Did cavemen eat better than we do? While they didn't have the most glamorous lifestyle-- they were at the mercy of the land and the beasts around them, after all, and were without the comforts of modern cuisine -- they also didn't have access to processed foods, and their activity levels were closer to those of a marathon runner than a desk job commuter.
The soil that produced their food was rich and nutrient-dense, loading the berries, leaves, nuts, seeds and root vegetables they ate with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals in quantities that we might only dream of today. And when prehistoric humans hunted and ate wild game, they didn't have to worry about hormones or pesticides, and the fatty acid profile of the meat was more favourable than modern livestock.
But aside from these factors, many of which were by-products of living conditions that simply don't exist anymore, is there anything about the way we ate 10,000 years ago that simply worked better for us, perhaps on a genetic level? This is a question of growing interest to researchers, and the answers might bring bows and arrows back into style.
PALEOLITHIC EATING, DEFINED
To put it simply, eating a paleolithic diet means choosing only foods (or types of foods) that were available on Earth before the advent of agriculture. That means sticking to a diet of fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, nuts, seeds and tubers (root vegetables), while eschewing grains, dairy and all other processed foods. For true believers in this way of eating, game and fish should be wild, not farmed, as grass and algae-raised meats tend to have higher amounts of omega-3 fats and less saturated fat than their corn or grain-fed alternatives. Eating with your hands -- naked except for a carefully placed loincloth -- is optional, of course.
CHANNELLING INNER CAVEMEN: THE GOOD
According to Swedish researchers, eating a paleolithic diet might help improve the health of type 2 diabetics. In their study, published in the July issue of Cardiovascular Diabetology, subjects who consumed a paleolithic diet for three months weighed an average of three kilograms (6.6 pounds) less and had smaller waistlines. The subjects also had better control of blood sugars, lower triglycerides (a type of fat circulating in the blood that is related to heart disease) and lower blood pressure than subjects who consumed a traditional diabetic diet for the same amount of time.
But what if the results were simply a function of the weight loss? That's what researchers from San Francisco set out to resolve in a separate study published last month. After placing nine non-obese volunteers on a paleolithic diet specially designed to prevent weight loss, subjects saw significant improvements in their blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and produced less insulin (a marker of blood sugar control, among other things) than when they ate their usual diet -- and all this after only 10 days.
Aside from the clinical data, many researchers believe that eating a paleolithic diet also makes sense on a genetic level. After all, they argue, humans evolved between roughly 2.6 million years ago and 10,000 years ago, after which our genome has changed little. While our eating patterns shifted substantially with the advent of agriculture (and even more in the past few decades), our genes are born of something much older, and are unaccustomed to much of what is sold in the modern supermarket.