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The Caveman and the City: Studio 26 Talks Paleo

When I worked in a restaurant, I remember having a conversation with one of the chefs who had just launched her personal chef business, and one of her first clients was a woman on the Paleo diet. I remember her saying, "She has very specific guidelines for her food. It's not as simple as, no peanuts, or no dairy. She eats like a caveman." A caveman, I thought. Interesting. I asked her for more specifics, and she introduced me to the Paleolithic diet, a regime modeled after the diet of Paleolithic era cavemen. The restrictions are fairly simple. Anything that one could in theory hunt and or gather and eat without the promise of fire. This is not an exclusively raw diet, but many who follow it often choose to eat most of it raw, including the meat. The Paleo diet, in simplest terms, excludes grains and gluten like rice and wheat, dairy products, and sugar. The reasoning behind these specific eliminations are based on the ideology that the dietary options and patterns for humans have developed too quickly, and that the human genome has not had enough time to adapt to these drastic changes in food processing since the Paleolithic era. A common reference point for pro-paleo writers is often the Agricultural Revolution, also referred to as the Neolithic Revolution, marked by significant shifts in human lifestyle, from a hunter-gatherer style to a more domesticated and civilizational structure. The Paleo diet supposedly models a way of eating that is more harmonious with early human development, and mimics the skills innately developed without modern technology and development championed by the Agricultural Revolution. There are many justifications for this approach; most popularly, Paleo dieters tout the lack of disease and malady found in discovered Paleolithic human artifacts. There is little cancer, hypertension, bone deterioration or obesity found in these found bodily remains, leading Paleo proponents to believe the diet of the cavemen could perhaps help us prevent contemporary human ailments.

The Paleo diet inarguably leads individuals towards whole foods with a low glycemic index and more raw, un-processed ingredients. Many of the foods included in this regime are simply better for the body, untainted by oils and flavorings. However, I for one become skeptical when any type of diet turns to extremism, and starts pushing logical boundaries in favor of what 'should' follow such a diet, the lifestyle of acting like a cave man, for example. Many individuals have taken this diet in stride, modeling even their patterns of consumption and physical lives after the tendencies and patterns of cavemen. Some have taken quickly to barefoot running, they feast on raw meat after days of fasting, simulating the potential gaps in harvest and hunt;  they throw rocks instead of lifting dumbbells. The ideology is genetically and evolutionarily insistent; these paleophiles argue human physiology is meant to withstand such challenges.

Curious about life as a cave man, I asked Dr. Chad Woodard, a professor, physical therapist and triathlete about his experience with the Paleo diet. Chad first heard about the diet from reading a runner's magazine. His interest was particularly piqued by a section of the article that held the Paleo diet was a tremendous remedy for food addictions, seeing long lasting energetic results from eating whole foods and meats, and steering clear of quick fixes that immediately boost energy but then lead to crashes, like sugars and some complex carbohydrates. After hearing many tout the efficacy of the diet, Chad did some research of his own and decided to give himself a challenge: follow the Paleo diet closely for 30 days and see what happens. He ordered a full scale of tests with his physician before going on the diet, with blood work, to see how the diet would influence all of his body's systems and levels.

For Chad, the results were remarkable. All of his tests reflected positive changes in health, and above all, he felt better.  Chad also knew his relationship to food had changed; he looked forward to eating because it made his body feel tangibly nourished, a true reward. In speaking with him a few weeks ago, he is still holding to the diet, months after his self-inflicted challenge was technically over. His only real exceptions to the diet these days are dark chocolate and some spices.

As a physical therapist, he speaks to the diet and lifestyle in an interesting way. We were both wary of the fad-like nature of any diet like the Paleo diet. The Paleo diet appealed to Chad because he could identify biochemical science at the basis of many of the diet's restrictions. There are certain ingredients that are biochemically difficult for the body to process, supporting the argument that forming a diet after a human from 1000s of years ago makes clear, good evolutionary sense. However, there are standards to which we cannot expect our bodies to adjust after 1000s of years of development. For instance, the barefoot running craze has been a point of contention. While cavemen did not have highly supportive and technologically researched sneakers, they also did not have asphalt. While many would argue many cavemen ran on stone or hard dirt, it is important to remember their bodies knew nothing else. Contemporary humans can't expect to strip their feet of former support and cushion and expect their anatomy to react favorably, immediately. This is most definitely not to say that barefoot running is inherently bad, as with any extreme example, but simply to say that with training and time, it's always possible to make modifications, while still honoring the honest limitations of anatomy and environment.

Additionally, in some ways we have deviated from the genetic example established by Paleolithic era humans. Many contemporary individuals are finding themselves vitamin D deficient, simply because we spend far more time inside than 1000s of years ago, and we don't get enough from the sun or our diets.  Thankfully, these days it's as simple as taking a vitamin D supplement. Conversely, fixing our nutritional needs can be more complicated. While the Paleo diet is superior in many ways, the sheer amount of controversy the diet has generated makes a skeptic of anyone. With any such drastic suggestion, it's important to take away what is pertinent for your own body, regardless of fad, but also entertain possibility in even the strangest of suggestions, like living like cave people, could lead to a healthier life, or at least a more adventurous one.

Source Material for this Post:  Chad Woodard,  New York Times, Washington Post, and various Paleo Proponents, Robb Wolf and John Durant.