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I’m the first to admit that I’m not all that hip. Or whatever the term is for someone who is on top of all the current trends, fads or latest really cool things in our modern world. Fetch?
After a lot of practice, I can turn on my home computer, and my in-the-know wife shows me interesting things she finds on Facebook, the Metaverse, and other gateways into the cyber age. But for me, the TV remote control is far more important in my life. Friends tell me this ‘streaming’ thing will allow me to watch Gilligan’s Island, or even the Flintstones, non-stop, if I want.
In short, I’m far from being Joe Cool. And a lot of what goes on around me in this modern age leaves me with a lot of questions.
Foraging for answers
That includes questions about the foods I eat. Most of the ideas about food that I see are driven by some enthusiastic advocate for a healthier diet or a better environment and a sustainable food system, or simply a new taste experience involving strange and exotic ingredients available at very special prices—the labels and messaging are quite frankly overwhelming.
But I have to admit, however, I was truly perplexed when my wife told me we should try the caveman diet. “Now what,” I remember thinking when she first raised my consciousness with this new gastronomic opportunity.
Maybe you already know about the caveman diet.
As I understand it, it basically says you should eat nothing that wasn’t available to our caveman ancestors — and by inference, I suppose, our cavewoman ancestors, too.
Remember, the caveman was a hunter-gatherer who ate what was readily available. And since there were no Walmarts or Krogers on the landscape, that meant a variety of non-processed foods.
Cavemen seemed to rely on what could be hunted or scavenged – a pre-historic reliance on the same organic, free-range, grass-fed food sources so many people today find so appealing. (I might add “GMO free,” but technically that wouldn’t be correct, since genetic adaptation has been occurring across time, including the caveman era. But that’s another soliloquy for another day.)
In simple terms, it’s a diet rich in protein and low in carbohydrates. Meat and seafood, certainly, but also a lot of nuts, fruits, vegetables, and even eggs, I suppose.
Plan to rely upon a variety of different types of food, and probably smaller portions rather than a single big entrée, like Beef Wellington or Roast Rack of Brachiosaurus, say.
OFF the caveman table: sugar, grains, trans fats and hydrogenated oils, and obviously such modern contrivances as artificial sweeteners, refined oils, and – shudder – alcohol. Another rule of stubby, hairy caveman thumb: never eat anything you can’t pronounce.
The theory seems to be that if it was good enough to drive evolution – and thus to create the marvelous world we have today – it must be a diet of some merit. After all, it served to create robust, dynamic creatures capable of spawning the modern food consumer.
Okay, I’ll give it a shot, I told my wife. She sent me to the local grocery store with a caveman shopping list, which I dutifully filled. But on the way, I stopped at Burger King (and elected to pass on the Impossible Burger, despite the plant-based blessings it promises to deliver) and pondered the implications of all this on how I make my food decisions moving forward. Several thoughts crossed my mind as I ate my double bacon cheeseburger and absent-mindedly munched on my large fries and soothed the sensation of hot food with a cool chocolate frosty shake.
Healthy – and ‘ethical’?
Every day, I seem to hear more advice from self-appointed “experts” and social warriors about what is not just healthy for me but healthy for our planet and our society. I should follow this diet or that diet because it is not just good for my body, but somehow more ‘ethical’ because it supposedly aligns with some societal value judgment. To some, feeding me with the foods I need – and want – isn’t the right way to think about diet. If I don’t agree with someone’s definition of ‘ethical,’ I’m not eating ‘right’ and I must be a bad person?
The enthusiasm I heard for the caveman diet makes me ponder that moral issue yet again. Advocates seem to imply that a caveman diet – with its focus on ‘natural’ foods – is somehow a more ethical food decision. It’s more in line with what our body naturally tells us about what we should eat – what is right, on multiple levels.
If I follow the caveman diet because it is natural and responsive to my body’s essential needs, how do I know what else might be in my best dietary interests? If caveman theory is correct, am I supposed to listen to what my body tells me and eat accordingly? If so, what part of my body do I listen to? And is it okay to consider the other lessons I might learn from my body that might be nutritionally and ethically ‘right’ for me?
What Does My Body Tell Me?
Let’s begin with the obvious starting point: my mouth.
Yes, I have a mouthful of molars that obviously tell me to eat lots of food I can grind up – exactly the fruits, vegetables, and other things that call out to me to be chewed and chewed and chewed some more.
