We’re used to seeing the potato as a focal point of conflict and discord, the clichéd casualty of the carbohydrate wars. But hoopla over green beans, that healthiest of vegetables? There are lots of reasons why Loren Cordain wouldn’t touch a green bean. If you ask him, he might talk about how legumes can render a healthy gut “leaky.” Or he might rant about their “anti-nutrient” properties. But it would come down to this: green beans weren’t around tens of thousands of years ago, when our prehistoric ancestors ushered in the Paleolithic era with the first tools made of stone. And so we shouldn’t eat them today.
“It’s not rocket science,” Cordain insists. His book, The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Food You Were Designed to Eat, now a bible to a small but growing subculture, is built around a simple premise: humans evolved over millions of years. Modern agriculture has been around for just 10,000, a blip on the evolutionary timeline. Because of this, humans are healthiest when eating as they did before agriculture came along—in other words, like cavemen.
The diet boils down to meat (lots of it), seafood, eggs, vegetables and fruits: anything you could hunt or forage for in the wild bush, and wouldn’t need to cook. All of which sounds generally inoffensive. “Nobody’s going to argue with fruits and veggies,” says Cordain. But the repertoire excludes so-called super-foods: green beans (and other legumes, like lentils), tomatoes (and other nightshades), dairy products and whole grains. Most oils are also out; today’s cavemen opt for lard.
Real zealots will shy away from the d-word. Their objection: “It’s not a diet; it’s a lifestyle.” It’s true that paleo living increasingly goes beyond food—it’s less dietary prescription than cultural phenomenon. In cities across the globe, groups of men (they are mostly men) are abandoning Stairmasters in favour of sprinting and climbing—caveman exercise. They donate blood to mimic the injury-induced blood loss our early ancestors endured. They mirror a hunter-gatherer schedule: gorging on heaps of meat (to approximate feasts that followed successful hunts) and then following up with long fasts (to mimic stretches of scarcity). The literature, too, is piling up, with books like Neanderthin, The Evolution Diet and The Protein Power Plan.
“I got really radical with it,” says Richard Nikoley of San Jose, Calif. “I thought: animals don’t hunt on full bellies.” The ﬁve-foot-ten former U.S. Navy man stumbled on the diet in 2007, when trying to lose weight and lower his blood pressure. (His effort to walk himself into health had failed. He walked an hour a day for six years, but “ended up putting on 30 lb.”) When he ﬁnally hit 225 lb., he got serious. He began reading about fat and cholesterol. “I also dabbled in studying primitive diets.” Eventually, he was thinking like a caveman. (He’d say he learned to “Free the Animal,” the name of his blog.) Soon he banished “killer ‘healthy’ whole grains” and “low fat ignorance,” turning to a coconut-oil-heavy diet in which “60 per cent of my calories come from fat.” A few months later, he incorporated intermittent fasting. He even got his two rat terriers going paleo, and claims that, as a result, “they’re just ripped.” Now 60 lb. lighter and with a normal blood pressure, he’s become a paleo proselytizer.
I know something about that kind of evangelism. Though a modern-day woman myself, I was raised, so to speak, by a caveman: my father is a guy who carries T-bone steaks in Ziploc bags for breakfast, who donates blood religiously to prevent iron buildup, and who throws back pro-biotic bacteria cocktails daily in an effort to counter the effects of our hygiene-obsessed world. My dad made the transition eight years ago, after Dr. Atkins blazed the anti-carb trail—but before eating organic and local became trends du jour, laying the groundwork for the paleo diet’s adoption by health nuts, bodybuilders and urban hipsters. Long before “trans fats” was a buzz phrase, I was banned from eating them. And for as long as I can recall, whenever it was sunny, my father would put on shorts and lie outside to “make vitamin D,” another paleo preoccupation.
Today, the ranks of the paleo evangelists are expanding. There is Art De Vany, for instance, who is leading the campaign against “dreadmills.” “I exercise for pleasure,” he tells Maclean’s. The ﬁtness guru exudes conﬁdence: “I’m never sick. And I can do anything I want,” he has been quoted as boasting. As a 72-year-old with eight per cent body fat—he looks a lot younger than his 72 years—he has perhaps earned the right to boast. De Vany believes agricultural life corrupted our physiques: “If you look at the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture, what do you see? Diminished stature, less muscle.” His antidote is to ditch the treadmill and do “random activities modelled on activities of hunter-gatherers.” For him, that means short, intense sprints and lots of “playing”—frolicking on rocks or doing tugs of war with his grandson. Once a week, he ties a rope to his 6,000-lb. Range Rover and pulls and pushes it up his driveway four or ﬁve times. “That’s an exercise I liken to our ancestors carrying logs.”
De Vany’s ideas have found an eager audience, as seen in the growing number of “CrossFit” gyms that use his Evolutionary Fitness model. Craig Patterson, who quit his job as an engineer to open a CrossFit in Vancouver, is a follower, though he’s the first to admit his facility isn’t much of a gym. “It’s a big open box. And there are rings hanging down from the ceiling.” Patterson says they’re forced to segregate themselves: “We get kicked out of most gyms for doing what we do.” At any given time, his 450 pupils can be found hanging from ropes, doing “high velocity” sprints, jumping on boxes, or practising handstand push-ups. They focus on movements you could find “on a children’s playground, a battlefield, in a sport,” he says. “You don’t see kids doing bicep curls on a playground.” Patterson works to inject risk and competition into the exercise routine, through fitness battles; his pupils also compete in the kitchen, through CrossFit’s global paleo-eating challenge.
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