The caveman diet
To lose weight and get healthy, I tried eating like our prehistoric ancestors
“I’m worried about your health,” said my mom, out of the blue. “I think you need to go on a diet.”
That was a few weeks ago, at Thanksgiving, and an hour later, she was offering me a second helping of pie, so I didn’t take her very seriously. But then, that weekend, as is often the case the weekend after Thanksgiving, there were a bunch of old-school Renoites back in town, and an old friend teased me, “Dude, you’re a lot fatter than you used to be.”
Ten years ago, I was a skinny, bicycle-riding college kid, weighing in around 165. Now, I’m 31 and 205. Most of that extra 40 pounds—40 pounds!—is in the beer belly area that accompanies my Falstaffian personality—an adjective rarely self-applied but nonetheless apropos—and that belly is starting to drag.
New Year’s Day, just around the corner, will launch a thousand diets. Many people will begin the new year with a new resolution, after noticing how their holiday dinners have led to unholy bellies.
The first step is to figure out what diet to follow. My wife, Sara, and I decided that we wanted to diet together, which was good because she’s an excellent cook and has stronger willpower than I do. We asked friends, family members and internet search engines for diet recommendations. We decided to go with the Paleo Diet.
“Paleo … the word stands for Paleolithic, the Stone Age, and the driving idea behind this concept is that we are slaves of our genes, and our genes were shaped by evolution through the millennia,” Loren Cordain, author of The Paleo Diet, later told me during a phone interview. “By paying attention and being cognizant of the processes that shaped our current genome, then what we do in this day and age with our bodies should be consistent with the environmental factors that shaped our genome. I didn’t invent it. … It goes all the way back to Charles Darwin. A famous Russian evolutionary biologist Thomas Dobzhansky said, ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except under the light of evolution,’ and I think you could say the same thing—nothing in nutrition makes sense except under the light of evolution.”
The basic theory of the Paleo Diet is to eat what humans evolved to eat, the foods we ate for the majority of our existence. So that means hunter-gatherer type things, like fish, lean meat, and fruits and veggies—and nothing that requires extensive preparation or, say, pinching the nipples of a wild animal. You avoid grains, legumes, dairy and all that sugary or salty processed stuff. So simple to follow, even a caveman could do it.
However, in an assessment of 20 diets in U.S. News & World Report, health experts ranked the Paleo diet last and said there may be health risks associated with it.
Just so you know what I was dealing with, here’s everything I ate and drank on Thursday, the day before I started the diet, roughly in chronological order: Four cups of coffee; a bagel with cream cheese; five Morningstar Farms fake-meat microwavable mini corndogs; a small bowl of cottage cheese; a 12-inch pastrami sandwich, with Swiss cheese, Russian dressing and coleslaw, from Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop; a small bag of Doritos; a 16-ounch Pepsi; a half dozen Trader Joe’s chocolate truffles; and two Sierra Nevada Pale Ales. Not really a picture of healthful eating.
I bought Cordain’s book for a few reasons: The title of the book is simple, the writing is straightforward and accessible, and he allows for “moderate,” “occasional” consumption of caffeine and alcohol.
After reading his book, I learned Cordain has local connections. He graduated from Carson High School in 1968, attended the University of Nevada, Reno as an undergrad, and later earned a master’s degree in physical education from UNR. His experiences as a student athlete at UNR inspired his interest in nutrition.
“It goes back to my Northern Nevada roots,” he told me. “I ran on the track team for Jack Cook, who was very well known in Reno. Jack was a great guy, and he recruited me at Carson to go to UNR and be a track athlete there. So, I did. And, as an athlete, I was always interested in anything that could help with fitness and performance, so it was natural for me to gravitate toward diet and exercise. So that’s been my lifelong interest.”
He visits Tahoe every summer, and told me he’s interested in doing a speaking engagement in Reno.
“I love Reno!” he said. “I’m a homegrown guy. … It’d be fun to come back to Reno or UNR and give a talk. I speak all over the world, and actually I’d consider waving my honorarium.”
I had a small lunch the first day, four mandarin oranges. Then, Sara and I went to the Raley’s grocery store near our house and bought food for the diet—pork chops, turkey breast, salmon, shrimp, spinach, almonds, apples, tomatoes, avocadoes and more.
For dinner that night, Sara made our first proper Paleo meal: Salmon, cooked with garlic, and a kitchen-sink salad, with berries, carrots, almond slices, tomatoes, avocadoes, spinach, mushrooms, and a flaxseed oil and orange juice dressing. It was great. This whole dieting thing is going to be easy, I thought.
After the terrific dinner, I was ready for dessert. We Bynums have what we like call a chocolate pouch. No matter how full we are, there’s always a little space left for a chocolate fix after a good meal.
“I wonder if chocolate is allowed on the diet,” I said, picking up Cordain’s book, and flipping to the index. “Hey … that’s strange. There’s nothing in the index about chocolate.”
I glanced over at my wife. She was giving me one of her patented looks: a mixture of mild amusement and disbelief.
