Paleolithic diet is so easy, cavemen actually did it

By Christina Ianzito
Saturday, January 2, 2010

Here's a question for the weight-conscious: How often do you see a fat caveman? Exactly. Maybe excepting Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, most portrayals of the people who lived 12,000 years ago depict svelte folks baring rock-hard -- if hairy -- abs. What's their secret? Surely it's great exercise to be out chasing woolly mammoths and foraging for berries all day. And it helped that there were no Fruity Pebbles or venti white chocolate mochas hundreds of generations ago.

But, seriously, what if we ate like our Paleolithic ancestors? That would be lots of lean meats, nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables; no grains, salt, sugar, legumes or dairy products. Some people do, and it's called the Paleo diet -- short for Paleolithic, which refers to the era before agriculture took hold, a movement away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle that resulted in settled societies, and, eventually, Twinkies and couch potatoes.

The idea is not as weird as it sounds, says Jennifer Jeremias, a jewelry artist and research assistant at the American Institutes for Research, as she strolled through the P Street Whole Foods Market recently. After nine months of following the meal plan religiously (with minor lapses for chocolate's sake), Jeremias, 27, says "eating Paleo" has beaten back debilitating migraines. She insists she sleeps better, her allergy symptoms have disappeared, her mood has improved, and -- not her goal but a nice bonus -- she has shaved 10 pounds off her solid 5-foot-5 frame.

"I did get a cold, I think, like a few months ago," she adds, "but it was so mild that it was almost hard to tell if I was sick."

What's not to like? Only giving up things like rice, which sometimes feels strange when she visits her Vietnamese mother in Woodbridge, where Jeremias grew up. But she's getting used to adaptations, such as forgoing noodles in her pho, or using coconut flakes mixed with almond meal for flour.

She has a system. At Whole Foods, wearing a vintage-ish white dress over blue tights and tall black boots, she plops organic apples, ginger, avocado, parsley and crisp fennel into her cart, but skips quickly past the aisles stocked with bread and pasta. From the dairy sections she grabs only a half-gallon of coconut milk and a pint of Coconut Bliss ice cream made with coconut milk and agave ("Finding Paleo-friendly ice cream was like the holy grail for me," she says). She looks longingly at but bypasses a table of chocolate, considers turkey jerky for a snack, and picks wild-caught yellowfin tuna to cook for lunch. It's $19.99 a pound.

"I was taught to never feel bad about spending money on food and what I put in my body," she says.

She figures she spends $100 a week for groceries, and puts effort into preparing meals that are "really beautiful and really delicious. . . . It makes me really happy about being on this diet and staying on it."

Prehistoric recipes

She started the diet last spring on the advice of her fitness coaches at CrossFit MPH near Logan Circle, which offers nutrition counseling with its supervised, high-intensity group workouts. Her coach John Main says there's no fancy electronic equipment, but a lot of old-fashioned calisthenics -- "very prehistoric movements."

Main says at least half of his gym's 80 or so members follow the diet pretty consistently, thanks to his convincing pitch that "this is how our human bodies have evolved to consume and process our nutrition" before the "onset of modern agriculture." ("Modern agriculture" can sound like a disease in Paleo-speak.)

He has followed the diet himself for two years, and believes he's better able to power through tough workouts, recovers from intense exercise more quickly and has greater "mental clarity."

The scientific premise, as Main suggests, is that our dietary needs were formed 500 generations ago and are nearly identical to those of Stone Agers. This was first proposed in the 1980s, but popularized with 2002's "The Paleo Diet," by Loren Cordain, a professor at Colorado State University. Cordain points to Paleo man's proper balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats, a balance that would have prevented chronic heart conditions. He also details the havoc starchy carbohydrates cause for blood glucose and insulin levels and the toxicity of sodium.

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