The Caveman Diet: Cure-All or Unhealthy Fad?

The Caveman Diet (also goes by the name The Paleo Diet)

has generated a lot of recent media interest, with some high-profile followers. The diet has been promoted as a ‘breakthrough nutrition program’ and is based on eating a diet similar to that of our ancestors. But does this diet have any merit, or is it simply another fad?

Without beating around the bush, I, as Registered Dietitian, do not support the diet, as its recommendations are not in line with those of the Evidence Based Dietary Guidelines. While it does have some good features (such as promoting fruit and vegetables, lean meat and fish), it excludes nutritious core foods such as breads and cereals, and dairy foods. It encourages restrictive eating; it is not sustainable in the long-term.

The part that angers me the most about the diet is this:

“Foods to Avoid

Carbohydrates are not essential nutrients: the body can obtain all its energy from protein and fats. And you will get adequate amounts of carbohydrates by eating like a caveman; there is no need to eat starchy or sugary food.

Carbohydrates are addictive. Most people are addicted to carbs, and is most noticeable with the infamous ’3 o’clock’ slump. You can break the cycle!

Avoid these Foods

Eat none of the following:

  • Grains- including bread, pasta, noodles.

  • Beans- including string beans, kidney beans, lentils, peanuts, snow-peas and peas.

  • Potatoes

  • Dairy products

  • Sugar

  • Salt''

The diet asks you to avoid complex carbohydrates, the starchy carbohydrate found in bread, potatoes, pasta, vegetables and pulses, which according to this diet are maligned as ‘fattening’. On the contrary, carbohydrates are sustaining foods especially for someone, who has an extensive gym routine and sporting activities and needs a high carbohydrate diet to build glycogen stores in their body for endurance and stamina.

The theory behind this diet is that fats eaten without carbohydrate will induce break down of fats and that this will cause a large weight loss. In fact, this is a hazardous state! The weight loss with such high fat diets is not caused by burning of fat instead it is caused by temporary loss of water from muscles and tissues.

Fad diets like this one suggest carbohydrate-containing foods be eliminated in order to lose weight. This is far from the truth. Carbohydrate-containing foods are generally low in saturated fat, low in energy (kilojoules) and high in fibre, and are an important inclusion in any weight-loss plan. It is not about avoiding them; it’s all about portion controlling them and choosing the right type.

All you have to do is pick the right carb like

- wholegrain bread

- pasta

- oats

- apples, apricots and oranges

- yoghurt and milk

- dried beans and lentils

These types of carbohydrates will help to keep hunger at bay for longer after eating and provide gradual, continuous supply of energy from one meal to the next as they are slowly digested by our body.

As per this diet, if you ban certain nutritious foods, you will be at a greater risk of falling short on important nutrients such as calcium from dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt. Calcium is needed for hard structure of bones, muscle contraction and nerve functioning, blood clotting, and activity of several enzymes.

In addition, the diet:

  • Eliminates entire groups of food

  • Strict nature may not be a viable long-term eating plan

  • Inclusion of organ meats may detract potential followers

  • May have a low satiety factor despite the diet’s fat content

  • Has a high saturated fat content if lots of pork and red meat are consumed

An ideal diet from my point of view should be:

  • Nutritionally balanced including all food groups

  • Low in Kilojoules or Calories but No less than 1500-1800 calories (6000-7000 Kj) in men and 1200-1500 (5000-6000 Kj) calories in women

  • Aiming for a weight loss of ½-1kg per week-any more is water loss, not body fat

  • Flexible and varied so you can still eat out or make substitutions

  • Tailored to fit with your life style and food preferences

  • Able to be sustained for a long period of time

  • Based on normal food, NOT diet powders or pills.

Always remember: A Registered Dietitian can provide further information and support