Columns

2013.04.03 Eating like a caveman

on . Posted in By The Way

By DAVID GREEN

I hadn't thought much recently about the paleodiet, but then I read an article about someone who thinks adherents of the so-called cave man diet might take things a bit too far.

A simple way to look at the paleodiet is to say that if the caveman didn't eat it, then you shouldn't either. Look around your kitchen. Get rid of the loaf of bread. Toss out the boxes of cereals, the crackers, the chips, the bag of rice and the can of beans, the frozen corn, the milk and cheese. And while you're at it, ditch the sugar and the salt. What's left? Plenty, says Dr. Loren Cordain, the self-proclaimed world's leading expert on and founder of the paleo movement. He will sell you some books to prove it. To follow his diet, you must eat:

"the food groups our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have thrived on during the Paleolithic era, the time period from about 2.6 million years ago to the beginning of the agricultural revolution, about 10,000 years ago. These foods include fresh meats (preferably grass-produced or free-ranging beef, pork, lamb, poultry, and game meat, if you can get it), fish, seafood, fresh fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and healthful oils (olive, coconut, avocado, macadamia, walnut and flaxseed)."

Dr. Cordain says research shows that hunter-gatherers were free of the ailments of modern life, from acne to hemorrhoids to cancer. I suppose they died only from attacks by carnivores and other hunters, along with occasional hyperthermia and starvation. But on the bright side, their short lives were free of obesity and gout. They had no near-sightedness and no varicose veins. A pretty good trade-off as they lay shivering in their make-shift shelter.

The caveman lifestyle for modern man apparently goes beyond diet and even includes exercise routines. Cavemen are thought to have run in shorter, intense bursts as they chased down prey or sped away to avoid becoming prey. One adherent put it this way: "Paleolithic exercise is about moving around more, sprinting like your life depends on it every once in a while, and picking up heavy things the way humans actually pick up heavy things, with their whole body."

What I read this morning was an interview with Marlene Zuk, a biologist living in California who has a new book of her own called "Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live." She says the paleolithic craze is rooted in myth.

Caveman vs. university professor. Sounds like trouble ahead.

Zuk isn't suggesting that there's nothing to learn from studying the health of long-ago cultures, but she thinks it's being taken too far. There was never an era in the past where our evolution caught up with our environment and a golden age was reached, she says.

Zuk believes there are problems trying to replicate the past diet because it varied so much around the world. She says there's even evidence that grains were eaten long before they were cultivated. Besides, all of the food we eat now is genetically different from what was eaten 100,000 years ago.

She knows that many people are happy with their paleo eating, but she's certainly not convinced that it's the answer to all of our current health woes. She says there's evidence showing that paleolithic people suffered from about the same incidence of cancer as modern people, with the exception of lung cancer from tobacco.

Back to Dr. Cordain's website and let's take a look at some recipes. Here's one that requires peaches, lime, onion, green peppers, cilantro and cayenne pepper. Where did Mr. and Mrs. Paleo shop to collect all of that? Another requires salmon, olive oil, romaine lettuce, onion, lemon juice and flaxseed oil. 

Burgundy wine, dark rum, marsala wine, seedless red grapes, cantaloupe, hickory smoke spice, tomato paste, curry powder, lime guacamole, Siracha sauce—I guess I had some misconceptions about cave life. Dinner with Dr. Cordain sounds pretty good, if we can just keep that saber-toothed tiger at bay.

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