No one would argue that actually living in conditions similar to a caveman’s would be beneficial for health, since lack of shelter, illness, injuries and predators led to relatively short life spans (approximately 30 years) for early man. What the cavemen ate, however, known today as the Paleolithic diet, was very beneficial for health. It was, in fact, exactly what the human body was designed to eat. The Paleolithic diet can provide anyone with a healthful eating plan, and holds special promise for diabetics. I have type 1 diabetes, and for several years I’ve been experiencing its benefits.
What is the Paleolithic diet?
The Paleolithic diet categorizes food into two groups, in and out.
In foods are foods that humans ate prior to agriculture and animal husbandry (meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, tree nuts, vegetables, roots, fruit, berries, mushrooms, etc). Out, or Neolithic Era foods, are foods that resulted from agriculture or animal husbandry.
This sweeping cut removes a vast quantity of the foods we eat on a daily basis, most notably grains (including pasta and bread), dairy and refined sugars.
The question you are probably asking is why would someone eat this way?
The answer is multi-fold. Many who eat in this manner extol the virtue of “removing the toxins” from their highly processed diets. Others speak of truly “getting back to their roots” in a way unlike any other. The most fundamental reason to consider eating a Paleolithic diet has to due with evolution.
Early man was limited in his ability to eat many of the items in the aforementioned out list because they are inedible in their raw state. Then a wondrous discovery took place – fire. And with fire, previously inedible foods became palatable. Then, about 10,000 years ago, the agricultural revolution took place. At this juncture, our current grain-based diet came to be. And with time came the modern staples such as flour, bread, noodles and pasta, but the human body was unprepared for such things.
The human genome has been relatively stable for the past 40,000 years, requiring little variation in diet. The breakthrough of nutrition attainability that came with cooking and agriculture ran counter to our needs, but was so enjoyable that it rapidly replaced our “natural” bounty.
The argument from the Paleolithic camp centers on the rise in health issues, disease and disabilities that some attribute to the consumption of the formerly inedible food choices. If we simply ate like our ancestors, instead of subsisting on the grain-based diet of today, various ailments might be significantly reduced or non-existent in the population.
This idea turns the traditional food pyramid on its head, considering its foundation is carbohydrate rich foods. And there is increasing evidence that indicates the type of diet recommended in the USDA’s food pyramid is discordant with the type of diet with which humans evolved.
The Paleolithic Diet and Diabetes
Whether or not you are on board with the notion of the Paleolithic diet being superior to our modern Western diet, one point that cannot be dismissed is that the diet can have very positive implications for those with type 1 or type 2 diabetes.
All of the foods listed as edible by Paleolithic standards are low on the glycemic index (a qualitative indicator of a carbohydrate’s ability to raise blood glucose levels). Eating foods that are high on the glycemic index, which includes all of the foods on the out list, will place an unnecessary demand on the pancreas for those with type 2 diabetes, which could result in insulin resistance. For those with type 1 diabetes, limiting food intake to low glycemic foods decreases the demand for insulin injections and the associated “spikes” of blood sugar.
Eating according to Paleolithic standards removes the stress on the body that eating refined carbohydrates creates, and decreases the requisite insulin demand, thus creating a more balanced biological state.
The Caveman Cometh and I Followed
The “caveman diet” is on the rise and growing in popularity, as evidenced by many health and exercise related programs that promote its benefits: Art DeVany; Crossfit: Forging Elite Fitness, The Paleo Diet for Athletes, and Mark Sisson’s The Primal Blueprint. Even the New York Times has reported on the caveman lifestyle, The New Age Cavemen and the City.
All this coverage allows individuals to become informed, to maybe test the regimen, and hopefully find the benefits I have found. My diabetes has always been under control. I have never had an HbA1c over 6.5, but as many will argue, the HbA1c isn’t the be all and end all marker of healthy living with diabetes. In fact, many of my best results, those in the 4-5 range, were comprised of heavy amounts of low blood sugar levels. I “rode the rollercoaster” of high carbohydrate consumption, followed by insulin, followed by hunger, oftentimes because of inaccurate dosing and episodes of hypoglycemia. When I switched to a lower glycemic diet, and then Paleolithic altogether, the roller coaster ride came to a halt.
Once I became accustomed to not having the constant “sugar on board” I found my glucose levels to be more constant. I had fewer lows and fewer highs, but my HbA1c remained the same. I was not only healthy by our medical standards, but I was truly living in a state of constant health. I have been in this state for two years and have found an improvement in my mental acuity, energy and overall sense of wellbeing – all elements that by the very nature of our disease can be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Getting back to my roots and unearthing the meal plan of our ancestors has not only improved my diabetes, it has enabled me to live my life to the fullest.
Eric Devine is a high school English teacher and writer who has lived with type 1 diabetes for the past twenty years. He is the author of This Side of Normal, a Young Adult novel about a character with type 1 diabetes. He lives in upstate New York with his wife and children and is actively involved with diabetes-related support groups, including the Sugar Free Gang, and the local Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
His athletic interests are what led him to eat paleolithicly, and you can find him pushing himself via www.crossfit.com and www.crossfitfootball.com workouts. His favorite website for food, health and wellness, and paleo discussion is www.marksdailyapple.com.