Nutrition Column – Paleolithic Diets: New Age or Stone Age?

Is the secret to healthy eating locked in the Stone Age? According to some authorities on Paleolithic (prehistoric) diets, modern diets are out of sync with our genetic requirements and we need to go back to eating the way our Stone Age ancestors did some 40,000 years ago.

During the Paleolithic Era, people were hunter-gatherers, meaning they hunted animals and gathered plant foods to eat. They did not have access to cultivated grains or legumes and didn’t consume milk past weaning. While the ratio of meats to plants that were consumed varied with geographic location, climate and season, people living during this era are thought to have consumed a fairly high calorie, high protein diet. Because they mostly hunted and gathered by foot, they were very active, often faced peril and did not have a long average life span.

With the spread of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, people shifted from nomadic groups to relatively stable and larger societies that tended animals and cultivated fields for food. No longer needing to rely totally on hunting and gathering, people began consuming grain products, meat from domesticated animals and milk and milk products like yogurt and cheese. They also became somewhat less active, but still worked hard tending fields and herds.

In the past 100 years, our diet has changed even more dramatically. Beginning around 1900, whole grains became routinely refined, removing much of the fiber and trace minerals in the resulting product. Also, refined sugar started to become commonplace. Over the past 40 years, we’ve seen even more dramatic changes in our diets, with our growing reliance on fast foods, super-sizing, liquid calories and highly processed foods. We’ve also seen activity levels reach an all-time low and obesity rates reach an all-time high. While our life expectancy has continued to climb during the past 100 years thanks in part to modern medicine and better sanitation, we also have seen increases in the incidence of chronic diseases, particularly those related to obesity.

Would we be better off eating what our Paleolithic ancestors ate? That’s really not a fair question. Even if we wanted to return to their eating and living lifestyle, there simply isn’t enough wild game, fish and plants available for the 275 million of us to hunt and gather in the U.S. And luckily, this isn’t an issue as we do have a stable and plentiful food supply, thanks to domesticated animals and cultivated grain, legumes, vegetables and fruits.

Still, there is much we could learn from the diets and activity patterns of our Paleolithic- and Agriculture-era ancestors. This includes eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, selecting whole-grained bread and cereal products over highly refined ones when possible, choosing lean meat, fish and seafood over high-fat types, choosing low-fat dairy products without added sugars and, above all, remaining active.