Hidden Dangers of the Paleolithic Diet

The Paleolithic diet and its imitators make an assertion that the reason why modern people is so fat and unhealthy is that the food we eat is bad for us, unsuited to the body that our ancestors evolved by consuming the foods they enjoyed during primitive times.

But there’s an important fact they don’t put in their advertising: the life expectancy of our prehistoric ancestors was about 25 years of age, with only about a quarter of individuals living past age 40, and even by the time of their death, they faced many serious health problems, some of which were related to their diets.

The Lies of the Paleolithic Diet

There are many lies that often get thrown into the mix when it comes to promoting the Paleolithic diet, but among them are two chief ones: our ancestors ate a lot of meat, and cooking is a relatively recent innovation in how we prepare food. Both of these lies are used to promote the problems of the modern diet and encourage people to “eat like a cave man.” But the truth is that humans have only intermittently eaten meat in large quantities. Cooking has been a part of how humans eat for perhaps two million years, and, at any rate, since before we became modern humans.

The Dangers of a Diet High in Meat

If you want to look at the evolution of our digestive systems, it’s clear that for most of our evolution, plants have made up the bulk of our diet. Most of our evolutionary ancestors ate mostly plants, and even Neanderthals, the poster children for the cave man diet, actually ate a lot of plants. When human ancestors did eat a lot of meat, it was likely because other foods were in short supply.

But, perhaps you’re prepared to junk all that stuff about how our bodies are adapted to the diet of cave men and say that a high-meat diet is best for us anyway. Unfortunately, that’s not what the science says. Research shows that there are many risks that come along with eating a diet high in animal proteins, including cancer, cataracts, liver and kidney problems, osteoporosis, heart disease and overall risk of death.

The Dangers of a Raw Food Diet

The other major tenet of many Paleolithic diets is that cooked food is bad, and we should eat as much of our food raw as possible. However, there is evidence that people began cooking their food 2 million years ago, before the rise of Homo erectus, and nearly two million years before the appearance of H. sapiens. At a minimum, undisputed evidence of cooking is a million years old. As a result, our jaws have adapted away from the need to develop themselves into grinders that would be used for nearly half of our waking hours crunching food into an organ dedicated primarily to the purposes of speech.

When people spend a lot of time chewing raw food, they subject their teeth and their jaws to substantial occlusal stress. This stress of the teeth against food and against each other results in significant, damaging wear on the teeth and significant damage and deterioration of the jaw joint, the temporomandibular joint. This can result in temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ). Although only about 10% of modern populations currently suffer this condition, it was as high as 67% in some Neolithic populations where significant amounts of raw food were consumed.

Malnutrition and Cave Men

Finally, it’s worth noting that there was another big problem in the way our cavemen ancestors ate: they often couldn’t get enough. In foraging populations, whether ancient or modern, signs of malnutrition are common in nearly 40% of individuals. In modern populations, on the other hand, malnutrition affects less than 2.5% of the population, predominantly children of low income families.

Whatever else may be said about the modern diet, it’s clear that at least one thing is sure: in the West we have largely banished hunger and famine. And, truthfully, the primary cause of our health problems is not that the food is bad for us, but that it’s got too much of many good things, such as sugars, fats, and proteins. It’s true that as a society, we are desperately in need of a diet, but perhaps not the Paleolithic one.

Dr. Matthew B. Candelaria

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Dr. Matthew B. Candelaria (PhD, U of Kansas 2006) is a freelance writer who works in a variety of science- and law-related fields, with special emphasis on medical and environmental topics. He is also an award-winning science fiction author and critic. He can be reached for hire or for comment at www.writermc.com.
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