Raising cave girls
Local couple goes Paleo, takes elementary-school-age daughters with them
About 2 1/2 years ago, Craig Almaguer injured his knee playing soccer. Though he didn’t know it at the time, the injury would lead his entire family—including his two elementary-school-age daughters—to “the Paleo lifestyle,” as Craig and his wife, Lisa, like to call it.
The Chico couple make the distinction between “diet” and “lifestyle” because their family “is not doing this to just to lose weight—it’s not this short-lived thing,” Craig said during a recent interview, which included Lisa. “We’re doing it for our lives, for our health.”
Their daughters, Mira and Camille, are now 10 and 7 years old, respectively. Both girls play soccer, dance, and “bike like crazy,” Lisa said. For nearly two years, the couple has packed the girls’ lunches following the Paleolithic diet, a mix of what was available to our ancestors in the Paleolithic era—fish, grass-fed meats, eggs, fruits, vegetables, fungi, roots and nuts.
The couple said they didn’t consult a pediatrician before making the switch, but both parents are confident their children are receiving a nutrient-rich diet despite foregoing typical kids’ fare, like cereal with milk, traditional spaghetti (they make noodles from zucchini), chicken nuggets and sandwiches.
“Most kids are just naturally addicted to crackers, chips, bread and pasta,” Lisa said. “I told [Mira and Camille] what we were going to do, and we stopped eating bread and pasta right away.”
The Paleo diet’s absence of wheat-based products is particularly appealing for individuals with gluten intolerance, autoimmune deficiency or celiac disease. Though Craig hasn’t been officially diagnosed with any of those conditions, he believes that kicking his wheat habit was critical for managing the persistent swelling related to his knee injury.
“I’ve done a lot of research online, and found that wheat and gluten [a protein composite found in wheat, rye and barley products], specifically, can cause inflammation in the body, and it can manifest itself in numerous ways,” he said. “One of those ways is swelling and achy joints.”
Craig became convinced that eliminating grains from his diet would aid his recovery, and told Lisa he was going to “go Paleo.”
“And I said, ‘All or nothing,’” Lisa recalled. “I wasn’t going to have three different ways of eating in our house. If he was doing it, we were all doing it.”
Within a week of making the switch to Paleo, the swelling in Craig’s knee subsided and he was walking without a limp, and after about six weeks, he had lost 25 pounds. In addition, Craig credits the change in diet to a host of palpable health benefits, from improved mood to increased strength.
“And no snoring and no gas,” Lisa chimed in.
The couple said they have observed more balanced moods in their daughters, as well.
“They’re so even-keeled because their blood-sugar levels are stabilized, there are no meltdowns,” Craig said. “We owe it all to what they’re eating.
“After [eating at] the fair, they’re a mess,” he added.
“They don’t have these spikes of happy and sad, crazy and whiny,” Lisa said of the effect of the Paleo diet on her children. “They’re still kids, but they’re very chill.”
She also explained that for several years, Camille had suffered from severe spring allergies that led to asthma attacks. “The first spring [after switching to a Paleo diet], we used her inhaler only one time,” Lisa said. “She still has allergies, but doesn’t have the asthma part of it anymore.”
Stephanie Bianco-Simeral, assistant director of Chico State’s Center for Nutrition and Activity Promotion (CNAP), acknowledges that “there are a lot of positive things about Paleo,” in general—like an emphasis on whole foods, for example. Also, by virtue of eliminating all wheat products from their diet, those adhering to the Paleo lifestyle are bypassing many processed foods, she said, which she considers an “outstanding” aspect for adults and children alike.
“Many dietitians—and I’m not one of them—say, ‘Everything in moderation.’ I’m one who thinks there are some foods that don’t need to exist, that we don’t need to consume,” she said, suggesting that processed foods containing lots of fat, salt and sugar—which U.S. children are increasingly consuming—offer no nutritional value, and that the Paleo diet is effective because it omits such foods. However, she stopped short of condoning the elimination of whole wheat, which “is known to be healthful,” she said.
“There’s a lot of iron in the grains, the cereals,” she said. “Infants are born with a finite amount of iron, so they rely on their mother’s milk or any food that you give that child to replenish [iron]. My concern [for raising children on a Paleo diet] would be for an infant to become anemic by not having those types of grains.”
Children in Mira and Camille’s age group are well beyond that concern, she said, noting that there is a lack of empirical evidence regarding what adhering to the Paleo diet at their ages could mean for development.
“There is no evidence, long-term, of what this could do to a child,” she concluded.
The Almaguer family’s meals emphasize locally sourced, high-quality foods like slow-cooked meats, fruits and vegetables of all sorts, healthful fats (such as butter from grass-fed cows, coconut oil, avocado and nuts) and bone-broth soups.
Both Mira and Camille—and their parents—miss certain foods, but Lisa and Craig don’t enforce Paleo with an iron fist. If the girls go to a birthday party, they’re allowed to have pizza and birthday cake.
“I don’t want them to feel like they’re being ostracized, that they’re being left out or they’re different,” Lisa said. “We try to just roll with it. At home, we don’t eat wheat—and if you go to a party, well, it’s your lucky day!”
“But, we’re pretty confident that, over time, [the Paleo lifestyle] will prevail,” Craig said. “They’ll realize they feel better when they don’t eat certain things.”