Devotees of the paleo diet, who eat meat, nuts and vegetables based on the belief that our ancestors relied on these foods, may be surprised to learn that may not be true at all.
In a new study published in The Quarterly Review of Biology, researchers refute one of the diet's main selling points: That it's healthier because it's what cavemen, who weren't plagued with heart disease and obesity, ate too.
They say ancient humans, who had short life spans, likely relied on a variety of foods to sustain them.
“Based on evidence that’s been gathered over many decades, there’s very little evidence that any early hominids had very specialized diets or there were specific food categories that seemed particularly important, with only a few possible exceptions,” wrote researcher Dr. Ken Sayer.
The research focused on the earliest evolution of humans, from about 6 to 1.6 million years ago, but Sayers wrote that the study's findings could also apply to the Paleolithic era, which lasted from 2.6 million to 10,000 years ago.
Early people lived in many different habitats and had access to different foods, according to the research. Those living in northern parts of the world may have eaten mostly animals, while those closer to the Equator may have stuck to plants.
“Some earlier workers had suggested that the diets of bears and pigs — which have an omnivorous, eclectic feeding strategy that varies greatly based on local conditions — share much in common with those of our early ancestors. The data tend to support this view.”
Modern humans also have much longer live spans, which could explain the prevalence of "diseases of affluence" like obesity that didn't appear in ancient times, Sayers wrote.
"They’re diseases that come about simply because we’re living long enough that they can show their effects.”
While the researchers didn't pass judgment on the paleo diet's merits, which advocates say include weight loss, lower blood pressure and even reduced autoimmune disease symptoms, Sayers stressed that our earliest ancestors weren't too concerned with nutrition.
"They were simply acquiring enough calories to survive and reproduce. Everyone would agree that ancestral diets didn’t include Twinkies, but I’m sure our ancestors would have eaten them if they grew on trees.”
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