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Paleolithic diet is so easy, cavemen actually did it

By Christina Ianzito
Saturday, January 2, 2010; C01

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.

Cordain writes that our Paleolithic ancestors were "lean, fit and free from heart disease and other ailments that plague Western countries." Now, he adds: "Look at us. We're a mess. We eat too much, we eat the wrong foods, and we're fat."

No argument on that last part.

It's near impossible to even guesstimate how many people are eating Paleo, but you'd likely find followers at one of the 1,000-plus CrossFit affiliates across the country, including at least 15 in the Washington area. Most are educating their clients about eating Paleo, says Chris LaLanne, owner of LaLanne Fitness in San Francisco and the grandnephew of the fitness guru Jack LaLanne. The younger LaLanne is a writer for Cordain's Web site, http://www.thepaleodiet.com.

The shadow of doubt

Of course, there are skeptics. Harvard professor of social sciences and paleontology expert David Pilbeam writes by e-mail: "I think it's quite possible there have been at least some genetic changes since the Neolithic [the period after the Paleolithic when anthropologists think farming was born] that would modify digestive processes (enzymes, etc.) to adjust to what have been in many cases quite radically transformed diets," and he points to most modern humans' ability to digest milk.

Jeremias is tired of feeling like she has to defend what she chooses to eat, and has reached a point at which she's not concerned with the nitty-gritty of the scientific data. "I feel like I shouldn't have to be an encyclopedia of medical research," she says. What's important is that she's never felt healthier.

Still, she says, "I hesitate to talk about it sometimes, especially with my friends because I feel like I'm kind of a weird eater now." Her best friend, a vegetarian, teases Jeremias by calling her a paleontologist.

Jeremias lives in a group house in Mount Pleasant with four other people in their 20s, including one who's into drinking green health shakes, a quasi-vegetarian and, according to his housemates, a "pizza-by-the-slice guy." Jeremias keeps her own white mini-fridge on top of her housemates' beer fridge (Jeremias rarely drinks alcohol, which is not strictly Paleo). In September she attempted to wow her housemates with a five-course Paleolithic extravaganza, she says, "so they can understand why I'd want to eat this way." It worked, though not to the point of converting anyone.

Anna Shoup admits, "We were kind of skeptical at first," but then came that dinner: sesame tuna; lettuce wraps with ground turkey and veggies in an almond-butter sauce; a fennel-and-apple salad; a "pasta" dish made with spaghetti squash noodles and coconut milk; and roasted asparagus. While Jeremias is out of earshot preparing lunch after the shopping trip, Shoup reports, "It was amazing."

Modernity does intrude, even for the most ardent Paleophile. Dark chocolate "is my cheat," Jeremias admits. "Everybody has that one thing that they need for their sanity." She sometimes puts chocolate chips in her Paleo pancakes (almond-nut butter, eggs, unsweetened applesauce, vanilla and cinnamon fried in coconut oil).

But now when she does eat off the diet: "I immediately feel physically ill, bloated and really lethargic. I think [before eating Paleo] I was probably feeling like that all the time."

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