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Did Cavemen Really Eat Tons of Meat? Or, Is The Paleo Diet Accurate?

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Photo by Nostepinne

In our world of near-nonstop technological advances in the farming industry, with our foods becoming more and more swollen with genetic modifications, it's a comforting notion to turn back the clock to a "more simple" past for a solution. So if you believe that our bodies are the result of millions of years of evolutionary construction -- and, at this point, if you don't, you don't know how science works -- it only makes sense we'd be predisposed to get more substantial nutritional benefits from certain ancient foods. On the surface, then, the "paleo diet" seems to make sense.

But how it's being implemented certainly doesn't.

For those who need a primer on the paleo diet, it basically means eating only the items that a "caveman" would eat, when he or she was hunting and/or gathering back in the Paleolithic era. This means grass-fed meats, veggies, fish, nuts, eggs, fruits, fungi. It also means that if someone brings you a plate of grains, dairy, potatoes, refined sugars, refined salts, or legumes, well, you can throw that plate right back in their face. Looking at the diet, then, it passes the eye test of being "healthier" than what a lot of people are currently eating. Processed foods are not good. Fruits and veggies are. Making sure your meats are grass-fed and hormone-free is certainly positive. And Dr. Atkins' long feud with carbs has seeped into popular culture long enough to where everyone just kind of presupposes bread is bad for you.

But, if you've ever spoken to someone just starting the diet -- and, frankly, it seems people are only "just starting" it, never sticking to it for long periods of time -- this kind of level-headed dieting isn't what you get. Instead, you get:

"A diet where I can have meat? Then I'll have 40 burgers to go. But remove those gross undigestible buns and, like, burn them or something because no one should ever be eating them! Thanks in advance."

Or, more succinctly:

"Meat, meat, meat, more meat please, extra meat, meat!"

But is it accurate? Did caveman really subsist on such a meat-based diet? Were they such great hunters that they just had mounds and mounds of woolly mammoth meat ready to be devoured at every meal? I posed the question to Dr. Todd Surovell, an anthropologist at the University of Wyoming.

After he tenderly explained to me that "caveman" isn't the proper terminology I should be using, he said, "As for the Paleolithic diet, there was no single 'Paleolithic Diet.' Diet in the Paleolithic was based on hunted and gathered wild foodstuffs. We know a lot more about the hunted things than gathered because animal bones preserve well in archaeological sites, while plant remains do not. So, it is difficult to know exactly what proportion of the diet would have been made up of hunted vs. gathered foods."

To get a second opinion, I posed the same line of questioning regarding the merit of a meat-heavy "paleo diet" to Dr. Jeanne E. Arnold, an anthropologist at UCLA. Her answer's a bit more blunt: "Nope, not much merit at all. People ate probably more non-meat foods than meat foods in every era in human history. It's just that plant foods don't leave as clear of a record, and male-dominated sciences focus more on male food acquisition, which is more about meat than female food tasks. You might want to look up protein poisoning, also. It can kill you."

So keep that in mind, you amateur cave-people you. Just because the paleo diet supposedly gives you carte blanche to eat as much meat as you can fit into your intestinal tract, it doesn't mean you should. That concept's so simple, even a caveman can do it. And did.

* * *
Footnote, pun intended: People who jog barefoot use the same kind of mentality as paleo-dieters -- early humans didn't have fancy shoes to help them jog, so by using them we're keeping our carefully-evolved feet from doing what they were made for -- without really considering that old, shoeless cave dwellers also didn't have to deal with things like concrete, broken glass, or the lack of hard calluses created from spending all your life barefoot. And to those who still refuse to see the distinction, I say go the whole nine yards. Rip out your indoor plumbing and just use the ol' hole in the ground from now on.

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