A staggering 67% of the American population today is overweight and 34% is obese. Another 16% have high cholesterol, 30% have hypertension, and 21% smoke. Even 42% of people will develop cancer in their lifetime (Fahey, Insel, & Roth, 2011). Technological innovations sometimes lead us to believe that we are healthier today than early humans were thousands and thousands of years ago. Today we have the benefit of cars, television, cell phones, and readily available food and drink, but could we actually be taking steps backwards in terms of living healthier lifestyles?
First we must define what it means to be healthy. According to Fahey, Insel, and Roth (2011), leading a healthy lifestyle means being physically active, eating a healthy diet, choosing a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy body weight, managing stress effectively, and avoiding harmful substances. Consequently, obesity, heart disease, cancer, and other common health issues are related to leading unhealthy lifestyles typically associated with sedentary lifestyles, overconsumption along with large portions, smoking, and genetics. As you may have guessed, unhealthy lifestyles have increasingly become the norm for average people (Fahey, Insel, & Roth).
In contrast to humans today, the earliest humans, sometimes referred to as Cro-Magnons or cavemen, led entirely different lifestyles (Lambert, 2012). These Cro-Magnon people inhabited the earth as early as 140,000 years ago up until about 10,000 years ago with the advent of the agricultural revolution (Cavalli-Sforza, 2002). They were physically the same as modern humans today, but they led successful nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles. They usually foraged for seeds, berries, roots, and nuts, and hunted game such as mammoth, reindeer, red deer, bison wild horses and fish (Lambert). Since there was no farming, they didn’t eat large amounts of grains (Khan, 2009). They were physically active for the majority of the day (Hutchinson, 2011).
You might be thinking why, in the era of the iPhone 5 and hybrid cars, would a lifestyle similar to that of a caveman be beneficial for a person like me? Hutchinson (2011) answers this question quite simply. He explains that evolution takes place over thousands and thousands of years. The human DNA must develop successful mutations over time which support more modern ways of life. These successful mutations occur when mutated DNA in a specific individual enables that individual to live more successfully in his or her environment, thus giving that individual a higher chance of surviving and passing on the beneficial mutated gene to future generations. Examples include mutations that allow humans to digest dairy or better digest grains. While humans are evolving faster now that the population is much larger (allowing more chances for gene mutations), human bodies are still not adjusted for their modern agricultural diets and (lack of) physical activities (Hutchinson).
Consider a day in the life of a caveman versus a day of a typical person today. Our aboriginal ancestors might gather berries or hunt some game upon waking (Hutchinson, 2011). Today, a person wakes up, puts on his or her eyeglasses, walks a few steps into the kitchen, and then prepares some buttery pancakes. A caveman would continue his or her day by looking for food or fashioning tools (Lambert, 2012). A person today would walk to his or her car, drive to work, and sit at a desk from nine to five. On a good day, he or she may briefly exercise. Next will be time to watch some television. For a caveman, exercise was necessary in order to keep pace with other nomadic tribal members and find food (Hutchinson). Cavemen were constantly performing a wide range of activities (Lambert). The option to sit still might not always present itself. Now let’s think about dinner. A modern day person might microwave a convenient frozen pasta dish and maybe have a little ice cream for dessert. A caveman would once again have to forage for his or her next meal that would consist of largely of lean meat, fruits, and vegetables (Hutchinson).
First let’s look at why a caveman’s diet is healthier in so many ways than the average human’s diet today. When Cro-Magnons roamed the earth, they were nomadic hunters and gatherers (Lambert, 2012). They ate what they could find which consisted of wild game, fruits (and not the extra sweet and less fibrous varieties we have today), and vegetables (Khan, 2009). The advent of agricultural grain products and animal domestication didn’t come until later, ultimately leading to our modern-day lifestyles (Hutchinson, 2011). Countless diet books advocate cutting carbs and dairy products while enjoying fresh produce and lean meats (Bhatia, 2011). Thus, a buttered pancake is unnatural for a human body. The flour pancake is filled with carbs, and the butter has trans fats and dairy products.
You might be wondering why our bodies would crave such seemingly unhealthy foods like the carbs found in pancakes. Carbs like grains, potatoes, and sugar were difficult to come by for cavemen, and these agricultural products were loaded with energy (Khan, 2009). This extra energy could make a huge difference for a caveman struggling to find food, so cavemen were naturally inclined to eat as many carbs as they could. Today, however, carbs are in abundance. People typically eat more than 300 grams of carbs per day (like pancakes, pasta, and ice cream), a figure drastically more than the recommended amount of 130 grams (Fahey, Insel, & Roth, 2011). Our bodies cannot handle carbs in excess and react by converting them into fat (Khan), leading to a plethora of problems associated with obesity for people today like diabetes (Fahey, Insel, & Roth).
For all the drawbacks of carbs, there are equal incentives to eat fruits and vegetables (Khan, 2009). Fruits and vegetables filled are not only with nutrients, but also with phytochemicals or antioxidants. Antioxidants help prevent free radicals and cancer. Fresh foods like cavemen ate are far superior to processed foods we typically eat today (Hutchinson, 2011).
