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."

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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42 comments
Caveman diet
Caveman diet

The consumers of Caveman diet give up eating any kind of processed food, and survive by eating what is provided by nature, that is, vegetables, meat, berries, nuts, fruits, and water.

Kate
Kate

After 4 months of eating primally (with 1-2 weekly exceptions for dinner with family), I'm happier and healthier than I have been in years. I lost 30 pounds and brought my high blood pressure into a normal range. All I had to do was trade eating processed crap and staying up all night for nutritious meals prepared at home and full night's sleep. Ditching sugar and wheat was the best thing I've ever done for myself. I'm not interested in giving up modern conveniences for the sake of reenactment, but I'll happily turn down pasta and pizza in favor of looking and feeling amazing. Pass the grassfed beef and coconut oil!

Laura Gillespie
Laura Gillespie

SGT, I invite you to join us over on meetup.com. In fact, anyone interested in joining us in our primal/paleo activities is welcome. That means all fellow followers of a more ancestral diet, devoid of processed foods and other crap. No need to latch onto the "caveman" schtick. www.meetup.com/primal-living-s...

SGT
SGT

Very neat that we have a Primal group here in STL! I'm a type 2 diabetic who has controlled my diabetes by switching to a Primal diet... I'm off medication and have the blood sugar of a non-diabetic...not to mention my cholesterol has improved and I continue to lose weight. Great article! I wish more people realized the truth about crappy food and stopped believing the lies that food made in a lab or factory is better than what nature gives us! Fat is not the enemy, neither is meat. Live, eat, and play!

Hugh
Hugh

As someone who's been following the paleo community for about 3 years, I feel like this was a pretty well-balanced article. Personally, I haven't turned it into a lifestyle with the same vigor that others have, but instead I use it as a basic set of guidelines to help guide my food choices, as well as my workouts (short & intense instead of long and plodding).

The article mentions eating a high fat diet and some commenters here have been dogging carbohydrates, but neither of those dietary approaches are common to all paleo enthusiasts. There's a growing segment who advocate eating starchy carbohydrates in the form of sweet potatoes, white potatoes, as well as fruit. This is what sets paleo apart from being an Atkins redux. One's tolerance to carbohydrate, and fat for that matter, vary based upon genetics and lifestyle, and there's scant evidence to backup the assertion that "all carbs are the devil".

Another interesting aspect to the paleo world is that many of its intellectual leaders do not self-identify as paleo (Chris Masterjohn, Stephan Guyenet, Paul Jaminet, Kurt Harris, Chris Kresser and so on). They are not interested in being gurus for the next diet cult; rather they are interested in one thing and one thing only: what is the best way to eat for optimal health. And their recommendations are firmly grounded in science.

And really, when it comes down to it, there's nothing new here. Shop the perimeter of the supermarket (vegetables, fruit, meat, eggs & dairy). There, you're eating paleo.

B.Accardi
B.Accardi

Is the front cover of this issue a typo? It isn't the same title inside the paper or on your website.

If you're trying to grab attention with the cover, it only detracts from the article itself and confuses the reader. If it is a typo, I am sorry for whoever the last person to review the cover is.

I was waiting for the punch-line, like maybe one the members of this group said, "This lifestyle is so easy, not only a caveman, but a caveWOMAN could do it!" I would have been annoyed anyway because of the subtlety of sexism, but more annoyed that it never came full circle.

Regardless, it's much more discouraging that you didn't make Samaha's article the headliner in the first place, as it is more relevant to the larger community of St. Louis. Did you think no one would be interested in that article? Or is the cover supposed to annoy me and get me to read it, realize it's a one-page article and then turn the page to stumble upon something way more important?

Just wondering...I still love you, RFT--thank you to Albert Samaha for your story.

Bryan Roesner
Bryan Roesner

A little recognition for our paleo community!

Leah
Leah

Fellow member here, too. Dropped 30+ lbs over the past year by going Primal and am off all diabetes/hypothyroid meds. I guess that makes me an idiot for "eating like a caveman?" So be it.I’m glad this article mentioned the workouts (we're not just "throwing inordinately heavy objects" we also do potlucks, hikes, dinners out, local events & races, plus cow-pooling!), but I don’t think it talked enough about the nutrition aspect of paleo/primal… the WHY we cut out these things from our diet (the science behind how it works.) It’s not just to style ourselves after our predecessors, that’s really not it at all. In fact, many of us roll our eyes at the non-stop “caveman” analogies. :) Regarding the picture; where's the MEAT? Haha

Denise Bertacchi
Denise Bertacchi

The article said they "shirk modern conventions" not modern conveniences. Hard mattresses are nothing new (my husband would have us sleeping on a board if I let him) and those foot gloves are ultra high tech. I'm sure they're not bathing in the Mississippi or hunting squirrels with pointy sticks for dinner. They're just doing a hard core version of a low carb diet.

