There is a lot more to paleo, ancestral, and primal diets than “living like cavemen”. Yes, inspiration for this way of eating comes from the way humans ate tens of thousands of years ago. But really, it’s about eating for optimal health. It’s about maximizing nutrient density so our bodies, which are so similar to those of our ancestors, have the best chance at thriving. It’s about more than just surviving from day to day. It’s about getting the most out of our lives and truly enjoying the experience of living.
The ‘caveman’ thing has become a bit of a point of contention from multiple angles. For one, it is a source of ridicule from those who think ancestral diets are comical, unhealthy, unethical, take your pick. I’m not going to address arguments about the health or ethics of a paleo diet right now. I’m confident that eating this way is health promoting, and there is plenty of anecdotal and experimental evidence for that. And I do plan to write a post at a later date about the ethics of paleo eating. But I would like to address another argument sometimes put forth by opponents of ancestral diets; namely that it is silly, unrealistic, and unnecessarily restrictive to eat like our ancestors.
First of all, yes, it’s kind of funny to imagine modern humans living in caves and hunting with spears and at the same time whiling away the hours on ipads and smartphones. It’s really easy to laugh at a caricaturization of the lifestyle, but I think that kind of misses the point. The idea is not to move back into the wilderness and become hunter-gatherers again. Rather, it’s to take a look at the way our ancestors ate and moved and apply those beneficial behaviors to our own lives whenever possible. The goal is to fit this way of eating into individual lifestyles in whatever way is most sustainable and the most health-promoting. Secondly ancestral diets are far from restrictive. The inherent goal in a true ancestral diet is nourishment, not restriction. There is an emphasis on nutrient density to support optimal function of the entire body. This often means eating a lot of really amazing and delicious food.
Additionally, just because you follow an ancestral diet doesn’t mean that you can never eat food that our ancestors didn’t eat. A paleo lifestyle is just that – a lifestyle. One which should be enjoyable and allow for some flexibility. Yes, I sometimes eat paleo treats. And no, I don’t consider them “cheats”. They are a component of a healthy, life-supporting way of being. I’m not “cheating” on a diet or anything else by enjoying these foods. I’m just living, and enjoying some food every once in a while that may not be ‘optimal’ is part of that.
I do choose continue to consume paleo-ified treats rather than conventional ones, because I have found that avoiding things like gluten and large amounts of refined sugar keeps me from getting sick and having autoimmune flare-ups. That is my choice though, and in my experience, most people who consider themselves paleo, primal, etc. won’t kick you off the paleo bus if you enjoy a piece of birthday cake or slice of pizza every once in a while.
Another occasional point of contention comes from the fact that there is a great deal of discussion and some disagreement within the paleo community about what ancestral diets were composed of, the availability of different foods, whether humans fasted intermittently, etc. By extension, there are varied proclamations about what, when, and how we should be eating.
But here’s the thing: we don’t know exactly what our ancestors ate. We can speculate until the cows come home about macronutrient ratios, year-round availability of meat, and prevalence of root vegetables. But as far as I’m concerned, none of that really matters. I don’t care all that much if I eat exactly what my ancestors did. What do I care about is eating food that makes me feel good and helps me thrive. I know from experience that for my body, that is most definitely not a ketogenic diet, or even low-carb. But no matter what, it is real, whole food. Everyone is different and does best on diets with varying macronutrient composition. Someone else may do amazingly well on a ketogenic diet. Some of that variation is based on activity level, some is the result of stress, and some just stems from body uniqueness (it’s a beautiful thing). But I think you would be hard pressed to find a single person who doesn’t thrive on a diet of vegetables, fruits, and ethically treated pasture-raised meat.
And beyond that, we do have a pretty good idea of what our ancestors didn’t eat. They weren’t hunting down twinkies or harvesting twix bars. They also probably didn’t drink soda from nearby mountain streams. Perhaps most importantly, we know that we don’t thrive on these foods now. A caveperson’s diet may not tell us the ‘perfect’ way of eating. And, again, the point isn’t to precisely mimic that diet, but it offers a pretty dang good template.
Besides, sometimes I kind of like the idea of escaping into the wilderness. The huckleberries and chanterelles are looking mighty tasty out there right about now 🙂