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Topic summary contributed by volunteer(s): Mimi

Amid great interest in what prehistoric humans ate, two very different theories about what we should eat based on interpretations of our ancestors’ diet currently dominate.

Paleolithic Diet

The Paleolithic diet theory advocates a hunter-gatherer diet, presumed to be like that of human Stone Age ancestors of two million years ago. The diet, known as the Paleo diet, advises eating foods that would have been available at that time: lean meats, fruit, vegetables, and nuts. The Paleo diet has become a trend recently, although there is variability in the way it has been interpreted, with many advocating high protein and high fat intake.

A diet that eliminates highly processed refined foods, sugar, and dairy is a substantial improvement over the standard American diet. However, two health concerns have been associated with a diet high in animal sources of fat and protein. Recent studies highlight the significant amount of contaminants in meat and fish, such as arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, preservatives, and veterinary drugs. Other studies have found that low-carb diets, particularly those high in protein and fat, impair arterial function.

Plant-Based Diet

A plant-based, high-fiber diet reflects foods eaten during the Miocene era and through most of the 20 million years of human evolution. A recently published review argues that humans evolved eating large amounts of whole plant foods with large amounts of vitamin C, E, and calcium, all from wild greens. Humans ate the foods that the great apes ate—vegetables, fruits, seeds, and nuts. In fact, the digestive tracts of humans and great apes are similar.

An analysis of ancient human feces from archaeological excavations found high fiber content, undigested plant remains. It is estimated that humans ate approximately 100 grams of fiber a day.

Among the Blue Zones around the world with the longest living populations, plant-based diets in general, and legumes and whole grains in particular, are dietary cornerstones. Important research by Doctors Pritikin, Ornish, and Esselstyn has shown that plant-based diets can stop heart disease and, in fact, reverse it in the majority of patients.

Dr. Greger summarizes his review of the research by stating, “If there’s one takeaway from our studies of ancestral diets, perhaps it’s that diets based largely on plant foods promote health and longevity.”

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