“It’s a diet, honey,” she said. “It’s pretty much a given that you’re not supposed to eat chocolate.”
It was then that I realized that eating the stuff you’re supposed to eat is the easy part of dieting. The challenge is not eating the stuff you’re not supposed to eat.
A couple of weeks ago, I collaborated with the other editors at the RN&R on a story about comfort foods. For that piece, I wrote about hamburgers—a food I dearly love. But for me, no food is actually more comforting than breakfast cereal, especially Honey Nut Cheerios. It’s a pure childhood pleasure: eating sugary cereal and watching TV on Saturday morning.
So I denied myself my usual Saturday morning comfort food, and, in addition, in a nod to “moderation,” I skipped my morning coffee as well. Instead I had an apple and some nuts and berries. I felt cranky all day.
My wife works on Saturdays, so I volunteered to bring her a Paleo lunch. I texted her to “tell me exactly what to bring.” She dispatched me to Michael’s Deli, one of my favorite lunch spots, and conveniently just a couple of blocks from Sara’s workplace. She requested the spinach salad with chicken, no cheese, and dressing on the side. I decided to just get the same thing. Sara was able to better understand the principles of the diet more quickly than I was, so I decided it would be best for me to emulate her.
I parked a block away, and as I walked over to the deli, I realized I was strangely nervous and self-conscious. It’s a dumb thing to be embarrassed by, but I had never ordered food like this, tailored to a prescriptive diet, especially at a place like Michael’s, where you order at the counter, and there’s usually a long line. I actually found myself rehearsing my order: “I’d like two spinach salads with chicken, no cheese and dressing on the side. Please.”
I expected a line, because there’s usually a long one there at lunchtime, but when I walked in, there was no line and the woman behind the counter immediately smiled and said hello. I blurted out, “I’d like two spinach salads with chicken, and no cheese … please.”
I realized immediately I’d screwed up my carefully rehearsed order, but I could not force the words “dressing on the side” out of my mouth. Fortunately, because I got the salad to go, they put the dressing on the side anyway. Crisis adverted.
We ate together in Sara’s office. One of her coworkers had given her a giant Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, her favorite sweet.
“But of course I can’t eat it,” she said. “Oh well. I guess I’ll just drink more water.”
For breakfast, I had a grapefruit. For lunch, I ate nuts and berries—at no time did I feel more Paleolithic than when snacking on nuts and berries. Then I ate an entire bag of beef jerky. In The Paleo Diet, Cordain recommends unsalted, homemade beef jerky as a good between-meal snack. There’s a recipe in the book, but I just bought beef jerky at the store, a low-sodium, low-fat variety, but I’m sure it was still in violation of the diet, though it still seemed true to the spirit of the thing.
Honestly, the spirit of the diet was a little difficult for me to wrap my mind around. No caveman would willfully ignore most of the food available to him. I’m sure that if you offered a caveman a bean-and-cheese burrito, he’d eat the hell out of it.
I was on my own for dinner. It was time for me to cook. I sautéed some shrimp and mushrooms and had them over a bed of spinach, carrots and lettuce. It was a major success, particularly because I’d never cooked shrimp before. I was so proud of myself, I took a picture of the finished product and texted it to my wife: “Success!”
Meanwhile, as I was making my shrimp salad, I attempted to hard boil some eggs, something I’ve done successfully in the past. But I was so focused on the shrimp salad that I didn’t pay much attention to the eggs, so I cooked them for too long or too short—I’m not really sure which—so they just exploded in a gooey, yolky mess when I went to crack them. I took a picture of the egg mess and emailed it to my wife: “Failure!”
On Monday, I had lunch at Midtown Eats with a friend. When I ordered “the steak salad—no cheese.” He actually burst out laughing and exclaimed, “What’s happening?” We’ve had lunch together hundreds of times, and he’d never known me to “hold” anything. It was very tasty, though not entirely filling. I asked to see the dessert menu in the vain hope that there would be some sort of fruit salad or something, but nope, just plenty of dairy-laden treats that were as enticing as they were forbidden. I cursed the name of my diet and the prehistoric ancestors who supposedly dreamed it up.
That night, I suffered from serious sugar withdrawal. To avoid eating chocolate, I ate a ton of walnuts and almonds and blackberries and blueberries. But no matter how many nuts and berries you eat, they never turn into chocolate.
I was in a weird mood all day at work. I kept giggling hysterically at my own unfunny jokes.
“I’m in a loopy mood,” I said. “I think it’s because I didn’t get a good night’s sleep, but I’ve had a bunch of coffee. Plus, I’m on this weird diet that’s got me feeling all sorts of out of sorts.”
“What diet are you doing?” asked special projects editor Ashley Hennefer.
“Caveman diet,” I replied.
“Oh really? I’m on it, too. I love it. How long have you been on it?”
“Um, like a week,” I lied. It had only been five days.
“Really? I’ve been on it for two months … but I’ve cheated a whole bunch.”
