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.
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.