Caveman Diet Not Optimal
The predominant role of meat and animal protein in the diets of many modern day hunter-gatherers has been used by some to argue that the ancestral diet of humans was high in meat and animal protein and so this is the diet to which human beings became genetically adapted. In addition, they note that cardiovascular (CVD) disease is far less common in modern day hunter-gatherer populations eating a lot of meat than it is in people eating a typical modern diet higher in carbohydrate and lower in protein.
They argue "This dietary approach to reducing dyslipidemia and preventing CVD is consistent with the dietary macro-nutrient patterns found in the native diet of virtually all hunter-gatherer societies - societies which are relatively free of CVD and its symptoms."1 They sound almost like the late Robert Atkins, MD when they conclude their review by claiming: "The high reliance upon animal-based foods would not have necessarily elicited unfavorable blood lipid profiles because of the hypolipidemic effects of high dietary protein (19-35% energy) and the relatively low level of dietary carbohydrate (22-40% energy)." 2
First off, the claim that man evolved on a high-meat and low-carbohydrate diet ignores the fact that our closest biological relatives (chimpanzees and the other great apes) eat a diet with relatively little animal protein. The human gut and dentures appear biologically designed to eat a largely plant-based diet rather than a largely carnivorous diet. Certainly, for most of the several millions years it took for our ancient hominin ancestors to evolve into modern day humans their diet was likely largely vegetarian with only a modest amounts of animal protein.3
Secondly, the relatively low incidence of CVD among modern day hunter gatherers compared to modern Americans is likely not due to its high lean meat content. The fact that they are more active, much thinner, didn't smoke, and ate unprocessed foods low in salt and rich in fiber and other beneficial phytochemicals likely explains their lower incidence of CVD. These differences would result in a lot less CVD even if their total cholesterol and LDL levels were above what is physiologically normal for optimal health.
Indeed, when middle-aged Australian Aborigines consuming a modern diet reverted to living off the land for 7 weeks they experienced marked metabolic improvements despite eating a diet high in animal protein. They all got rid of their hypertension and their average BMI dropped from 27.2 to 24.5. Most were diabetic and they experienced marked improvement in their fasting blood glucose and triglyceride levels. Nevertheless, their HDL level dropped and their LDL level actually increased.4
More recently a group of younger (20-40 years of age) men and women in Sweden were fed either a Paleolithic-like diet consisting of a lot of lean meat, vegetables and fruits, but no grains, beans, refined sugar or dairy products. While both diets were fed ad libitum those on the "caveman" diet consumed fewer calories (1,584 vs. 2,478) and 52% less saturated fat but 68% more cholesterol than the control diet. Despite the lower calorie intake and weight loss and the much higher protein and lower carbohydrate intake on the caveman diet than their normal diets the subjects did not experience a drop in total or LDL despite eating less saturated fat.5
There may be some metabolic advantages of a caveman diet emphasizing lean meat compared to a typical modern diet but such a diet is certainly not optimal for reducing total cholesterol and LDL and reversing coronary artery disease. Replacing the lean meat in the caveman diet with whole grains and beans would markedly lower total and LDL cholesterol and dramatically cut the risk of CVD.
By James J. Kenney, PhD, RD, FACN
1. Euro J Clin Nutr 2002;56(suppl 1):S42-S52
2. Euro J Clin Nutr 2002;56(suppl 1):S42-S52
3. Nutrition 1999;15:488-98
4. Diabetes 1984;33:596-603
5. Euro J Clin Nutr 2008;62:682-5
The calorie density of pasta, rice, corn-on-the-cob, beans, and peas is about the same as lean meat. However, if a lot of dry grains like corn chips, bread, rice crackers, and pretzels are in the diet, the calorie density of the high-carb foods would be much higher and so they would likely supply less satiety per calorie than the lean meat.
A show on the BBC took a group of overweight, not-too-healthy people in England and put them on a diet very similar to what the chimps at the zoo ate for a few weeks. They got to eat all they wanted and they all lost weight and saw marked drops in their blood pressure, insulin, and total and LDL cholesterol levels. Had the people eaten more lean meat they still would have had their blood pressure and weight drop but their total and LDL cholesterol levels probably would not have gone down.? The simple truth is that the more lean meat you eat, the more saturated fat and cholesterol you consume, and the higher your total and LDL cholesterol levels will go. The advocates of the caveman diet want to pretend (as did Atkins) that diets with more saturated fat and/or cholesterol somehow don't raise LDL when the diet is high in protein and low in carbohydrate. Problem is there is no credible data to show that is the case.?? ??? ??? ??? ??? ??? ??? ??? ?J.K.
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