Paleo and Modern Diets: Differences and Take Aways

What Did the Cavemen (and Women) Eat and How it Compares to Now

Paleo Food on the Grill
Paleo Food on the Grill. Brian Lestart/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Paleolithic people were hunter-gatherers. As low-carb dieters, we're less interested in how they made a living, and more in how they eat while making it. All their food came from what they could hunt and find around them. For most of the period, most of the cultures tended to be nomadic, following food sources and never settling for too long because of it.

After Paleo: The Neolithic Age and What it Meant for Their Diet

The period after the Paleolithic period is called the Neolithic, which began approximately 10,000 years ago.

At this point, agriculture made it possible for people to settle in one place. People’s lives became more sedentary, although still active by today's standards. Especially, people started growing sources of starch, especially grains, which could be stored. Another big innovation in the later part of the Neolithic period was the development of pottery, which made it easier to cook and transport staple foods. This greatly affected their diet. Writers espousing Paleolithic diets point to evidence regarding both prehistoric people and more recent hunter-gatherer populations that agriculture increased chronic diseases such as heart disease in these populations.

How do Eating Patterns and Nutrition Vary Between Paleolithic and Modern Times?

There are a number of major differences between our diets and those of the "cavemen."

Paleo vs. Modern Diets: Types of Foods

Early on, before fire was controlled, only food which could be eaten raw was consumed.

This ruled out grains, legumes, and some tubers such as potatoes. Even when early people started to use fire to cook food, they were mainly limited to roasting or toasting it. Besides meat, a few roasted nuts or grains by the fire were pretty much all they ate. Additionally, before animals were domesticated (around 5,000 to 6,000 years ago) milk and dairy products were not consumed.

Obviously, any refined sugars other than occasional honey, or any processed foods, were totally out.

Paleo vs. Modern Diets: Protein

What exactly was eaten by early people clearly varied according to geography, but most of the diets are thought to be at least half animal foods (including insects), and many up to 70 percent food of animal origin. Gathering enough plant food to support highly active people simply wouldn't have been feasible in most places.

Great Big Leafy Greens

Despite this, large amounts of vegetation were consumed; some estimates are that in many areas early humans ate up to 6 pounds of greens per day. This is a lot of greens -- about a grocery-bag full, but this produces only about 400 to 700 calories. However, the nutrient load of those greens is huge, producing many times the minimum daily requirement of most vitamins and minerals. Of course, other parts of plants were eaten, including nuts and fruit, though we probably couldn't recognize the ancestors of the sugary fruit we eat today.

Fats

A key difference that has been identified between Paleolithic Diets and today's standard diet is the difference in the types of fats we consume:

  • We consume far less omega-3 fat. This is the type of fat we commonly think of as being in oily fish and flax seeds, but it turns out that game meats contain more omega-3 fat than domesticated animals. Greens also contain this type of fat -- in small amounts to be sure, but many early people ate a LOT of greens. (Probably the reason game meats have more omega-3 fats is because they eat greens.)
  • We consume more saturated fat. When we fatten up our cattle on grain and corn, we increase the amount of saturated fat in the meat. Early people ate more fish in many places, as they would have had to be near a water supply. Much of our saturated fat comes from dairy products, which Paleolithic people didn't eat.
  • We consume more omega-6 fat. One of the big points that authors of paleo-diets make is that our consumption of omega-6 fats has skyrocketed at the same time that the amount of omega-3 fats has declined. This is mainly due to the large amount of soybean oil and seed oils such as corn oil in our diets.
  • There is mounting evidence that this decrease of omega-3 fats along with the increase of omega 6 fats contributes to the inflammation that underlies many of our modern chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis.

The Truth Behind How Much Paleo Eaters Ate

  • Protein - Estimates are that the diets of these early people was about 20 to 35 percent protein. Paleo diet authors recommend high protein diets, usually at the upper end of this range.
  • Fiber - Although this varied greatly by geography and season, most Paleo people ate high fiber diets, of up to 100 to 200 grams of fiber. (The warmer the climate, the more plant food and fiber.)
  • Glycemic Load - There is no disputing the fact that Paleolithic people ate a diet that was far less glycemic than today's diet. Carbohydrate probably contributed about 20 to 40 percent of the calories, and none of it was processed sugars and grains.
  • Vitamin and Mineral Consumption - It seems that the foods that have been added since those early days have mainly served to dilute the nutrient concentration in our diets. Grains are not very nutrient dense compared with vegetables, meat, and seafood, while added sugars and most cooking oils are devoid of nutrients.
  • Food Variety - Most Paleolithic people are said to have eaten over 100 different species of food on an annual basis. Most people do not achieve this in today's world, and yet we know that an assortment of food, especially a variety of fruits and vegetables, is one of the basic tenants of a healthy balanced diet.
  • Amount of Salt - We surely eat more salt now. Loren Cordain feels that the altered ratio of potassium to sodium is important.

Bottom Line

The simple truth is there's no easy way to compare how we eat now and how people in the Paleolithic period ate. Not only were the same foods not readily available, but their lifestyle, life span and methods of cooking were markedly different leaving a "hole" of sorts in trying to come up with similarities in such a different time and space for humans.

Continue Reading