Paleo enthusiasts turn the "caveman diet" into a lifestyle

Paleo enthusiasts turn the "caveman diet" into a lifestyle
Jesse Lenz

If there's something strange about reverting to the way of your ancestors and throwing inordinately heavy objects around Tower Grove Park, neither Alex Born nor the other six people wielding 10- to 30-pound weights on this Tuesday evening can see it. And maybe, just maybe, there really isn't anything weird here: What they're doing is going back — think caveman far back — in history for both today's workout and the lifestyle behind it. What's so odd about that?

Right now, however, they're being reprimanded by a park security guard, who appears uninspired by their reckless abandon.

"Don't do that anymore," he says with a dramatic shake of his head. "You can't just throw things around the park."

Alex Born leads members of Primal Living STL through an intense workout every Tuesday evening at Tower Grove Park.
Jason Stoff
Alex Born leads members of Primal Living STL through an intense workout every Tuesday evening at Tower Grove Park.
Jason Stoff

OK, so maybe it is a little weird.

The seven-person crew is divided into teams: "hunters" and "gatherers." For about fifteen minutes, they vie to see which team can toss the awkward weights the greatest number of times before succumbing to exhaustion and moving on to the next task. To the victor goes, well, nothing — other than the knowledge that they worked out the hardest.

But what might appear to be seven rogue nut jobs is actually a small contingent of Primal Living STL. And that group's 87 members are a proud part of a larger picture, a lifestyle devoted to the practice of the "Paleolithic," or "primal," diet. Defined only by its strictest intentions, the diet calls on an informed knowledge of how pre-Homo sapiens ate roughly 2.5 million years ago. The goal here is that 80 percent of the food followers consume should be something their predecessors might have picked up, brushed off and ingested: grass-fed meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts.

The list of forbidden foods is longer: Dairy products, sugar, salt, processed oils and even grains and legumes are off-limits. Although Born, the group's Tuesday workout leader, insists it's possible to eat out on the paleo diet, the menu item he suggests is a salad — and even that requires removing a few ingredients.

Though informed by anthropology and practically obsessed with the concept of evolution, the diet is a tough sell, he admits.

Still, "we find in the records that humans were biggest and more robust before the dawn of agriculture," Born says. "Anthropologists have always known what we should eat. Scientists only recently got it wrong."

The paleo diet is by no means new. It gained early attention through the recommendations of a gastroenterologist in 1975 and saw its popularity rise in the '90s.

What's worth noting today, however, is the fervor with which it has been reappropriated. It no longer fits comfortably inside the category of "diet"; it's a lifestyle. Those who adhere to the diet's strictest tenets become almost religious about the ideas behind it. Today signing on may include buying a "primal living" cookbook, subscribing to the newly launched Paleo Magazine and joining one of the dozens of "Primal Lifestyle" groups on Meetup.com, of which the St. Louis branch is one.

Usually interest in eating paleo-style starts with a different diet gone wrong. Born, his fellow workout leader Michael Libbie and a handful of other group members began their path to paleo through a similar diet called the Zone, which concentrates on food proportion over food quality. Many of the group's members, its instructors included, are also devotees of CrossFit training, a hardy brand of physical conditioning. That interest makes the birth of their paleo fixation a kind of a chicken-or-the-gym situation. Usually, either CrossFit training leads you to the paleo diet, or you use CrossFit to supplement the paleo diet once you start practicing it.

"The typical reaction is that people think it's pretty crackpot because of how much fat we eat," Libbie says. "Since the standard conventional wisdom since the '60s is to eat a low-fat diet, it has permeated everyone's consciousness to the point that it's gospel. The resistance we get is, 'Ewww, you eat all that fat?'"

Yes, you do. And, for a while, most members concede, you cheat. "There are days when I'll walk down to Schnucks and buy six donuts and eat them," Libbie says. "As time goes on, though, I do it less and less."

For Born, cheating on the diet recently meant ingesting trail mix, an action that he is more ashamed of than seems strictly warranted. (The mix, after all, was mostly nuts.) Another sign things are veering into lifestyle territory: Several of the group's members admit they look into other carts at the grocery store to see whether the shoppers might be secret paleo followers. Without fail, a carton of ice cream will destroy that curiosity.

One of the group's members is a former vegetarian. (The tension here rises: Vegetarians hate the paleo diet's reliance on fatty meat.) But she adopted the lifestyle to aid her health problems. Her story has since become popular inside the group, as her severe depression cleared when she progressed through the ranks.

Members say it can help with other ailments, too. Libbie, who is tall, lean, sweaty, tattooed and shirtless for this workout session, claims a slight drop in body fat.

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