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Living Like a Caveman

Northwestern expert not surprised that Paleolithic diet works for modern-day humans

September 30, 2011 | by Hilary Hurd Anyaso

EVANSTON, Ill. --- William R. Leonard, professor and chair of anthropology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University, was the perfect person to consult about how well modern-day humans could adapt to a traditional hunting and gathering way of life.

That is what the Discovery Channel’s “I Caveman,” scheduled to air at 8 p.m. EST Sunday, Oct. 2, aimed to find out -- what would happen when 10 people spent 10 days living like cavemen and cavewomen?

Leonard, who was present for most of the taping of “I Caveman,” has conducted extensive research on the diets and ways of prehistoric populations. He said cooperation and sharing are essential to the survival of hunter-gatherers. The show’s participants, he was certain, would face great challenges living as traditional subsistence hunter-gatherers.

“In our modern world we tend to be individualistic in the ways in which we go about our daily lives,” he said. “The hunting and gathering way of life is very much a divide-and- conquer strategy where each person is focused on different kinds of resources, which need to be brought back to a central location and shared. That proved to be one of the more difficult tasks for this group.”

Equally challenging, a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer requires heavy expenditures of activity and energy everyday, so caloric requirements go way up. “Yet, compared to the foods that we eat in our modern day world, those of ancient hunter-gatherers were much less calorically dense,” Leonard said.

His research shows that the transition from a subsistence to a modern, sedentary lifestyle has created energy imbalances that have increased rapidly – evolutionarily speaking – in recent years and now play a major role in obesity. He stresses that activity patterns are as important as the consumption of unhealthy foods to reverse the evolutionary trend that now contributes to obesity worldwide.

Leonard was adamant that the best way to evaluate the group’s success as hunter-gatherers was to collect various health data at the beginning, look at them in the end, and see what the numbers tell us. “The numbers tell a pretty clear story,” he said.

The six men and four women who followed a typical Paleolithic diet, which includes meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, roots and nuts, in high-altitude Colorado, all lost weight. They lost an average of 13.6 pounds and experienced significant improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose levels.

Remarkably, measures of grip strength were maintained, likely the result of their elevated levels of physical activity. “Overall, the group did remarkably well considering the difficult circumstances they had to confront,” Leonard said.

Of the 10 participants, eight made it all 10 days. One man and one woman dropped out along the way.

Leonard collected data along with Aaron A. Miller, a doctoral candidate in anthropology. 

Topics: Research