Paleo: Wanna Go Caveman?

by Michael on January 13, 2010 · 0 comments

Scientific proof that the Neanderthals had take-out. (Photo by Lord Jim, original art by Banksy, duh)

I’ve heard of the Paleo Diet off and on for a while now, but according to this New York Times article it’s gaining momentum. The assumption behind Paleo is that human bodies were intended to consume only the food that existed in the Paleolithic era, before agriculture gave us breads, pasta and Hungry-Man Dinners. That would mean you eat the things you can hunt (meat, seafood) or gather (eggs, fruit, vegetables) but not those you must tend and harvest (grains, legumes), extract (dairy) or process (sugar, salt, frozen pizza). Under the diet you theoretically (and in practice, many do) look and feel healthier, prevent disease and build strength.

That’s the basic gist, and not a bad way to go. These foods are nutrient-rich and if the meat is lean, the overall diet is high in protein and fiber and low in fat.

More Than a Diet?

But the NYT piece shows that there is a purist element to Paleo-ism: to truly mimic our distant ancestors, some go on regular fasts (representing the periods between successful hunts) and exercise like cavemen, crawling on all fours and even performing what I’d call a primitive version of Parkour (although many Paleo devotees are also Crossfit disciples). Alcohol is verboten. One man scoffs at another for growing his own tomatoes (they didn’t exist for most humans back then), and some even frequently give blood to parallel the injuries ancient man may have faced. (Note: how much of this was played up for the benefit of the reporter is unknown.)

I was surprised they stopped there. Shouldn’t “primal living” include a kind of Fight Club to represent the battles between tribes and males fighting over the most desirable females? Why don’t they live in homes without heat or electricity? Should they listen only to music consisting of sticks beating on logs and rocks?

As with everything, part of this comes from the human need to be part of a tribe — one trait that hasn’t changed at all over the millennia. Someone devises rituals to bond the tribe together, and the explanations are merely secondary. And a lot of these have modern-world value: giving blood helps others, and exercise is almost always good, whether done with barbells or rocks and boulders. A hardcore Paleo also walks whenever possible, which can only be bad in certain parts of town.

The Catch (There’s Always a Catch)

Fasting, however, while not the worst idea when done infrequently, can be dangerous if it’s not done right, and regular fasting doesn’t seem to serve much of a purpose other than to feel a bond. Getting enough calcium, especially for older participants, can be a challenge without taking a supplement. And experts say that Paleolithic man did consume legumes and grains (maybe even wine), although probably in much smaller amounts than we do today.

Then there are the masses who hear of the “new” diet and try it half-heartedly. I lived through the Atkins craze of the early 2000s, so I know there’s about a 90/10 ratio of people who try a diet to people who actually live the diet, even for a short time. I can see guys eating bad cuts of domestic crap-fed beef and chemically treated vegetables by the ton, deciding their “one cheat” will be to liberally salt everything, and ending up worse off than they started. If you’re gonna do this, do this. Otherwise try the Zone.

Doing Paleo right means eating lots of fresh and raw fruits and vegetables, cooking without sodium, and giving up sugar, rice and bread. You also want to be sure your staples are organic and that your meat is lean and grass-fed — so you’ll be paying a lot more for the ingredients. On the other hand, it’ll be hard enough to find a restaurant serving truly Paleo meals that you’ll do most of your cooking at home, so you’ll save money there. (Maybe that’s why Paleo followers band together: they need meal partners.)

To tell the truth, when I started writing this I wasn’t sure exactly how I felt about a Paleo diet, but as I researched more and stripped away the pseudo-science and tribalism it made sense. You’re eating the best, healthiest food and cutting out all the crap that we just can’t resist adding to each meal. You don’t have to live like a caveman to get most of the advantages of the diet itself, as long as you’re maintaining a consistent, vigorous exercise plan.

I may have actually talked myself into trying it. But am I willing to give up coffee? Stay tuned.

The New Age Cavemen and the City [NY Times]

Paleolithic Diet [Wikipedia]

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