Bryan
Bryan

Ha! I am one of these idjits and proud of it. Since joining Primal Living STL I've dropped 20 lbs during the month of August, attended our bi-weekly free CrossFit workouts provided by two great certified coaches, and feel awesome. My energy levels no longer peak and dip through out the day. I sleep better. It works for me.

To the naysayers I say this, try it for 30 days. Hell, what possible damage could you do in 30 days? Quit eating fast food? Learn to cook more than pasta, ramen noodles, and other processes carbs? Try focusing on fresh foods, fruit, vegetables, meat, and nuts. Drink water.

Get outside and run up and down a hill till your ready to puke. And no I don't mean jog, I mean run like that leopard or bear is chasing you. Run for your life! Why spend an hour on a treadmill when any intelligent trainer will tell you intensity is what makes you stronger, faster, better.

Or don't, that just means more meat for me! :)

OogaBooga
OogaBooga

The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing humans that carbs were good sources of food.

For a long time we were lied to about food. The medical establishment told us that eating fat led to heart attacks and obesity, even though there was no science to back this up. So people gobbled down "low-fat" foods only to find themselves becoming fatter and sicker.

Of course, the doctors loved this, since more sick people = more $$ for them. There's nothing doctors love more than people with diabetes, since they are easy to treat and even easier to bill.

But the truth has come out. Carbs make you fat. Carbs give you heart disease. Fat was never the culprit, it was just the scapegoat of a corrupt medical industry.

http://www.scientificamerican....

Cebon84!!
Cebon84!!

It's always a pleasure to see people picking and choosing bits of articles to slam and take out of context, as well as calling others "idiots" because you don't fully grasp what the author is talking about.

I've been following Paleo guidelines for almost a year, and have more energy, peace of mind, and am healthier than I have ever been in my entire life. (And I was in the military for seven years.) To clarify, in addition to "paleo-idiots'....nuts and berries", we eat a ton of fish, poultry, nearly every meat imaginable (many of use include bacon), fruits and vegetables, all of which actually taste pretty good once you stop stuffing your face with refined sugar and fast food. Perhaps making one's own meals from real food instead of pouring it out of a box reading "instant" does sounds bizarre.......

"Any of these guys over 35 would have been elderly and broken by now"... Seriously? Because they eat healthy foods and exercise in a way you don't understand? That makes absolutely no sense. Do a little research - do you have any idea how many MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) artists have switched to Paleo and now swear by it?

What is the point in childishly ripping something (healthy) apart which works for those of us who commit to the lifestyle? Try doing a little research about Paleo and educate yourself before you go on a stupid rant. It makes you look ignorant, not them.

Here: http://robbwolf.com/faq/;

Amie
Amie

Kudos on a pretty good article on a lifestyle that is often derided or misunderstood by the media.

For those people who think that Primal or Paleo lifestyle people are idiots, or those who are genuinely intrigued, I would suggest any of the following books:

Why We Get Fat, or the more detailed, Good Calories, Bad Calories, by Gary TaubesThe Paleo Solution, by Robb Wolfor my personal favorite, The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson.

I am a fairly recent convert to the primal lifestyle and can't advocate it strongly enough. Eating whole foods instead of processed or artificial foods, exercising, getting adequate outdoor time, getting adequate sleep, avoiding stress, and living with intention. Where is the folly in that?

KITTY
KITTY

Remember, cavemen dragged their women around by the hair. They didn't bathe. They would have stunk to high heaven and god only knows how many fleas and ticks they had crawling around on their filthy stinkin bodies. So if these modern day paeleo-idiots really wanna be the cavemen they idolize then give up all modern conveniences of life, go live in a cave and watch the maggots crawl around the carcass of the bear they have been munching on for the past ten days. Perhaps the reason they wanna be paleo-idiots is because they can't really qualify or compete with the real he-men who are Iron Man triathletes. The Iron Men are the toughest of the tough and can do more than throw 30 pound rocks at each other and they don't have to eat the shitty diet of these toy boys. And as far as PETA goes, I have been a lifelong member of PETA: People Eating Tasty Animals. I'll choose a good steak any day over the grass and berries of the paelo-idiots.

Anonymous
Anonymous

What idjits. Early hunter/gatherers were not necessarily larger (some were, some weren't) and they were in general healthier than early agriculturalists. This is because early agriculture was shockingly unbalanced and gathering together for the first time in largish numbers with animals making them vulnerable to all sorts of new and unpleasant diseases. "Cavemen" were fairly robust since they were subject to a really aggressive winnowing of the unfit. For real training lets have these pulps run screaming from leopards and large bears. Modern life is substantially better and healthier than that of our ancient ancestors whether farmers or hunter-gatherers. Any of these guys over 35 would have been elderly and broken by now.

