Old is new again
Chico fitness expert Robb Wolf promotes “caveman diet” with his new book
Robb Wolf moved to Seattle after graduating from Chico State in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. At the time, he was eating a high-carb, low-fat, vegan diet—a typical enlightened-West-Coast-hippie-style diet.
“I was eating that way because everyone assumed that was the great way to eat—grain-based, low-fat,” explained the former California State Powerlifting champion and amateur kickboxer in a recent interview at NorCal Strength & Conditioning, the fitness center he opened in south Chico in January 2004.
Trouble was, he went on, “I became very sick as a consequence. I had high blood pressure, high triglycerides.” He was also suffering from colitis, insomnia, depression and “a nearly constant pain throughout my body,” as he writes in his recently released New York Times bestseller, The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet, which has already been translated into Turkish, Polish, Spanish, Italian and Taiwanese since its September 2010 release. (German and French versions are in the works.)
Neither his doctor nor his naturopath or acupuncturist at the time could get to the bottom of what was making Wolf so sick or how to cure him. He recalled thinking about his mother’s numerous illnesses—celiac disease, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis—and how her doctor had recommended a grain-, legume- and dairy-free diet as a means to ease her suffering.
“And when I was thinking about that, what do you have left? A hunter-gatherer diet,” offered the friendly, robust 38-year-old. “It wasn’t until the agricultural revolution that we shifted from a hunter-gatherer diet to a grain/legume-based diet. So I figured I didn’t have anything to lose at that point—they were recommending a bowel resection because of the ulcerative colitis,” said Wolf.
He started eating grass-fed meat, wild-caught fish, seasonal local fruits and vegetables, and he cut grains, legumes (like beans) and dairy out of his diet. Within three weeks, he said, he was symptom-free.
“I ended up basically healing myself,” Wolf said. “I told all the doctors, ‘This Paleo diet is what did it,’ and no one believed it. But I knew for a fact that the thing that changed everything was the food I was eating.
“There were 2 or 3 million years of prehistory when we never ate grains, legumes or dairy,” Wolf observed. “Grains, legumes and dairy are all agricultural foods developed as a consequence of agriculture. If you go to the department of anthropology [at Chico State], they know all this; if you go to the department of nutrition, they don’t know any of this.”
In fact, said Wolf, he started working on a master’s degree in nutritional science after his return to Chico from Seattle in early 2004, but found “no support” for his way of thinking about nutrition. “I pulled the plug on that track,” he offered.
That experience echoed what he had found in Seattle, where he had originally gone to study medicine, either mainstream or alternative, “but I got pushed back from both sides”—his focus on the Paleo diet was unacceptable to both—“so I went into research.”
It was those several years of research work Wolf did before moving back to Chico—as a research biochemist at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and on a one-year fellowship in Fort Collins, Colo., with Dr. Loren Cordain, author of The Paleo Diet—that primed him for the success he is now experiencing.
“When I came back here, I started NorCal Strength & Conditioning because I always loved athletics,” Wolf said. Wolf’s gym is modeled on gyms of old—no machines and plenty of barbells, dumbbells, medicine balls and gymnastic equipment. The approach he takes to clients—whether those seeking a personal trainer or a class situation—is a holistic one focusing on a person’s entire lifestyle, from how much sleep they get to what they eat to how they exercise.
“We have no machines. We don’t push supplements,” Wolf said of his gym, which was named one of the 30 best in the United States by Men’s Health magazine.
“We push whole, unprocessed, real foods within the Paleo diet concept. We strongly emphasize lifestyle elements—sleep; adequate community; stress-coping mechanisms such as meditation, breathing and walks in nature.”
It’s a no-frills gym, he acknowledged, “but it has everything you need.”
The youngest member is 4 years old, and the oldest is 88. “We can scale our workout to anybody,” Wolf said. Wolf’s gym has produced world champions in the areas of mixed martial arts, triathlon and motocross, he added. Currently he is working with Seattle-based South African Ursula Grobler, a member of the U.S. Olympic rowing team who is the current world-record holder in the 2,000-meter event.
But mostly, it’s just ordinary folks “wanting to get healthy and look better,” said Wolf. “We like people to be able to run and jump and tumble and swim—to be really ready for whatever life throws at them. And they look good and feel better.”
He estimates that 70 percent to 75 percent of his clientele is female. Wolf’s wife, Nicki Violetti, is one of NorCal’s trainers, as is Sarah Fragoso, who was featured in an April 2010 Woman’s World magazine piece on the Paleo diet.
Wolf’s popularity is spreading. Besides the many seminars he gives he around the world (Wolf acknowledges that he is a “minor-league celebrity”), the ABC television news program Nightline has been in contact with him. “They’re interested in doing a whole show on the Paleo diet concept,” he said.
“We’ve grown during the economic downturn, which is fascinating,” he said. “And I’m really grateful.”