The Caveman Diet

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Eat Like a Caveman

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

March 15, 2002 -- Hungry for a burger and fries? Take a tip from your prehistoric ancestors and try a bison burger instead. Paleolithic humans feasted on the beasts and led a healthy life -- if a wild animal didn't get them first.

The "caveman diet" could work for you, too, a handful of researchers say. Why? Bison and such free-roaming animals fed on grasses, not grain. A slab of grass-fed bison meat has a healthier mix of fats than even the leanest beef.

Check it out: Bison meat has already hit the supermarket. Ted Turner, that celebrity bison rancher, is opening up a chain of bovine-based grills -- cow or bison burgers, your choice. But if you're not into meat, Europe's No. 1 meat substitute is coming soon: quorn. It sounds like corn, is made from a fungus, and tastes like meat. What, quorned beef?

Caveman Diet in a Nutshell

To get the scoop, WebMD turned to S. Boyd Eaton, MD, who has been investigating the diet for nearly 25 years. He and several colleagues have reviewed what is known about the diets of 229 Paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies, taken from The Ethnographic Atlas.

The caveman diet is based on what our ancestors probably consumed 40,000 years ago. Eaton and others believe it will help us ward off many modern ailments such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Carbohydrates were big, but obviously not of the donut-breakfast cereal-bread variety. Hunter-gatherers had no choice but to forage for fruits and vegetables.

"Paleolithic man may not have had access to red bell peppers or oranges, but they did have fruits that had similar nutrients," says Eaton, professor of radiology and anthropology at Emory University. "They might not have had potatoes, but they had roots and tubers."

Only in arctic environs did hunter-gatherers have a nutritionally limited diet, he says. "We know that Eskimos had very little calcium, so they did have osteoporosis."

Protein was big in Paleolithic times, with up to 30% of the diet being meat -- much more than is recommended today, says Eaton. But there was a big, big difference in the type of meat. It contained far less saturated fat.

"The nature of fat in meat was quite different from what we can obtain now," Eaton tells WebMD. "There was much less saturated fat in wild game." There also was less omega-6 fats in the meat and more omega-3 -- a healthier form of fat.

Free-Roaming Meat Under the Microscope

A new study takes a closer look at meats people ate 10,000 years ago and compares them to garden-variety beef found in supermarkets.

Bruce Watkins, PhD, director of the Center for Enhancing Foods to Protect Health at Purdue University, conducted a chemical analysis of both types of meats. He's published his results in a book called The Paleo Diet. In his analysis, he looked only at animals from the Rocky Mountains, "where free-roaming animals don't have access to corn or soybeans like they do in the Midwest," he tells WebMD.

Watkins found that wild game -- venison, elk, antelope -- contains a mixture of fats that are healthy for you, lowering cholesterol and reducing risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

"The meat of wild [game] has more omega-3 fatty acids," he says. Also, wild beasts have a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids that mirrors what's recommended today to lower risk of heart disease.

"If it's grass-fed bison, it will have a higher omega-3 than if it's bison that's finished in the lot with grains," Watkins tells WebMD.

The American Heart Association advises eating sources of food that have high levels of omega 3. That includes oily fish, such as salmon, halibut, swordfish, and tuna.

"The Paleolithic diet is sometimes misunderstood," Watkins says. "We're not saying eat a bunch of fat, eat a bunch of meat."

"It's a lean-meat diet, but with lots of fruits and vegetables," he says. "There weren't buckets of starch in the Paleolithic age. Donuts, cakes, cookies, and breakfast cereals were not part of the Paleolithic diet. Even 150 years ago, people didn't eat a lot of the refined carbohydrates that we eat today. There were whole grains, fruits, and vegetables."

But bison? He has analyzed bison meat from several suppliers and found that it does have a higher omega-3 content -- but only if the animals were grass-fed. Some bison are "finished in the lot with grains," which makes it less healthy, Watkins tells WebMD. Generally, though, "bison is typically leaner than premium cuts of beef."

The Experts Weigh In

Hold on, says Randi Konikoff, MSRD, dietitian at Tufts University in Boston. "Absolutely, lean cuts of meat are fine. You need protein in your diet. But we recommend a diet that is about 20% protein. We're talking a few servings a day of not substantial size. And protein doesn't have to be from meat -- there are other food sources like milk, dairy foods, nuts, and beans. "

But think about it. When you eat the animal, you're eating toxins stored in its body fat, says Erica Frank, MD, a died-in-the-wool vegetarian and vice-chairwoman of Family & Preventive Medicine at Emory University.

She quotes the EPA: "The average American intake is between 300 and 500 times the safe daily dose of dioxin," Frank tells WebMD. Dioxin is a cancer-causing substance and disrupts hormones and the immune system, she says. Dioxin is stored in animal fat.

In fact, when you drink the animal's milk, you're also getting the toxins, she adds. "People would be in error if they think they're doing themselves a service by eating bison."

What About Quorn?

Quorn starts life as a mushroom -- specifically, fusarium venenatum. It is then fermented in vats, where it produces a byproduct called mycoprotein, which is then mixed with egg whites, flavored, and shaped into poultry-and-meat-like foods.

Quorn products have zero cholesterol and less saturated fat than the real thing -- although some products have more fat than others. Quorn was rated a "Best Bites" citation in Nutrition Action, the newsletter published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based nutrition watchdog group.

"The new product is made from a fungus, but a darn good-tasting one," the citation notes. Quorn can be sauteed, grilled, stir-fried, broiled, or used in burgers, tacos, pot pies, spaghetti sauce, or lasagna.

Will quorn trigger a bad reaction, like an allergic reaction? Konikoff says, "I can understand the concern about these new products. But if the FDA approved it, then it's good to go. They do enough testing to find out if it's in high enough doses to have a negative effect."

But why eat food that's been grown in a vat? asks Frank. "I fail to see the point. From a health perspective, and from an environmental perspective, people need to be eating locally grown organic foods. You can get enough protein from plants. The typical American diet has too much protein."

Watkins offers the tried-and-true advice: "Eat a varied diet that gives you the nutrients you need, get adequate exercise, and cut the visible fat from your diet. You can read the label and see what's in the product. You can look at a piece of meat and see if it's fatty or not. The label will tell you if it's a leaner cut of meat."

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