Meaty Topic

Before processed foods, cavemen ate a diet rich in protein and veggies. Paleo-living advocate Mark Sisson thinks they were onto something

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If you haven’t heard of the “paleo” diet and lifestyle movement, you’re probably living in a cave. The meat-heavy, grain-free Stone Age eating plan is becoming more and more popular in Los Angeles, and its local spokesman is a 59-year-old Malibu beach boy named Mark Sisson. “There’s a mismatch between our genes, which expect scarcity—and which have remained unchanged in the last 40,000 years—and how we’ve adapted our environment to make things more convenient, more hedonistic and abundant,” says Sisson, whose thick sweep of gray-blond hair and Batman-like abs make him a poster-worthy lifestyle guru. A former endurance athlete and supplement designer who worked on the cult fitness plan P90X, Sisson sells nutrition products through his company, Primal Nutrition, and evangelizes with diet books, cookbooks, an exhaustively researched blog called Mark’s Daily Apple, and weekend retreats known as PrimalCons (the April gathering in Oxnard is already sold out).

Paleo theory goes something like this: Despite our access to medical care, many Americans are becoming less healthy than our hunter-gatherer forebears. Modernity may have reduced our risk of fatal diseases and wild animal attacks, but it’s saddled us with a sedentary lifestyle and a diet filled with bad food, including processed products, sugars, and grains. Meanwhile our genes haven’t kept up with those changes. For most of human existence only certain people survived until they could reproduce: those who could hunt animals, find plants, tough out periods of scarcity, and stay fit to hike long distances, outrun danger, and lug around heavy loads. As life became easier, survival barely required any fitness at all; evolution basically took a seat and said, “I’m done.” So now we’re sucking down Big Gulps and supersizing our Extra Value Meals, while our bodies are still primed for the hard days of the Paleolithic era.

It’s no wonder that we now have higher rates of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and other “lifestyle” maladies than our ancestors ever saw, Sisson claims. Sitting in a T-shirt, shorts, and “barefoot” running shoes, a mountain-to-Pacific panorama just outside his living room, he explains his viewpoint: “We have a recipe to build strong, lean, fit, happy, healthy humans”; the problem is that most of us don’t follow it. For Sisson a “primal” eating plan consists of abundant beef, poultry, eggs, and fish as well as lots of vegetables, added fats, and some fruits and nuts. When possible, the animal you’re eating should be grass fed, free range, or wild. But Sisson says you shouldn’t shy away from foods that contain saturated fat and cholesterol, such as bacon, butter, and coconut oil. The veggies should be low in starch, except for the occasional sweet potato.

What you don’t eat are processed foods, vegetable oils like corn or sunflower, or large amounts of carbs—no more than about 50 to 150 grams a day (which you get from vegetables and fruits), depending on your activity level and how much body fat you want to lose. Minimal sugar, no beans, and no grains—so forget the whole grains that health experts have advocated to boost fiber intake and reduce cholesterol levels. Not only do grains cause unhealthful insulin surges, Sisson says, but our preagricultural bodies are ill equipped to handle gluten and other components. (In the paleo world, sliced bread is the worst thing, well, ever.) Then you burn all the fat in your system by hiking, sprinting, and lifting weights—paleoists aim for what they call “functional fitness”—instead of spending hours on cardio machines at the gym.

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The world is amok with nutritional trends, of course. Not so long ago high-carb, low-fat diets—paleo’s opposite—were the rage. There was Atkins, which helped jump-start the low-carb movement (but which paleo fans criticize for being deficient in vegetables and too liberal with processed foods). More recently raw food enthusiasts—who share the idea that our bodies stopped evolving well before the invention of Doritos-flavored taco shells—started making inroads into food culture.

But these days paleo has the sex appeal, since advocates claim it’s the best path to an ideal physique (low body fat, high muscle mass). Celebrities such as Jessica Biel, Megan Fox, Hunger Games star Liam Hems-worth, Matthew McConaughey, and People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” Channing Tatum have all been reported as maintaining their spectacular frames with the help of ancient food-and-fitness techniques.

Paleo started gaining momentum in the mid-1980s, when Emory University doctors Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner wrote about the subject in The New England Journal of Medicine, concluding that “the diet of our remote ancestors may be a reference standard for modern human nutrition.” Since then, University of Colorado exercise scientist Loren Cordain and former research biochemist Robb Wolf have helped popularize the idea in best-selling books.

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Comments

  1. Linda

    January 4, 2013 at 4:59 pm

    Loren Cordain is a professor at Colorado State University, not University of Colorado.

    Reply

    1. Txomin

      January 7, 2013 at 3:48 am

      Yes, the article contains many factual errors (e.g., say 40,000 years… of what fad?). It is also too forgiving in its criticism. Still, it is the most honest review of paleo I have seen to date.

