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The Modern Caveman’s Dilemma

Who Should Eat the Paleo Diet?

Co Authors:

Heather K.L. Harden
Life Sciences
Quest University Canada

Michael L. Foley
Life Sciences
Quest University Canada

Rachel A. Poon
Life Sciences
Quest University Canada

Annie Prud’homme-Genereux
Life Sciences
Quest University Canada


During the Paleolithic era, human life expectancy was only 33 years—roughly half of what it is today. We owe our more extended lives in part to better hygiene, medicines, and more plentiful foods. Yet some people aspire to return to that earlier era, at least at dinnertime. The Paleolithic diet (Paleo for short) is based on the belief that humans are optimally adapted to the foods available to our hunter-gatherer ancestors and eschews processed foods and the products of traditional agriculture (e.g., grains, milks, legumes). This case study uses role play to investigate the dietary, environmental, sports performance, and evolutionary basis and implications of this diet. Each team of students is provided with information on one of these aspects, which they evaluate and later disclose to other students in a jigsaw activity to decide whether the protagonist should go Paleo. The case takes roughly one hour to complete, requires no background, and is suitable for a nutrition, evolution, anthropology, or introductory biology course.

  • Describe the Paleo diet, how its food choices differ from a standard North American diet, and the health, athletic performance, and environmental implications of these food choices.
  • Critically evaluate the ideological grounding of this diet (i.e., evaluate whether it is based on sound evolutionary principles and provide arguments for this conclusion).
  • Weigh competing priorities and evidence in determining whether someone should follow a particular diet plan.
Keywords: Diet; nutrition; Paleolithic; Paleo Diet; food choices; exercise; sustainability; cavemen
Topical Area: Pseudoscience
Educational Level: Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division, Graduate, Professional (degree program), Clinical education, General public & informal education
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Dilemma/Decision, Jig-Saw, Role-Play
Language: English
Subject Headings: Nutrition   Evolutionary Biology   Biology (General)   Physiology   Biochemistry   Food Science / Technology   Environmental Science   Anthropology   Sports Science   Public Health   Agriculture  
Date Posted: 12/2/2014
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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The science in this case is good, but the stereotyping of middle-aged women as bored housewives who need their children to figure things out for them is offensive. My students are adult learners and I cannot use this case because of its setting.

Renee Judd
Learning and Information Technology
National Louis University
Chicago, Illinois
I used this case in my AP Biology class because it was an excellent opportunity for students to use evidence to support conclusions. Each family presentation was required to cite research and articles mentioned in the case. After the presentations (which all came to the same conclusion) pairs answered a set of summary questions, also citing research and articles mentioned in the case. I would be happy to share these summary questions.

Nicole Benenati
Ithaca High School
Ithaca, NY

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