Paleo enthusiasts turn the "caveman diet" into a lifestyle

Sep 15, 2011 at 4:00 am
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, 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.

"We're really focused on avoiding the diseases of civilization," he says. "We use the term 'diseases of civilization' to refer to at least three prominent conditions: type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. Our Paleolithic predecessors never had those issues." (No one inside the group challenges such claims by pointing out how much we have yet to learn about said predecessors.)

The degree to which you adapt the principles of the caveman lifestyle to your daily routine becomes important. Some go all the way. For two months now, Born has slept on a flat bed he built from lumber and bamboo purchased at Lowe's. And though it's hard to look past his whistle, he's currently wearing Vibram FiveFingers, glorified foot gloves that are about as close to the barefoot caveman aesthetic as you can get without actually being barefoot.

"I sleep on a flat surface because the people who live in Third World countries do that and have been doing it for a long time," Born says. "They don't have back problems, and reasons like this are probably why. It's only recently that life became so complicated, and we needed all of these extra things."

The last remaining link in the chain of St. Louis enthusiasts reenvisioning the diet as a large-scale lifestyle is simply the need for more links. And that's the hardest part. It's tough to convince people to shirk modern conventions and adopt a diet that can be roughly 50 percent fat — much less to do so while name-dropping cavemen like a Geico pitchman.

"I've found that the more advice I give people, the quicker they just refuse it," Libbie says. "It's not helpful to say, 'Try this instead of what you've been doing your whole life.' I know it sounds crazy, but I also know it worked for me, which makes it harder that I have no idea how to make it work for you."

In the meantime, those who have already been converted are cracking post-workout jokes even as they struggle to breathe without panting. There's a joke about how one dieter shouldn't have eaten so much fat before the workout. There's a one-liner about spears, which early humans used to throw around, much like the weights now spread across the grass. There's some cackling, followed by the collection of those weights and the search to identify and claim the bikes they rode in on.

"Holy crap, who had this weight?" asks a member, who has picked up what is easily the most awkward piece. "This is almost Neanderthal."