      Reply

      1. Ted

        March 17, 2013 at 3:15 pm

        That’s not an error, it’s you missing the point. The writer is saying that to paleo advocates, post-agricultural eating was the equivalent of a “fad diet” that didn’t work.

        Reply

  2. Chris

    January 4, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    Great write up on the paleo diet. Personally, I lost over 30 pounds and cured major digestive issues by living a Paleo lifestyle the for the last 3+ years. I agree that it is a more sensible way to eat because there is nothing crazy about it. You get all the good nutrients and fiber you need from the veggies and fruits plus the muscle building, fat burning effects of eating quality protein. What typically happens is that people switch to a paleo diet and realize that they feel significantly better… more energy, less body fat, better digestion, better sleep, etc. Once they give themselves a chance to see these changes then it becomes a lifestyle. Cheers to Mark Sisson for his work in the paleo space.

    Reply

  3. einstein

    January 6, 2013 at 7:13 pm

    I totally agree with Chris. Switched to paleo 1 year ago and planning to stick to it for as long as I live. Lost 40 pounds, saw my sixpack for the first time in the last 30 years, it cured all the minor ailments that nagged me for years (mostly digestive & psychlogical problems) and I feel like I am 20 years younger than just a year ago. Whoever is doubtful, just give it a shot and see for yourself. Don’t believe anyone till you try it, not even me.

    Reply

  4. Tyler

    January 6, 2013 at 7:36 pm

    Another person whose health drastically improved on a paleo-style diet, here. :)

    Reply

  5. Atom

    January 6, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    Why the hell is a picture of breaded cooked chicken posted with this? I suspect some monkey business…

    Reply

  6. shane

    January 6, 2013 at 9:22 pm

    great article…curious why a picture of fried chicken would be appropriate for a story on primal/paleo living considering it’s been battered in flour and fried in vegetable oil…?

    Reply

    1. Stormy

      January 7, 2013 at 10:14 pm

      That’s not a battered and fried drumstick – those are nicely roasted with the crispy skin intact – very primal indeed!

      Reply

    2. AJ

      January 8, 2013 at 2:35 am

      Pretty sure thats roasted paprika rubber chicken; I make it often. No deep frying or breading required.

      Reply

  7. Jennifer

    January 6, 2013 at 11:11 pm

    I’ve also lost a bunch of weight and effortlessly at that. I’ve lost about 30 lbs in 3 months and maintained that for about 6 months. Have been reigning it in again, and the weight is coming off effortlessly again. I have another 20-30 lbs to go. I am one of those that works better on a higher fat consumption (55-70%) varies day-to-day. Keeps me satisfied. No food cravings. Better sleep. Better digestion. More energy. Better skin complexion. No bloating. No migraines. No joint pains. etc…etc… I choose non-certified organic, local pasture raised animals (heritage pork, grass-fed beef and chickens (and eggs) direct from farmers. I buy certified organic dairy (raw not available in Canada) such as heavy cream, butter and kefir. Locally grown organic veggies direct from farmers (during spring, summer, fall) and from a small market/store during the winter months. Fats: Raw organic cold-pressed coconut oil, cold-pressed EVOO, lard and butter. My favourite foods are pork belly, nitrate-free bacon and Italian sausage (well pork products in general) and homemade Kale chips. Will never go back!

    Reply

  8. Jay Killeen

    January 7, 2013 at 2:51 am

    The Paleo lifestyle has helped me get leaner and stronger than ever. It took me less than 6 weeks to lose 6 kilos and go from deadlifting 80kgs to 150kgs. I have been following Paleo now for over 6 months and won’t ever look back. No more days of chronic cardio or calorie counting. I don’t ever go hungry unless I mean too, the occasional fast once a week or by skipping breakfast helps to clear my head. The brain fog has improved and I don’t get as many stomach cramps since I cut out wheat and grains. My inflammation is down, my wedding rings needs to go down a size to stop it from slipping off and my niggling hamstring injury has drastically improved since taking a dose of bone broth. This is definitely no fad and many of my friends have taken a leaf from my book and given it a go.

    Reply

  9. greg

    January 7, 2013 at 11:28 am

    Same here. Thanks to Mark Sisson/Primal my type 1 diabetes control and health has improved greatly and my girlfriend dropped 30lbs in a year. Yesterday we ate our first meal at 2.30pm. Why is that significant? Because we have become fat adapted so our bodies can easily go without food and they don’t scream for the carb fix most people need. Our bodies revert to their paleolithic hunter gatherer state and instead burn our stored fat for energy, with out us getting hungry, moody, irritable etc. In fact the opposite, it can feel great to go without. Just one of the many benefits.

    Reply