Ghosts of Diets Past: Resurrect Them, or Leave Them Lie?

Maybe you are dressing up like a caveman for Halloween, but that doesn’t mean you have to eat like one.  Lately the ghost of ancient diets have been getting resurrected in modern meals, but is there actually merit in eating like it’s 1999 (B.C.)?  We break down the caveman diet, more formally known as the Paleo Diet, and whether it should impact your food choices. 

Let’s take a little history lesson and review what the “caveman” diet focused on.  Since we are talking thousands of years ago, think hunting, gathering, and fishing.  The “do eat” list consists of fruits, vegetables, eggs, grass-fed meats, fish, nuts, and seeds.  At first glance, this sounds like a great diet.  On second thought, your “don’t eat” list consists of grains (yes, including whole grains), legumes, and dairy.   Do you want the good news or the bad news first?Caveman Save the Legumes

The good news is that there are benefits to eating like a caveman.  Fruits, vegetables, meats, and nuts are filled with tons of health benefits, from protein for healthy muscles to vitamins for reduced risk of some diseases.

Okay, now the bad news.  Remember hearing about that super helpful tool called MyPlate?  Dairy and grains are essential for a healthful and well-balanced diet.  I couldn’t understand why a diet plan would cut these food groups out.

The Paleo diet suggests that whole grains are not an ideal source of fiber and nutrients.  This is completely unfounded.  Whole grains are loaded with fiber and B vitamins that are essential for metabolism and immune system functions.   Dairy products, including milk and cheese, are excellent sources of potassium, calcium, and vitamin D.  Although it is most healthful to have low-fat dairy sources, these nutrients are needed to make strong bones!

The Paleo diet also excludes items such as chickpeas, lentils, peanuts, quinoa, and soy because our ancestors didn’t consume them.  This has me really concerned about vegetarian eaters on Paleo, whose main plant-based protein sources just went out the window! 

In 2014, there are a plethora of reasons why the caveman diet is simply not necessary or beneficial.  Not only has our environment advanced, but so has the human body.  We are able to refrigerate and preserve food items, so we don’t need to choose our foods based on how long they keep, like our ancestors did.

Cavemen want the us dietThe cavemen didn’t have the fabulous nutritional research that we enjoy.  We now know there is no reason to make a food item or group a villain.  Unless you have a specific health condition that requires a specialized diet, there’s no reason to eliminate any food completely. It all comes down to balance.  And quite frankly, whole grains, legumes, and dairy should definitely not be “banned” foods on anyone’s list!

Looking even further, keeping up with such a restrictive diet can be expensive and may not be realistic for building lifelong habits. 

Maybe we are still hunting, gathering, and fishing.  We gather our credit card, hunt down the aisles of the grocery store, and fish for the convenient options.  But life was very different thousands of years ago. Don’t be spooked by modern food, and leave the “ghosts” of our diets past alone.

This article was authored for Food Insight by Rayna Herskowitz, @RaynaHerskowitz, a University of Maryland Dietetic Intern.

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