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.
Along the way more than a few skeptics have suggested a problem with emulating traditional hunter-gatherers: Their average life expectancy ranged from 21 to 37, according to a 2007 study by evolutionary anthropologists at UC Santa Barbara and the University of New Mexico. Sisson has no patience for this line of argument. In prehistoric times, he argues, “the world was fraught with danger, starvation, and death in childbirth. We’ve found that if hunter-gatherers survived disease, wars, and tiger maulings, many actually maintained a very robust composition until they were in their seventies and eighties. Their potential life span was probably 90.” By contrast, he goes on, the relatively long lives many of us enjoy today can be attributed largely to medical advancements rather than good nutrition or healthful living. “We’re keeping people alive with medicine—statins, blood thinners, surgery, stents, and valves—who otherwise would have died a long time ago.”
There’s little debate about the benefits of less-processed foods or regular exercise, whatever the form. Where the paleo lifestyle tends to draw the most fire is in regard to fat. Someone on a paleo diet might derive as much as 50 percent of his or her daily calories from fat, while the American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 to 35 percent. “The high saturated fat content of this diet is of concern, since it can adversely impact cardiovascular health,” says Gregg C. Fonarow, M.D., professor of cardiovascular medicine at UCLA and codirector of its Preventative Cardiology Program. Sisson says blame the carbs, not the fat. When you eat fewer carbs, your liver starts turning fatty acids into ketones—compounds the body can burn for fuel. It’s all those carbs, he contends, that trap the fat in our system. “Even the most ardent anti-fat guys will admit there has never been a proven correlation between saturated fat and heart disease,” he says. That’s a controversial statement, but some researchers are coming around: A 2010 analysis of 21 studies in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that “there is no significant evidence” that eating saturated fat increases heart disease risk.
Still, not even all paleo proponents agree on this topic. The University of Colorado’s Cordain recommends eating lean cuts of meat and making animal fat a lower percentage of one’s calorie count. But he may be changing his position. “Some people seem to do better on higher-fat versions of the Paleo Diet,” he writes in his recently released book, The Paleo Answer.
The actual amount of meat in paleo meals may be less than critics believe, however. While portions are intended to be unlimited, the meals are more satiating, leading to less overeating, Sisson says. Here’s a typical weight-loss dinner from his book The Primal Blueprint: six ounces of broiled wild salmon, six ounces each of steamed asparagus and zucchini with a pat of butter, five ounces of red wine. It’s hardly outrageous; if you’re looking for meals of giant Fred Flintstone dinosaur ribs, you won’t find them here.
Because the paleo diet is relatively simple—protein, vegetables, hold the bread—it’s easier to follow than many food plans. “Every time I go to a new American or Italian restaurant, it will have pretty good meat entrées you can order instead of pasta,” says Andy Ross, guitarist for the L.A.-based band OK Go, who credits paleo with improving his energy, digestion, and sleep. Better yet, Ross says, is that he can sustain those benefits without being puritanical about it. On their blog, Cheat Day, Ross and his OK Go bandmate, bassist Tim Norwind, celebrate weekly non-paleo meals of huge sandwiches, sugary desserts, and other treats developed within the last thousand years.
Nor is the plan strictly for would-be cavemen. Last year Nell Stephenson, a West L.A.-based nutrition consultant, detailed what she calls a more feminine approach in her book Paleoista. It’s easy enough to get a fresh salad with a bunless turkey burger, and you can find wild boar or venison at some of the more exotic restaurants, she says. Stephenson takes some clients on shopping field trips through Ralphs to help them find everything they need.
With a few tweaks to their diets, even L.A.’s many vegans and vegetarians can become, if not hunters, then respectable paleo gatherers, says Sisson. “When you cut out processed grains, sugars, and vegetable oils, the fact that you’re not getting ideal sources of protein or fat becomes less of an issue. The most important thing you can do is get rid of all the crap.”
Sisson admits there will always be doubters who call paleo extreme or a “fad diet.” But for fans, it’s here to stay. The last 40,000 years? That was the fad.
*The image accompanying this post has been updated.