You've probably heard about the Paleo diet, which sends its adherents back 10,000 years to, well, eat like a cavewoman. The theory is, that by reducing our diet to whatever was available before the agricultural revolution — stuff like veggies, meats and water instead of refined sugar and whole grains, for instance — we will bypass the health issues and chronic disease that plague modern-day Homo sapiens (major stuff like obesity, cancer and heart disease). Pro-Paleo books and websites can give very compelling reasons to eat like a caveman, but does it make sense for a modern woman to do so?
First, it helps to understand what our predecessors actually did with their lives. To find out how a cavewoman’s lifestyle compares to that of today's woman, we spoke with paleoanthropologist Sandi Copeland, a professor at the University of Colorado, Denver who studies everyday lives of our extinct ancestors. One big difference, she says, is that being a locavore entailed a heck of a lot more exercise then than it does today. According to Copeland, before agricultural times, people lived nomadic lives. Small clans of people would settle in an area, hunt and forage the land for meat and edible plants for a few days to a few weeks, then move on to a more fertile and food-promising area.
“It’s hard for us today to grasp the concept that when you’re not practicing agriculture, you have to spend time every single day just to find something to eat — otherwise you’ll starve to death,” Copeland says. “There was no refrigeration. There was no stored food, except food you could keep a couple of days. That made a big difference in the pre-agricultural lifestyle.”
As part of these clans, women are typically believed to have been foragers. A woman would walk at least three to six miles a day just to source edibles, digging with wooden sticks to unearth tubers to take back to the clan And, as if that weren’t grueling enough, she would often make these journeys while carrying a baby. In short, she burned an estimated 800 calories or more to get a bite, which pales in comparison to the energy we expend when building a salad at the deli. Fetching meat was an even more exhausting affair, as cave dwellers would typically hunt for days for the opportunity to take down an antelope with stone tools, then carry it back to the dwelling.
Bottom line: The stone-age lifestyle demanded much more exercise for survival than the modern lifestyle does, which is something to consider when following a directive that boasts high volumes of protein and healthy fats. Now, about the Paleo diet of today....
Photo: Maria Valentino/MCV Photo
Nutritionally, as with most suddenly-popular diets, Paleo has both its benefits and risks. Research has proven that protein is more satisfying than carbs or fruits and vegetables, a particular Paleo perk for those looking to eat less. And, Marisa Moore, a registered dietitian who specializes in cardiovascular nutrition and disease prevention, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, praises the diet for both its abundance of fruits and vegetables and its elimination of refined sugars.
However, Moore finds its omission of legumes and whole grains disconcerting. “The main gripe I have with the diet is that it limits whole grains and beans, which are a great source of clean burning energy for the body,” she says. These foods are an important source of B vitamins, minerals and fiber. Since the average woman consumes only about 15 grams of fiber a day (instead of the recommended 21-26 grams), cutting out these strong fiber sources is particularly risky. What’s more, legumes are a particularly good source of folate, an especially important B vitamin for women of childbearing years. When women carry a sufficient amount of folate before they conceive, it can prevent birth defects like spina bifida.
As with any strict elimination diets, Moore recommends taking the best parts of the plan and modifying it for optimum nutrition. “Be sure you include whole grains and beans," she advises. "I can’t think of any research or medical reason as to why you’d want to exclude them.”
Moore also touches back on lifestyle when considering this diet. “We have to think about what’s realistic for women," she says. "Women are extremely busy balancing so many parts of our lives." Instead of going full-on Paleo, she says, you can meet your nutrition needs with modern, convenient, and still-healthful foods (such as a cup of Greek yogurt, which you can eat on the go). “You don’t want to create a situation where you’re so focused on making sure you stick to a certain type of diet, that you miss your best nutrition opportunities in the process.” Sounds like wisdom for the ages.
Photo: Maria Valentino/MCV Photo