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Just the name of the caveman diet — also known as the paleo diet — conjures up images of burly, masculine men, savagely hunting wild beasts and gorging themselves on wild game roasted over open flames. However, this do-it-yourself diet doesn't mean chasing down deer that wander into your backyard.
Unlike other willpower-fueled diets, the caveman diet takes a more animalistic, primitive approach to eating, which involves enjoying food and feasting. Some proponents of the diet argue that the calorie counting found in many other diets is against man's primal instincts.
The caveman diet concentrates on foods similar to those that were available during the Paleolithic era, which lasted from about 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago. In other words, foods that humans ate prior to farming and domesticated animals — and eons before food processing.
There are many different versions of the caveman diet and there is no one official plan. Generally, the goals of all caveman diets are to train your body to crave foods high in nutrition (and void of sugars, salts, and dairy products), and to teach you to thoroughly enjoy your food through eating with your hands and taking time to savor each meal.
Some plans, in addition to promoting “paleo” foods, include instructions for intermittent fasting. Caveman diets that advocate this practice believe it helps the body detox and mimics our ancestors’ decreased and inconsistent access to food. Here is an example of one caveman diet plan with built-in fasts, called the caveman power diet:
Most caveman diets also promote daily physical activity.
The caveman diet isn’t about shedding a few pounds to look better naked. It’s a full-life, holistic approach. This diet claims it will help you get rid of unwanted fat, cleanse the body of built-up toxins, sharpen the mind, and provide a deeper connection to your body's primal, inner being.
One of the biggest health benefits of the caveman diet is that it shuns salt, sugar, processed foods, and other ingredients that are commonly overconsumed by Americans. The core of the diet emphasizes foods that are very nutritious: lean meats, raw vegetables, large volumes of water, and raw fruits and nuts.
On the other hand, the diet entirely excludes a large category of food — starches, like legumes and grains — as well as dairy products. Long-term effects of insufficient intake of carbohydrates and calcium can lead to deficiencies in vital minerals and nutrients. Although detoxing is only one small selling point of this diet, it’s important to note that detox diets have little scientific support. Your kidneys and liver already do an incredible job of filtering any toxins you consume.
Plans that feature intermittent fasting may be difficult for some people to manage and maintain for such a long time. Imagine how hard it would be to regularly avoid brunches and lunches with friends and family to stick to your diet. Eating one meal per day stands in contrast to most other weight loss diets that suggest several small meals and snacks to keep metabolism at its peak.
Lastly, this plan can be expensive, since it promotes eating organic, natural foods — such as grass-fed and wild-caught meats — which tend to cost more than other options.
The pros and cons of the diet depend on the extremes to which a person takes it. It’s a fairly open-ended diet and people can abuse the loose guidelines that allow them to eat whatever amount of food they want.
The diet encourages weaning the body off of salt, sugar, processed foods, and other harmful ingredients that lead to pervasive obesity in American culture. The focus on natural, healthy foods is one that doesn't follow the normal stereotype of "fad" diets, and it promotes overall nutritional simplicity. This diet also advocates the importance of being physically active, a crucial part of a healthy lifestyle. Some studies have backed up the caveman diet’s potential to help with weight loss. A review presented at the American Public Health Association annual meeting examined seven studies of paleo-style diets and found that these plans resulted in more significant weight loss than other diets, specifically when the research involved short trials lasting three to 15 months.
Due to the complete elimination of certain carbohydrates and dairy, it may be hard for some people to stick with the caveman diet for a long time. Sure, your body may crave healthy food, but that doesn't mean you won't also be tempted by the occasional cheeseburger.
One main issue with this diet is its premise: the idea that our bodies are evolutionarily primed to eat the foods our ancestors ate tens or even hundreds of thousands of years ago. In reality, we simply aren’t biologically identical to humans that lived 10,000-plus years ago — and the same goes for even the most organic food we have available to us. Even if this were the case, we don’t really know what people ate back then. Human species were spread all over the globe even back then, and were eating a variety of diets. We have only a vague idea of what foods they had, how much they ate, or how often. Another caution about the caveman diet applies to any diet that eliminates entire foods groups (grains and dairy in this case): Such plans run a strong risk of being unbalanced and low in certain important nutrients.
All this being said, the hunter-gatherer vibe of the diet could appeal to men who want to tap into their inner warrior as an inspiration to better their health.
Written by: Brian Krans
Medically reviewed on: Mar 23, 2016: Tara Gidus, MS, RD, CSSD, LD/N
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