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The Paleo Diet: Should we eat like cavemen?

What was the Paleolithic period?

Before we can discuss the paleo diet, we have to understand the Paleolithic period it’s based on. The Paleolithic period (also called the Old Stone Age) ranged from around 2.6 million years ago to 12 000 years ago.1 It took place prior to animal & crop domestication, meaning that Paleolithic humans were primarily foragers (hunter gatherers).1 They lived in small groups, were largely nomadic (meaning they moved their settlements based on seasonal food access), and highly active.1

What did Paleolithic humans eat?

There was no single diet that all Paleolithic people followed.1,2 Diets around the world varied because of differences in environment, and even individual diets varied because “their goal was to survive, and they did that however they could”.2 They were “limited to what the environment was producing for them”3, meaning most Paleolithic humans were foragers and obtained their food by hunting, fishing, scavenging, and foraging for uncultivated plants and insects.1 Since the Paleolithic period was before the domestication of animals, dairy was not consumed (except breast milk), and neither were isolated sugars, oils, or refined salts.1

It is often assumed that Paleolithic people were carnivores that mainly ate meat. Yes Paleolithic people sought out and ate meat (mainly small game, since larger ones were difficult to catch depending on the region), but typically animal protein was not a large part of their diets, as plants were often a more reliable food source.1 Reportedly, the majority of most Paleolithic human’s calories came from plants (leaves and stems, roots and tubers, nuts and seeds, fruit and berries, mushrooms, algae, and occasionally legumes and cereal grains), which suggests their diets were high in fibre.1 There is scientific evidence that suggests humans were eating and cooking plant starches as early as 120 000 years ago.4

Are the foods of the Paleolithic period available today?

Many of the foods that people ate in the paleolithic period are not available to us now, since plant species have been altered over time to create the most optimal produce.2 This brings up the argument of whether we are even capable of eating a “paleo diet” in the modern day.

What is the paleo diet?

The paleo diet (also called the caveman or stone-age diet) is a modern diet trend that claims to only include foods from the Paleolithic period.1 It is “based on the idea that humans evolved eating a specific diet, and because we aren’t eating the food we evolved to eat, we aren’t healthy”.2 However, it contradicts scientific evidence of the foods Paleolithic people actually ate, emphasizing the consumption of meat and restricting the consumption of starchy plant foods like potatoes, grains, and legumes.2,5

Should we be eating a Paleolithic diet?

Many people question the nutritional validity of the paleo diet. I won’t go into detail on this, as it would be a whole other topic, but I think it’s important to mention that you don’t need to eat a paleo diet to be healthy.1 We also can’t eat some of the foods the Paleolithic people ate, because (as stated earlier) many of them don’t exist anymore.2 Advances in technology, science, and nutrition knowledge have helped us develop several different ways of preparing food and obtaining the nutrients we need to survive and thrive in the modern day.1

If you’re interested in learning more about the paleo diet and the evolution of diet, check out this National Geographic article.


  1. Willows, N. Ancestral Human Diets. NUFS 223: Cultural Ecology of Food & Health. University of Alberta, Fall 2021.
  2. SciShow. The Real Paleo Diet. YouTube, May 4, 2015. (accessed 2022-01-16).
  3. Khan Academy. Organizing paleolithic societies. YouTube, Jan 9, 2017. (accessed 2022-01-16).
  4. Larbey, C.; Mentzer, S. M.; Ligouis, B.; Wurz, S.; Jones, M. K. Cooked Starchy Food in Hearths Ca. 120 Kya and 65 Kya (Mis 5e and MIS 4) from Klasies River Cave, South Africa. Journal of Human Evolution 2019, 131, 210–227. DOI:
  5. SciShow. Paleo Got It Wrong: We’ve Loved Carbs for Over 100,000 Years. YouTube, May 24, 2019. (accessed 2022-01-16).

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