The word is getting around that the modern dietary lifestyle is one of the reasons why Americans are overweight and burdened by chronic disease. The diet that's right for us, according to many experts, is what our Stone Age ancestors ate. But is that realistic? Didn't they eat food raw, and have lots of meat?
"There are loads of misconceptions about the Stone Age," says physician-author Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. "Sure, they ate most foods raw, but keep in mind that man has controlled fire for more than a hundred thousand years, and not all their barbecues were accidental."
We eat lots of our vegetables and most of our fruits raw, according to Dr. Goscienski, whose book, Health Secrets of the Stone Age, is due for a January 2005 release. Cooking, on the other hand, releases nutrients that would otherwise be less readily available, such as those in cereal grains and meats, and it gives us a head start on digestion.
Here are 10 foods that Stone Agers would find familiar if they were to drop in for dinner.
1. Lean meat. Remember that animals in the wild enjoy a huge variety of foods, not like farm-raised cattle, hogs and poultry. T-bone steaks from grain-fed cattle that stand around all day contain about 38 percent fat; the meat from active, grass-fed animals contains about 7 percent fat. Lean cuts of range-fed beef are not perfect substitutes for wild game, but it's a start.
2. Poultry. Back in the Stone Age they could choose from hundreds of different kinds of birds whose meat and eggs provided plenty of nourishment, especially protein. We could have lots of variety too, if we worked at it. Instead, we settle for only two kinds of fowl: chicken and turkey. If you would really like to enjoy something from the Stone Age, try some wild game. You'll find plenty of sources on the Internet. Search for "wild game meat." Most meat markets can order pheasant or quail. Duck, goose and Cornish game hen are available at most major supermarkets.
3. Fish and other seafood. This includes lake and stream varieties. Their high content of omega-3 fatty acids may have helped our species become the dominant animal on the planet. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to the proper development of the brain and eyes, just what slow-moving humans with no claws or fangs needed eons ago in order to survive.
4. Leafy green vegetables. Until humans became skilled hunters, which took them a couple of million years, they were mostly vegetarians, as apes are today. It's important to recognize that this food group is what our body chemistry was designed for, with its abundance of vitamins, folate, flavonoids and thousands of other nutrients that are essential for optimum health. Of course, they had no salad dressings, which are definitely not health foods, especially when eaten in the large quantities that most of us find so hard to resist.
5. Fruits. Hunter-gatherers, which we all were during the Stone Age, had an enormous, seasonal variety of fruits from which to choose. Of course, these plant products weren't as large, plump and juicy as the ones in your local market, but without chemical fertilizers, pesticides and other pollutants they probably were a lot more nutritious. They certainly were not as sweet as our commercial hybrids, and they all contained much more fiber than domesticated fruit.
6. Berries. We tend to think of berries and fruits together, but there are some differences. Back in the Stone Age, berries, like fruits, were smaller and less sweet than our highly domesticated varieties. However, they are easy to gather, vary with the season, and are even more richly endowed with antioxidants than most fruits. Nutritionists advise that we eat some variety of berries every day.
7. Nuts. The health benefits of nuts become more apparent year after year. Walnuts, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts and pistachios contain healthy amounts of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, as well as substances that have heart-protective (saponins) and cancer-preventing (squalene) properties. So do peanuts, although strictly speaking they are not nuts, but legumes. The FDA recommends that we eat about 1.5 ounces of nuts a day, which is about 30 almonds, or the equivalent volume (one-third cup) of the other nuts. Depending on the type of nut, that's about 240 to 300 calories, comprising one-tenth or more of the calories we take in every day, so don't overdo it.
8. Roots. Folks back in the Stone Age probably got some of the minerals they needed (iron, copper) from the dirt left on the outside of edible roots. A modern Ms. or Mrs. Clean wouldn't think of serving unscrubbed carrots! All root vegetables, with their abundance of fiber, vitamins and antioxidants, provide healthful substitutes for refined carbohydrates. Think of beets, yams, turnips, parsnips or carrots to replace rice or pasta, neither of which was available during the Stone Age.
9. Mushrooms. Mushrooms are such ancient forms of life that thousands of species populated the planet by the time humans arrived. More than likely, Stone Age people were aware of mushrooms that could kill as well as those that caused hallucinations. The several kinds of mushrooms that we find in the supermarket, fresh or canned, have moderate amounts of B vitamins and small amounts of healthy polyunsaturated fat. Mushrooms are likely to become more popular as their cholesterol-lowering and immune-boosting properties become better known.
10. Grains. I deliberately left this group for last because they are latecomers to the human diet. Before the Agricultural Revolution, which took place roughly 12,000 years ago, grains were not a major food source. Grain harvesting requires cutting tools, a method for removing the seed from the stalk, and storage containers, none of which were available tens of thousands of years ago. Without heating and grinding, humans cannot easily digest most grains. Our ingenuity and skill, however, eventually overcame these problems, and grains (including rice and corn) now constitute more than half the calorie intake of most people throughout the world. As long as these are whole-grain products, they bear at least a little resemblance to what our ancestors ate during the Stone Age.
None of these food items exist today exactly as they did in the Stone Age, but they form a healthy approximation, with good fats, phytonutrients, fiber, vitamins and minerals. A diet that contains only these ingredients is far from boring and is readily available. But be sure to wash those carrots!
About The Author
Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is a pediatric infectious diseases specialist with a 45-year career in clinical and academic medicine. Dr. Goscienski has written for the Saturday Evening Post and Currents, the national newsletter of the American Heart Association and is a featured writer for North San Diego County Magazine. He has drawn on his interests in biology, anthropology, paleopathology and physical fitness to develop Better Life Seminars, a series of presentations in which he explains how our most distant ancestors lived, and how we can apply this knowledge to extend our healthspan and avoid the major chronic diseases of our age. His book, Health Secrets of the Stone Age is based on his seminars, and on the most recent findings in medical and anthropological research. It is scheduled for a January 2005 release date. You can visit his web site at www.stoneagedoc.com.
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