But I also have incisors that do more than make me look like an adolescent or excessively-aged Dracula. They are there to tear and rip things like meat.
Once it might have been an animal carcass. Today it could be a nice filet.
Just a few inches north, my head contains just enough gray matter to let me know how important it is to satisfy my basic nutritional needs and to avoid over-eating – especially those things like chocolate cheesecake and deep-fried Oreos and melt-in-your-mouth sugary donuts and chili-cheese dogs and all the other foods that sustained me in high school and college.
But I also have these taste buds just below that say “oh go ahead…you know you want it, and you’ve earned it. I’m not going to shut up until you do what I say, and you know it, so get on with it. And do you want your golf buddies to think you are some kind of food wuss?”
After all, I have this marvelous thing called a stomach, full of the digestive juices and enzymes capable of breaking down almost anything I can shove down there, in remarkable quantities. There are all sorts of other organs that seem to serve mainly to help that process along, transforming the raw materials into nutrients and speeding the removal of what might be left over. If it isn’t needed or might otherwise be bad for me, there are all sorts of other parts down there to deal with that, too.
So why not listen to the taste buds? Or why not at least keep an open dialogue going between the brain and the mouth?
And don’t forget something else my body tells me. Diet and exercise go hand in hand. It’s remarkable how much better I feel when I’m physically active, and especially so when I have the discipline to combine intellect and physicality with appetite in reasonable balance. I bet our culinary caveman also spent a good deal of time running – either chasing down food or trying not to become food. There’s a valuable lesson there, I suspect.
Modernizing the Caveman Menu
While I ponder that lesson, a lot of other people have been hard at work with their own evaluations of the caveman diet.
Vegans jumped in with the idea of a “Pegan “diet – an approach that builds on the basic principles of the caveman diet to focus on whole foods and cut out as many high-sodium, high-sugar foods as possible. Peganism blends the paleolithic diet with veganism to suggest a diet of three-quarters fruits and veggies and a quarter meat and eggs. The goal seems to be a diet that reduces the total calories we consume, with all the attendant benefits commonly associated with weight loss.
The anthropological set has weighed in with its own assessment of what the paleolithic-era diet actually entailed. According to these experts, the caveman diet was far more plant-based than originally thought. Apparently, my ancestors shared my athletic shortcomings and profound inability to run down mastodons and gazelles or almost any other life form. Presumably by scavenging, they managed both to consume only 3 percent or so of their daily diet as meat – and to avoid stomachs that hung over their fur belts.
As usual, the academic community quibbles over the exact percentage with the fervor of a religious zealot. But I’m prepared to accept the general principle that a caveman diet entails a good deal less meat than my insatiable youthful cravings for bacon cheeseburgers, wings, and corn dogs.
I’m far more interested in other studies from the academic and medical worlds that compare the caveman diet with other popular dietary regimes, such as the Mediterranean diet.
As best I can interpret the results, these studies seem to say that any diet that promotes a nutritionally-balanced diet for attaining and maintaining a healthy weight is a good thing.
Maybe something equally important to me also jumped out from the studies: any diet that creates a nutritional imbalance may not be such a good thing. So if I embrace the caveman approach, I can probably give up my afternoon Dr. Pepper habit. But if I avoid milk and dairy products, I also have to ask myself where I’m going to get the calcium and Vitamin D I need for good bones. If I cut out legumes, am I losing many of the minerals and fibers and plant-based proteins I need to help manage my cholesterol?
In other words, the most important element of the caveman diet might be my brain…far more than my stomach or other digestive organs. Look at all the evidence.
That’s what being an intelligent non-caveman is all about – using our hard-won intellect to ask the right questions and make informed choices.
When in Doubt, Moderation
If my brain and the rest of my body all work together on this thing we call diet and health, we might just be on to something important here. In the absence of absolute truth, perhaps a reasonable approach might rest in simple moderation. If you can find the science or authority figure you need to give you complete certainty in any single dietary approach, then by all means go for it (and share it with us for that matter!). But until you find that certainty, balance what all parts of your body are telling you with simple moderation.
For me, bring on the occasional chili dog. But just not too many of them. I’ll eat the plant-based protein, too. I just won’t proselytize that it is the only food or even the only right food. As our body seems to suggest, there may not be any one perfect diet or any one solution to the quest for dietary health we all share. As the old adage goes, let’s not let our quest for perfection become the enemy of the good.