Bryan
Bryan

Cow-pooling! Haha! That's great Leah.

Bendwhitney
Bendwhitney

This is false. There are plenty of carbs in starchy tubers like sweet potatoes, yams, taro, etc. and fruit and vegetables, nuts, etc. Paleo is macronutrient agnostic. We've got nothing against carbs, just garbage carbs.

homebirther22
homebirther22

My hubby is more paleo and I am more primal--he has lost 98lbs since getting started in January this year and I have lost about 20lbs since starting in June. I only got interested after he hit the 50lb mark and had not started exercising yet--yes, he lost 50lbs while sitting at his computer! More importantly his RA is gone, his depression is gone, and he's got more energy than guys half his age.(he's 44) For me, my "brain-fog" and mood swings are gone, my sugar cravings are gone, and I feel awesome! Before you naysayers start in on "fad diet" rhetoric, start researching it--you will find that "conventional wisdom" is a big, fat lie....

BoulevardHeights
BoulevardHeights

Wow... you are a hateful fucking person. I don't know the first thing about this caveman diet, but for you to just bring your unsolicited comments forth bashing random people because you think they follow a stupid lifestyle plan... wow. You've got to be either fat, ugly, sexually starved, divorced, or some combination of these, and definitely an unhappy person who treats others poorly. You need to move to an area where the rest of your same crotchety judgmental kind love to sit and look down noses. Go live in St. Charles or Ballwin; I'm relatively confident that you maybe already do.

Marion
Marion

You're making judgements and assumptions when you don't have enough information. As some one else mentioned, paleo and primal are focused on eating meat. The author even said "hunters and gatherers".

In addition, of the (say) 20 people in our paleo/primal group (each individual follows this lifestyle 'diet' to their own preference), there are 2 Ironmen. That's right, swam 2.4 miles, biked 112 miles, and then ran 26.2 miles. They both are healthier and happier than ever in this lifestyle. That's 10 percent of our group. That's a better percentage than in the general public. So again, you should be more advised to get more information before you try and rip apart some one else's healthy choices.

Amie
Amie

Steak is not only allowed but encouraged on a paleo/primal diet. Organic, grass-fed beef is better because there are less toxins in the meat than a grain-fed, plant-processed animal, but I think we can all agree that eating the best meat you can afford is a good thing.

Also allowed: pork (bacon!), chicken, vegetables of all kinds, and fruit with an emphasis on nutrient dense fruit such as blueberries or raspberries.

Although most Paleo diets eschew dairy, Primal allows it in limited quantities, and encourages (again) the best dairy you can afford.

Primal and Paleo diets also encourage the consumption of nuts and whole-food fats and oils. Grass-fed butter? Primal yes. Olive oil? Sure. Coconut oil? My favorite! Read up on how canola oil is made -- it's not pretty.

What's not allowed? Foods that tend to cause inflammation and digestive distress, namely refined grains, oils, and excessive quantities of sweeteners. Foods that affect your Insulin Sensitivity and adversely affect your liver and kidneys. IMO, High Fructose Corn Syrup/HFCS/HFCS-55/"Corn Sugar" has done more to damage the Western diet than just about anything in memory.

As for the paleolithic woman, she had to work together with her mate or group to provide food, shelter, and safety to the more vulnerable people in the group. She likely nursed her children until they were 2 to 3 years old. She had to know by sight the plants and food that would poison a person, and the plants and food that could heal a sick person. And she had to do all that without the aid of modern conveniences. Would I trade places with her? No, there are far more aspects of modern life that I enjoy than those that I find destructive. Would I rather emulate her, modern-style, than say, Kim Kardashian? Absolutely.

It's always interesting to me that many people who are vehemently against a Paleo or Primal diet are progressive in many other ways. Do yourself a favor and question conventional wisdom in this just as you question it in other areas. You might find that you want to continue your way of eating, but at least you will be better informed about it.

stevewonderful
stevewonderful

@Anonymous Paleo, Primal, just Atkins re-done. If you compare what you can eat and not eat between these diets they are almost identical. What about potatoes? Can't have them. Fruits, can't have them. Dried beans, can't have them. This my friends is not normal. Moderation, PORTION SIZE and excercise is the answer.  I would agree it's best to avoid processed foods and refined sugars. Whole grains in moderation. Carbs in moderation. This works for me. Nothing new in the diet world. Just the same ideas in a different package to sell books.

Amie
Amie

Great job! It's great that you guys are feeling so much better, and I'll bet you're looking pretty good too. ;-)

 
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