We’re used to seeing the potato as a focal point of conflict and discord, the clichéd casualty of the carbohydrate wars. But hoopla over green beans, that healthiest of vegetables? There are lots of reasons why Loren Cordain wouldn’t touch a green bean. If you ask him, he might talk about how legumes can render a healthy gut “leaky.” Or he might rant about their “anti-nutrient” properties. But it would come down to this: green beans weren’t around tens of thousands of years ago, when our prehistoric ancestors ushered in the Paleolithic era with the first tools made of stone. And so we shouldn’t eat them today.
“It’s not rocket science,” Cordain insists. His book, The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Food You Were Designed to Eat, now a bible to a small but growing subculture, is built around a simple premise: humans evolved over millions of years. Modern agriculture has been around for just 10,000, a blip on the evolutionary timeline. Because of this, humans are healthiest when eating as they did before agriculture came along—in other words, like cavemen.
The diet boils down to meat (lots of it), seafood, eggs, vegetables and fruits: anything you could hunt or forage for in the wild bush, and wouldn’t need to cook. All of which sounds generally inoffensive. “Nobody’s going to argue with fruits and veggies,” says Cordain. But the repertoire excludes so-called super-foods: green beans (and other legumes, like lentils), tomatoes (and other nightshades), dairy products and whole grains. Most oils are also out; today’s cavemen opt for lard.
Real zealots will shy away from the d-word. Their objection: “It’s not a diet; it’s a lifestyle.” It’s true that paleo living increasingly goes beyond food—it’s less dietary prescription than cultural phenomenon. In cities across the globe, groups of men (they are mostly men) are abandoning Stairmasters in favour of sprinting and climbing—caveman exercise. They donate blood to mimic the injury-induced blood loss our early ancestors endured. They mirror a hunter-gatherer schedule: gorging on heaps of meat (to approximate feasts that followed successful hunts) and then following up with long fasts (to mimic stretches of scarcity). The literature, too, is piling up, with books like Neanderthin, The Evolution Diet and The Protein Power Plan.
“I got really radical with it,” says Richard Nikoley of San Jose, Calif. “I thought: animals don’t hunt on full bellies.” The five-foot-ten former U.S. Navy man stumbled on the diet in 2007, when trying to lose weight and lower his blood pressure. (His effort to walk himself into health had failed. He walked an hour a day for six years, but “ended up putting on 30 lb.”) When he finally hit 225 lb., he got serious. He began reading about fat and cholesterol. “I also dabbled in studying primitive diets.” Eventually, he was thinking like a caveman. (He’d say he learned to “Free the Animal,” the name of his blog.) Soon he banished “killer ‘healthy’ whole grains” and “low fat ignorance,” turning to a coconut-oil-heavy diet in which “60 per cent of my calories come from fat.” A few months later, he incorporated intermittent fasting. He even got his two rat terriers going paleo, and claims that, as a result, “they’re just ripped.” Now 60 lb. lighter and with a normal blood pressure, he’s become a paleo proselytizer.
I know something about that kind of evangelism. Though a modern-day woman myself, I was raised, so to speak, by a caveman: my father is a guy who carries T-bone steaks in Ziploc bags for breakfast, who donates blood religiously to prevent iron buildup, and who throws back pro-biotic bacteria cocktails daily in an effort to counter the effects of our hygiene-obsessed world. My dad made the transition eight years ago, after Dr. Atkins blazed the anti-carb trail—but before eating organic and local became trends du jour, laying the groundwork for the paleo diet’s adoption by health nuts, bodybuilders and urban hipsters. Long before “trans fats” was a buzz phrase, I was banned from eating them. And for as long as I can recall, whenever it was sunny, my father would put on shorts and lie outside to “make vitamin D,” another paleo preoccupation.
Today, the ranks of the paleo evangelists are expanding. There is Art De Vany, for instance, who is leading the campaign against “dreadmills.” “I exercise for pleasure,” he tells Maclean’s. The fitness guru exudes confidence: “I’m never sick. And I can do anything I want,” he has been quoted as boasting. As a 72-year-old with eight per cent body fat—he looks a lot younger than his 72 years—he has perhaps earned the right to boast. De Vany believes agricultural life corrupted our physiques: “If you look at the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture, what do you see? Diminished stature, less muscle.” His antidote is to ditch the treadmill and do “random activities modelled on activities of hunter-gatherers.” For him, that means short, intense sprints and lots of “playing”—frolicking on rocks or doing tugs of war with his grandson. Once a week, he ties a rope to his 6,000-lb. Range Rover and pulls and pushes it up his driveway four or five times. “That’s an exercise I liken to our ancestors carrying logs.”
De Vany’s ideas have found an eager audience, as seen in the growing number of “CrossFit” gyms that use his Evolutionary Fitness model. Craig Patterson, who quit his job as an engineer to open a CrossFit in Vancouver, is a follower, though he’s the first to admit his facility isn’t much of a gym. “It’s a big open box. And there are rings hanging down from the ceiling.” Patterson says they’re forced to segregate themselves: “We get kicked out of most gyms for doing what we do.” At any given time, his 450 pupils can be found hanging from ropes, doing “high velocity” sprints, jumping on boxes, or practising handstand push-ups. They focus on movements you could find “on a children’s playground, a battlefield, in a sport,” he says. “You don’t see kids doing bicep curls on a playground.” Patterson works to inject risk and competition into the exercise routine, through fitness battles; his pupils also compete in the kitchen, through CrossFit’s global paleo-eating challenge.
