By Pamela Reinsel Cotter
Journal Thrive Editor
With the increase in food allergies and weight gain in the U.S., many people are going back in time … way back in time … to eating like our caveman ancestors did.
Known by such names as “Cave Man Diet,” “NeanderThin” or “Paleo Diet,” the menu is popular with many fitness circles. CrossFit Providence, for one, is a gym that recommends its members eat like a hunter/gatherer at least 80 percent of the time.
What did a cave man eat?
“At its most basic, the Paleo Diet tells us to eat the foods our ancestors ate prior to agriculture and animal husbandry and avoid the foods that came after this stage in our evolution,” says Douglas Robb, author of the e-book “A Paleo Diet for the 21st Century.”
“This means saying yes to animal protein — meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, poultry, fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and mushrooms,” he says, adding “It also means saying no to grains, dairy, beans/legumes, potatoes and obviously anything processed or dosed with antibiotics and steroids.”
Loren Cordain, Ph.D., started the trend in his 2004 book, “The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Food You Were Designed to Eat.” He says you can cook with oil, but it’s restricted “to those from fruits (olive, oil palm, avocado) or tree nuts (coconut, walnut, almond, hazelnut, pecan, macadamia).”
And coffee lovers, beware. True cavemen only drank water. If you must have caffeine, they recommend just green tea. Fruit juices have added sugars, which are not allowed.
Alcohol is something deeply debated in these diet circles, the proponents of the occasional drink say it’s been around since the beginning of time, but there are others who say that although it’s basically fermented fruit in most cases, added sugars and yeast should be avoided.
“It’s the diet we suggest for everyone,” says CrossFit Providence co-owner Michael Liberatore. “It doesn’t require anything other than regular food and is satisfying, too.” But Liberatore adds that as an Italian-American, his family requires him to be home for a pasta dinner each Sunday, thus the 80-percent Paleo rule.
Rachel Menard, who has lost 15 pounds at CrossFit as part of the Projo Reunion Shapeup program started in August, says she’s been “trying to follow the Paleozone diet to the best of my ability.”
“I really like it because it makes complete sense scientifically, and since I am a science teacher,” in Attleboro, Mass. “I don’t feel hungry all of the time, you get to eat plenty of food. Sometimes you can’t finish all of it and that is OK, as long as you get the protein and fat.”
But she admits that the hard part of the plan is “not to have any carbs like pasta, pizza, French fries, chips, etc.,” even though she is permitted to have them “once in a while.”
“I feel more energetic and actually my mood is better, too,” Menard adds. “I have better mental clarity as well.
On his website, paleodiet.com, Cordain notes that there are many variations of the diet, including a Paleo plan for vegetarians. He also lists scores of books that help explain the various types of eating plans.
Cordain, too, recommends vitamin D supplements and perhaps adding some omega-3 fish oils while on his plan. Menard says she is taking both fish oil and vitamin D supplements.
Ben Balzer, a family physician in Australia who blogs about Paleo dieting, suggests newcomers start with breakfast for few for their first Paleolithic meals. There are many similar food bloggers who offer such recipes, including a good starter: An omelet containing sautéed vegetables such as bell peppers, mushrooms, onions and spinach. The omelet can be topped with fresh salsa and sliced avocado and served alongside cooked bacon or sausage.
Of course, the diet is not without its detractors. Several nutritionists we spoke to said they didn’t think the diet was balanced enough for most people.
Dr. G. Dean Roye, a surgeon at Rhode Island Hospital specializing in morbid obesity, says he does not know enough about the Paleo diet to comment on its effectiveness, but it basically turns upside down the U.S. RDA food pyramid — which recommends multiple servings of grains daily but only spare use of meats and fatty foods. “I’d be worried that it might preclude those things in the food pyramid that would cause dietary deficiencies,” he says.
That sentiment was echoed by Dr. Vincent Pera, director of the weigh-management program at Miriam Hospital and clinical assistant professor of medicine at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School. “For the most part it covers the bases nutritionally; however, one of the things they purport is to eliminate grains and starches … which are an important part of our diet today.”
“They’re promoting fat in the diet,” Pera adds, saying that doesn’t gibe with “the needs of today’s human levels of activity.” Whereas consumption of healthy grains and starches may help “limit calories in the long run.”
“Did the Paleo-period human live longer, were they healthier? I don’t see any evidence of that,” Pera says, adding that it’s impossible to compare life expectancy today and then because ancient peoples faced a very different set of mortality dangers.