She was nice about it, but I suddenly felt dwarfed. I’d been bitching and whining about how hard it had been for me to follow this diet for a couple of days, while somebody right down the hall had been quietly plugging away at the thing for weeks, and felt healthier because of it.
“The weeks I’ve been good about it, I feel like I have a lot more energy,” she told me later. “And it’s an easier way of cooking and eating.”
That night, I was drinking Guinness, when my wife pointed out that it was a total violation of the diet—it’s made with barley. She suggested I switch to wine, but instead I switched to tequila because it’s made from a plant.
Wednesday morning, on my day off, I stood in the kitchen, in my pajamas and bathrobe, deliberating. I was groggy, hungry and a little hungover. I wasn’t particularly craving carbs, cereals, sugars or dairy—not like I had at other times over the course of the diet. I just wasn’t sure what else to eat. Celery, nuts and berries—my usual Paleo snacks—seemed unappetizing. We were out of apples and oranges. Just thinking about beef jerky made my jaw hurt. I thought about scrambling some eggs, but my failure with the hardboiled eggs a few days earlier still made my fingers feel sticky.
I stared into the refrigerator. The milk was just sitting there, a half-full one-gallon jug of 2 percent, slowly turning sour, like the face of an old man whose kids never call. Did I really just want the milk to go to waste? There was a mostly empty box of Kellogg’s Raisin Bran in the pantry. I picked it up, shook it around. Definitely enough in there for a bowl or two.
Back to the fridge, I picked up the milk jug, unscrewed the cap, shoved my nose in there, breathed deep. Nothing, no discernible odor, probably a good sign when it comes to milk. I looked down into the jug, swirled the white, viscous fluid. That’s a bodily secretion forcibly extracted from a giant, hairy, smelly animal, I thought. There were two different colors, a clean ivory and a cream roughly the color of unbrushed teeth. It’s starting to curdle, I thought. The sell-by date on the jug was from nearly two weeks earlier.
I smelled it again. Nothing. I took a sip. Almost no flavor, which was better than something rancid. I drank in a mouthful, let it sit on my tongue, swished it around in my mouth. I half expected to break down in convulsing revulsion. And I half expected a wave of ecstasy to flow down my throat. Neither happened. I took a big gulp. Tasted like milk. The texture was perhaps more mucousy than I remember, but that was probably because I was giving it such close attention. I dumped the Raisin Bran in the bowl, threw in a few blueberries, and poured in the milk.
As I ate, I tried to decide whether I should feel guilty or not. Cordain has places in his meal plans for “open meals” that allow for rules to be bent and even broken. The idea is that carefully regimented indulgencies will help dieters blow off steam without boiling over. If you enjoy your favorite guilty pleasure foods occasionally, it’ll be easier to stay on the diet the rest of the time, and those rare indulgencies will be enjoyed with greater relish. Makes sense, though I had not been nearly strict enough with the diet for that “open meal” excuse to be sufficient justification for my blatant infraction. And normally, I enjoy breaking rules, but it’s different when they’re self-imposed.
Eventually, I came up with a better justification: My story needed an ending. This might be a little stupid and meta, but throughout the diet, I held the experience at arm’s length. Whenever I’d tell any of my friends about being on the diet, I was quick to add, “It’s for a story.” As if a genuine concern for my own wellbeing was never enough. I wasn’t dieting because I was worried about my health; I was dieting to find a story. It’s emasculating for me to admit I’m worried about my health, that I don’t like feeling fat or lazy or easily winded by simple tasks, that I don’t like having to suck in my gut to see my penis.
Dieting for those kinds of reasons seemed weak and a violation of my self image. I was too cool to diet in order to get healthy, but not too cool to diet for the purpose of writing some dick jokes. So, yeah, for the purposes of this story, that bowl of cereal gave me an ending. Paleo Diet over, with a milky bowl of failure.
So, now what? I’m probably not going to stick with the diet. I don’t know if that seems cowardly or what, but I can’t live that way. However, I’ve noticed some of my junkier cravings have diminished, and the diet forced me to be conscious of my eating, to notice not only what I was eating, but when and how much I was eating it. I didn’t really lose any weight—I weighed 205 the day I started and 203 after that bowl of Raisin Bran. Part of why I didn’t lose any weight was that I still ate too much. Too much beef jerky, and too many nuts—Cordain recommends limiting nut consumption because they’re so fatty.
I’m also sure that I didn’t give the diet enough time. Eventually, my cravings and overall appetite would have subsided, and the scales would slide leftward.
However, the diet awakened in me a renewed appreciation for fruits and vegetables. There really is no better on-the-go snack than an apple, and veggies, when lovingly prepared, can be delectable.
And I gained a desire to cook. For a long time, cooking to me meant popping something in the microwave or boiling the ramen noodles. I liked to eat out at nice restaurants because that food was always going to be better than whatever I was going to eat at home.
But cooking, especially when untethered from a recipe, as I was when I made that shrimp salad, can be an act of pure creativity, and it can give you a rare insight and connection to your food. It’s almost like hunting it down and killing it with your bare hands.