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8 December 2003
Would eating a Stone Age diet make us healthier?

Supporters of the so-called Stone Age diet argue that farming practices introduced about 10,000 years ago are ultimately harmful to human health, and that if our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved without eating dairy products or cereals then we shouldn't eat them either. Instead, they say, we should only eat plenty of lean meat and fish, with fruit and raw vegetables on the side.
     The idea, also called the caveman, hunter-gatherer or paleolithic diet, has been around for decades and is regularly recycled - as it was in various newspapers after the regime was discussed at a meeting of the British Society for Allergy, Environmental and Nutritional Medicine.
     According to Lauren Cordain, a nutritionist at Colorado State University, those following the meat-dominated menu "lose weight and get healthy by eating the food you were designed to eat". He says there is increasing evidence that a Paleolithic diet can prevent and treat many common western diseases. Studies of islanders in Papua New Guinea who still live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle show they rarely suffer heart disease.
     But other nutrionists argue that, as with the closely related Atkins diet, cutting out whole food groups such as cereals is just not a good idea. "I would recommend anybody to eat lean meat and raw vegetables," says Toni Steer of the MRC human nutrition research unit at Cambridge. "But what you're asking people to do is cut out a food group for which we have a lot of evidence to show is good for your health."
     Archaeologists say it's not even clear exactly how much of the various foods people actually ate during the Stone Age (broadly defined as from two-and-a-half million years ago until 10,000 years ago). "There was no one Stone Age diet; diets of the past varied greatly," says John Gowlett, an archaeologist at Liverpool University. "People in Africa probably ate less meat than many people think," he says, "while those in the northern, icy regions were forced to eat only whatever animals they could catch."
     "I'm not convinced that we know what Stone Age man ate," agrees Andrew Millard, who researches ancient health and diet at Durham University. "The evidence we have is heavily biased towards the meat component of the diet. We get bones from animals they have eaten but we don't get the remains of any vegetables they have eaten because they decay." Millard adds that there is good evidence that later Stone Age cultures in the Near East regularly collected and ate wild cereals and it's possible the practice was more widespread.

Source: The Guardian (4 December 2003)

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