When you think of cavemen, what do you picture? Loincloths made out of animal skins? Dinosaurs? Maybe even the Geico commercials. But do you think of health? Do you think of a diet that could help us prevent many of the most debilitating modern-day diseases and conditions?
Turns out, you should.
The Evolution of Diet
According to a 2006 study, the changes in our diet today have occurred at a faster rate (evolutionarily speaking) than at any other point in time. So fast, in fact, that our genes have not had a chance to catch up, meaning that, from a biological standpoint, our genes are still adapted to the diet of our Paleolithic relatives.
See, scientists have calculated that there have been four stages of evolution for the human diet:
- Miocene to early Pleistocene era
- Paleolithic era
- Neolithic era
- Industrial Revolution
In the first stage, the diet consisted of foliage, leafy vegetables, fruits, and some nuts and seeds. During the Paleolithic era, man discovered fire and their diet began to include lean meat (game food) and seafood.
Ten thousand years later, during the Neolithic era, agriculture was introduced. This meant grains, legumes, vegetable oils and dairy products. This diet was high in fiber, vegetable-based protein and plant sterols.
But, over the past 200 years, the Industrial Revolution has made the most significant and profound changes. During the past two centuries, we’ve introduced hydrogenated oils, refined grains and sugar, packaged foods and fast foods. Instead of relying on whole grains, legumes, lean meats and fish, and leafy greens and veggies, we’ve turned to saturated fats, dietary cholesterol and high-glycemic carbohydrate sources.
Given this, researchers from Canada and Jordan questioned if a return to the Paleolithic diet, or Paleo diet, could restore health and prevent disease.
The Caveman Comparison
A 2003 World Health Organization report found a link between diet and obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and osteoporosis. Old news, right?
Here’s what’s really old. Our Paleo ancestors subsisted on things they could either hunt or gather. This meant game food or seafood, as well as nuts, seeds, fruits, and leafy vegetables. Add in our Neolithic relatives and you include dairy products, whole grains, and legumes.
Today, less than 8 percent of our diet consists of fruits and vegetables, just 3 percent comes from legumes, nuts or soy, and less than 1 percent comes from fish, for a total of less than 11 percent of the diet coming from these food groups. 
So where does the rest come from? Meat and poultry take up nearly 13 percent, while nearly 9 percent comes from dairy products. So that’s another 21-22 percent, for a total of only 33 percent of our diet, at best, mimicking our ancestor’s fare. So where does the other two-thirds come from?
In the middle of the grocery store. Turns out, grains, sugar, and fats and oil comprise more than 65 percent of the modern diet.
Is it any wonder we are sick, fat, and tired?
Given this breakdown in diet, it should come as no surprise that the Paleo diet contained more vitamins and minerals than the modern diet. The macro nutrient breakdown also shows that the Paleo diet had about 37 percent protein, 41 percent carbohydrates (from fruit and vegetables mainly), and 22 percent from fat.
The modern diet has 50 percent of its calories coming from carbohydrates (mainly refined grains and other high-glycemic foods), 35 percent from fat, and a mere 15 percent from protein.
When you factor in the Neolithic era, the amount of micronutrients in our ancestors’ diets also skyrockets. They were packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which we know have been shown to decrease our risk for heart disease.
They were also high in polyphenols, often from teas and olive oil. We’ve seen that tea consumption (both green and black) has been correlated with prevention of cancer, heart disease, diabetes/weight gain, and even osteoporosis. And you cannot even have a conversation about the health benefits of olive oil without mentioning its heart-protective benefits.
Our ancient relatives’ diet was also rich in fiber. Fiber has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, especially colon cancer.
Finally, the Paleo/Neolithic diet was high in plant sterols. As the name suggests, plant sterols are found in plant foods and have a structure similar to cholesterol. As such, research has shown that plant sterols help to lower LDL cholesterol.They have also been found to possibly prevent cancer.
This all sounds like a great endorsement for the Paleo diet, right? Well, sort of. See, one of the things the researchers found is that this type of diet is low in a few critical nutrients, namely calcium and vitamin D. Of course, they quickly note that our ancestors were in the sun doing this hunting and gathering, so vitamin D was likely less of an issue. So that leaves us with calcium.
If you would like to give the Paleo diet a try, you’ll need to keep a few things in mind. First, you’ll need to supplement with a good calcium/magnesium product. You’ll also want to add in a vitamin D3 supplement. Aim for 2,000 IU a day.
The next big consideration is your meat and fish sources. Our ancestors ate mostly game food, which was wild (of course) rather than farmed and was considerably lower in fat than our domestic meats. Given this, you’ll want to limit your meat consumption to three to four days a week. Choose wild, free-range, and/or grass-fed meats.
Finally, when it comes to fish and seafood, our waters were much cleaner 10,000 years ago than they are now. That means the Paleos didn’t have the mercury issues we see today. Therefore, limit your fish intake to no more than two to three days a week and opt for low-mercury, wild fish and seafood.
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