consequences such as high blood pressure, clogged arteries and type 2 diabetes.

This idea fuels the current craze for ancestral diets, encouraging us to replicate the dietary choices of our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors. The paleo diet is the most popular variation; in a 2022 survey by Finder, 8% of Australians said they planned to try it.

“I think the paleo diet is a popular trend these days due to the high prevalence of processed foods. Many people see it as an unhealthy choice and therefore seek to eat less processed foods,” says Lachlan Hart, who undertakes his thesis. .D. in Vertebrate Palaeontology at UNSW Science and the Australian Museum.

Ancient diets generally recommend eating plenty of lean meats, seafood, fruits and vegetables, and avoiding grains and processed foods. Dairy products are only allowed if they are raw and not pasteurized or otherwise processed.

“In some ways, the so-called primal or ancestral diets are no different from the Australian Dietary Guidelines. They recommend limiting discretionary foods such as biscuits, cakes, pastries, soft drinks, processed meats and other processed products “, explains Associate Professor Sara Grafenauer. , who is an accredited practicing dietitian and researcher at UNSW Medicine & Health.

“But there are also issues with primal diets that people may not understand.”

Some experts question the principle of ancestral diets. How did people actually eat in Paleolithic times? And is the reproduction of these diets beneficial to us?

Decoding ancient diets

Hart says researchers can understand a lot about ancient humans from the fossil and archaeological record. Analyzing human remains, as well as the tools and objects surrounding them, can reveal information about their diet and health.

“There is direct evidence of human eating that we can see in the fossil and archaeological record. This includes tools that would have been used for eating, animal bones with marks from these tools (as evidence of butchery) “, microwear on hominid teeth, and trace elements (isotopes) present in tooth enamel and changes in brain size, which could indicate diet,” says Hart.

However, according to Fran Dorey, head of exhibitions at the Australian Museum, there is a major misunderstanding about ancestral diets.

“We get a lot of questions at the museum: people asking us to explain what a paleo diet is from an archaeological perspective. And we are faced with several fundamental misconceptions,” says Dorey, who holds a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in Archeology and Palaeontology from the University of Sydney.

Various food sources

“There is no one-size-fits-all Paleolithic diet,” says Dorey.

“First of all, the Paleolithic covers a period of millions of years. And the human diet during that period was incredibly diverse, depending on where they lived, the time of year and what who was available.”

When most people imagine a caveman’s diet, they think of meat and animal products (often raw), with few fruits, vegetables, and grains. However, researchers have found that this is only true for certain groups of humans, from time to time.

“There were certain groups where red meat was a very important part of their diet, generally those who were far from the oceans and did not have access to fish and other seafood… But that changed from season to season to another. Perhaps the diet was 70% meat at one time, with animals migrating through the region, then this figure drops to 20% at other times of the year.” , explains Dorey.

Food safety

Some ancestral diets recommend eating raw meat and unpasteurized dairy products, which can pose a food safety risk, according to Grafenauer.

“Unpasteurized dairy products are not something the normal consumer can just go and buy at the supermarket. Our dairy products are pasteurized to protect us from potential bacteria,” says Grafenauer.

“As food scientists and dietitians, we recognize that some foods need to be processed to be safe to eat… What people don’t understand is that when cavemen ate raw foods, this sometimes made them very ill.”

Another popular part of the ancestral diet is liver, rich in vitamins and minerals. However, liver can also be toxic in large quantities due to its high vitamin A content.

“Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, stored in our fatty tissues. If we have too much of it in our diet, for example by eating a lot of liver, we can’t get rid of it easily. And too much vitamin A can make you very sick,” says Grafenauer.

Evolving bodies

According to Dorey, our bodies did not freeze in time, at the end of the Paleolithic. Our bodies have evolved with our lifestyles, which means there is no need to exclude “farmed” foods like grains and dairy.

“Genetically, we are not the same as humans were 10,000 years ago. A significant number of genetic mutations have occurred across the planet, and many of them relate to our ability to digest milk and wheat,” says Dorey. .

“We know that in some areas humans consumed milk and wheat, as well as other grains, in significant quantities, even during the Neolithic period, before agriculture became the norm.”

Grains can not only be digested by modern humans, but can also provide important health benefits.

“Ancestral diets discourage grains, regardless of their quality… But my research shows that whole grains can help prevent diseases like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” says Grafenauer.

“We have also conducted other research showing that eating whole grains may help prevent cancers, particularly bowel cancer… Whole grains may boost antioxidant activity in the gut and help prevent carcinogenic activity.”

Missing piece of the puzzle

Ancient dieters are obsessed with food, but that’s only one aspect of a healthy lifestyle.

“One of the reasons our ancestors were so ‘healthy’ is that they didn’t go to the store to buy food. They wandered, hunted and gathered. The energy they spent just on Getting their food was part of the health benefits,” Dorey says.

“They didn’t sit around all day. And that’s an incredibly important part of history that gets overlooked all the time.”

Maybe health and fitness gurus will eventually catch on and try exercising like humans did in Paleolithic times. Caveman-themed CrossFit, anyone?

Provided by the University of New South Wales

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