Then there are those who are raising the next generation of cavemen. S. Boyd Eaton, a paleo pioneer and professor at Emory University, thinks our “ancestral existence” can lend itself to better parenting, showing us how to socialize tots, for instance. Caveman kids played in multi-age groups, he says. “The older children took care of the younger ones. They developed responsibility. There was less competition.” Blogs like High Intensity Mama remind us “hunter-gatherers have nothing like school,” and that children must have time to play. Sharing a family bed is another nascent trend. As my dad, who agrees in theory with co-sleeping, puts it: “A cavebaby sleeping alone was a dead cavebaby.”
When Eaton and Melvin Konnor published their landmark paper on the paleo diet in 1985, their thoughts were far from fasting and exercise. Konnor, an anthropologist and doctor, became interested in diets while studying child development in Botswana in the 1960s. Eaton, a doctor, was interested in improving his health. Their report—which Eaton dubs a “paradigm shift” akin to Copernicus’s discovery that the earth revolves around the sun—gave birth to the paleo diet. But their prescription was more tolerant. It simply focused on approximating the proportion of carbs, protein and fat that our ancestors consumed.
Today, there’s more science showing that the approach they set out is not an entirely batty one. More and more, doctors are entertaining ideas about “diseases of civilization,” as paleo folks term ailments ranging from acne to MS to Alzheimer’s to heart disease. The paleo view is that a lot of the illnesses and conditions we see as “natural” are, in fact, lifestyle-induced. Our environment has changed drastically over the last 10,000 years, stresses Konnor. “The human genome hasn’t been able to evolve fast enough.”
Our best proof of that may lie on the island of Kitava, Papua New Guinea. Kitavans are not the perfect paleo representatives, Staffan Lindeberg, professor of medicine at the University of Lund, concedes. They’re “primitive horticulturalists,” who use sticks to push roots into the ground. Still, they are about as close to hunter-gatherers as we can now get. So Lindeberg has, on three occasions, lived among them. His findings are now paleo folklore. “The Kitavans don’t have Western diseases,” he explains: no heart attack, stroke, obesity, dementia, acne, or diabetes. And it isn’t because they don’t live to old age; many do. It’s their diet. So how do Kitavans die? Some fall from coconut trees or succumb to infection. But many go quickly and quietly. Writes Lindeberg, “The elderly residents of Kitava generally remain quite active up until the end, when they begin to suffer fatigue for a few days and then die.” Lindeberg once met a healthy 78-year-old who, sitting calmly on a rock, warned that his death was imminent; two weeks later, he was dead.
For Gary Rea of Seattle, it’s not necessary to look all the way to Kitava. A few years ago, Rea was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. He says his doctor told him he’d be on insulin for life. Weeks earlier, Rea had picked up a paleo dieting book. Barely a few chapters in, he was convinced “the paleo diet could cure diabetes.” So he ripped up the prescription from his doctor and dove in. Within weeks, he’d dropped 27 lb. “Five months later, the diabetes was gone.” That wouldn’t surprise Dr. Lynda Frassetto. In an ongoing study, the University of California doctor is looking at how diabetics respond to paleo eating. Three quarters of the way through, she already sees “people on the diet get better in a really short amount of time,” even without losing weight.
Of course, not everyone is taken with caveman ways. Katharine Milton, a dietary ecology professor at Berkeley, accepts that, in terms of major evolutionary change, “there hasn’t been zip-a-dee-doo-dah in the last 10,000 years.” But she takes issue with the “hunter-gatherer model.” She notes that while the Tanzanian Hazda eat mostly wild plants, the !Kung of the Kalahari rely on the mongongo nut, and Alaskan Inuit favour meat and fish. Which model, she wonders, is right? Julia Mercader, a University of Calgary archaeologist, likewise argues cavemen were eating cereals tens of thousands of years ago.
Meanwhile, paleo eating continues to evolve. In 1985, Eaton and Konnor allowed foods like skim milk and whole-wheat bread. Konnor still thinks that was the right call, and believes his original concerns about fat were prudent. “You can’t just go to the supermarket and buy meat loaded with fat and say you’re doing the Paleolithic diet. You’re not.” Animals of 10,000 ago, Konnor says, were less fatty—so we must compensate by eating leaner meats, and less. Eaton has gone the other way. He says he had failed to consider the contribution of non-muscle meat like brain and fat depots, and thus underestimated the amount of fat we need. “It makes me feel stupid!”
All this uncertainty gives rise to some convenient variations. Nikoley identifies as “lacto-paleo” (he consumes dairy, insisting that cavemen got some milk when they ate nursing animals). Rea is moving to “vegetarian paleo.” And with the jury still out, my dad is staying on the high-fat bandwagon. But that is not enough to dull fanatical commitment to the cause. “I can guarantee that after I’m long dead, this won’t go away,” proclaims Cordain. “Just like Darwin’s evolution through natural selection is the most powerful idea in modern science and it won’t go away.”