Furthermore, cavemen employed a better method of eating. They ate small meals throughout the day because of their hunter-gatherer lifestyles (Hutchinson, 2011). This style of eating maintained their blood sugar at relatively consistent levels. Today, when people eat three meals per day, their blood sugar often drops in between meals. These dips in blood sugar cause them to crave snacks and thus overeat to compensate for the cravings Additionally, eating small meals throughout the day keeps your metabolism active. When you eat big meals a few times per day, your metabolism slows which can result in weight gain (The importance, 2011).
Common knowledge tells us that those who lead more physically active lifestyles are healthier. Cavemen were constantly physically active, traveling average distances of five to sixteen kilometers per day (Hutchinson, 2011). Cavemen also had short bouts of vigorous and intense exercise that modern day health experts are beginning to recommend (Bhatia, 2011) instead of prolonged, less intense exercise. Today, 60% of Americans don’t meet the recommended guidelines for physical activity, and 25% of Americans aren’t active at all (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012). The constant exercise of a caveman is a sharp contrast to the majority of modern Americans who aren’t even attaining the bare minimum exercise needed for a healthy life.
One rather unfortunate consequence of our modern-day medical developments means that the human race as a whole is growing genetically weaker. Only early humans who possessed genes that enabled them to survive long enough to reproduce were able to pass on their genetic code. Today, medical advances such as asthma medication allow physically weak people to pass on their weak genes. A caveman with asthma most likely would have died early in life or would not have been able to compete with others to collect food. Today a person with asthma, like me, is able to live a long life instead and perhaps give my own future children asthma. According to Cavalli- Sforza (2002), medicine “allows the survival of certain types of disabilities, which are bound to increase their incidence” (p. E-53). The author also adds that “curable genetic diseases and handicaps are likely to increase in numbers, both relative and absolute” (p. E-53). Experts predict that human’s current antibiotics will eventually be unable to compete with infectious parasites that have evolved alongside them over the past 150 years. Thus, technological innovations are creating an overall less fit human race (Cavalli-Sforza).
Last, cavemen lived in an environment that facilitated health and wellbeing. Cavemen lived in a world free of the pollution and carcinogens we must deal with today. They had no cars to produce smog, no cigarettes, no pesticides, and no plastic to microwave. They didn’t have the ease of a grocery store that we do today. They had to work to find wholesome, healthy food. Without the same benefits of shelter, they were forced to be in the sun. With later discovery, we now know that sun is a necessary part of our lives. Those of us who spend their entire days inside are not acquiring our fill. People need time in the sun to create Vitamin D that is necessary for bone health, and cancer and cardiovascular disease prevention. Finally, cavemen were not only healthier physically, but mentally. They had much lower levels of stress than we do today. According to Hutchinson (2011), “In the typical hunter-gatherer life long periods of low stress were punctuated with short bouts of acute stress that triggered the fight-or-flight response. In contrast, modern office workers often show signs of chronically elevated stress, which can have consequences such as a weakened immune system.”
All in all, cavemen led healthier lifestyles than people today in more than one way. They ate wholesome, healthy foods, all the while limiting their carb intake. They ate small, frequent meals, therefore maintaining their blood sugar. They were physically active for far longer everyday. They naturally maintained only their healthiest genes, thus creating a strong race. They even lived in an environment that fostered health and wellness.
While we may no longer need to live in caves or hunt and forage for our food, we can still learn something from the caveman way of life. We can take advantage of modern day medical advances and transportation, but still incorporate a diet and exercise similar to that of a caveman.
Bhatia, R. (2011, February 06). Adopt a caveman lifestyle. Mail Today. Retrieved from http://www.lexisnexis.com.libproxy.furman.edu/hottopics/lnacademic/?shr=t&csi=365192&sr=("Adopt a caveman lifestyle")
Cavalli-Sforza, L. (2002) Human genetic and linguistic diversity: Genetics and the future of humanity. Encyclopedia of Evolution. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012, March 07). Exercise statistics. Retrieved from http://www.statisticbrain.com/exercise-statistics/
Fahey, T. D., Insel, P. M., & Roth, W. T. (2011). Fit & Well: Core concepts and labs in physical fitness and wellness. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Hutchinson, A. (2011, November 21). Paleo lifestyle; should you go caveman? The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.lexisnexis.com.libproxy.furman.edu/hottopics/lnacademic/?shr=t&csi=303830&sr=("THE PALEO LIFESTYLE: SHOULD YOU GO CAVEMAN?")
The importance of eating small portions. (2011). Fitday. Retrieved from http://www.fitday.com/fitness-articles/nutrition/healthy-eating/the-importance-of-eating-small-portions.html
Khan, A. (2009, November 7). Why low carb diets work. Retrieved from http://www.youmeworks.com/whylowcarb.html
Lambert, T., (2012). The Cro-Magnons. Retrieved from http://www.localhistories.org/cro-magnon.html