Clan of the Caveman’s Diet
A food editor goes Paleo and lives to tell the tale
The challenge: To cook and eat “Paleo” for two weeks.
The rules: No processed foods, no legumes or grains, no dairy, no soy, minimal fruit, loads of meat and vegetables. (The rules morphed, mid-challenge, to be addressed later.)
The contestant: A food writer/editor and former professional cook, who has managed to rejigger her professional life such that, in a stretch, a night out on the town eating pizza and rainbow cookies can be labeled “work.”
Nice to meet you.
That I opted into this challenge, voluntarily, came as a surprise to me, too. But over the past few months, I’ve found it near impossible to ignore “the paleo diet,” which advocates mimicking a Paleolithic set of tenets to make ourselves, and our planet, healthier. I heard, through the grapevine, of a group of college friends who’d nixed a living-room pool table in favor of a meat locker. CrossFit gyms, those minimalist workout spaces with nary an elliptical machine in sight, seemed to be popping up everywhere. (Apparently, heaving tires around is still considered “ancestral.”) And I found myself engaged to someone who occasionally dips into the diet with the understanding that it promotes health. I’d met people who swore by its salubrious effects and written about the diet before, but never partaken myself.
One day, in passing, as I was digging into my granola, fiancée Dave remarked, “No child of mine is ever eating Cheerios,” and an image of a sad, dutiful kid, slogging through a breakfast of meat, flashed before my eyes. In the spirit of protecting my future child’s right to a bowl of Cheerios, I decided to (a) learn more about the diet’s tenets, and (b) give it a whirl so that I could (c) inform Dave that such a joy-sucking breakfast restriction wouldn’t be in the cards.
Before leaping into the challenge blind, I procrastinated by doing some research. How’d the whole diet become a thing anyway? I reached out to Paleo proponent John Durant, with whom I’d had the pleasure of running barefoot in the park (I wore shoes for everything but the last ten yards and that barefoot stretch was … okay? I guess), with one question: Who founded the diet? “A bunch of bipedal hominids,” he responded. Touché. But he did point to Dr. Loren Cordain as “the most recognized academic” associated with the modern-day version of diet. People published papers on the subject earlier, and even books, too, but with his publication of The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Food You Were Designed to Eat” in 2001, it appears he brought the diet out of the academic realm and into the mainstream. He is currently alive and well, churning out more Paleo-bent volumes.
Durant points to 2005, or even as late as 2007, as when the diet really began to kick into high gear. This is concurrent with the explosion of CrossFit, which similarly encourages a return to a more primitive way of life, free of Reebok Pumps and treadmills. The last three to five years have seen the biggest uptick in adoption: all signs point to the fact that this is paleo’s moment.
So what does the diet promise? Cordain, and many others, respond with a variation on a theme: If you adhere to a Paleolithic set of guidelines, you will optimize your health, minimize your risk of chronic disease, and lose weight.
And so the night before the challenge I went to bed, dare I say, kind of excited about the experiment, running through ideas for Paleo meals for the next few weeks as I drifted off—eggs in the morning instead of yogurt and granola, salads instead of my usual sandwiches, etc. Maybe my new diet would make me more energized; maybe I’d become more focused at work and stop taking twenty-minute long breaks to watch things like Cooking with Dog online (a fabulous Japanese show hosted by a miniature gray poodle named Frances); maybe I’d really run around the reservoir instead of shuffling and occasionally stopping to take Instagram photos of the cityscape. Seven hours later, filled with hope, I got out of bed and began.
I wake up most mornings to the smell of freshly frying pancakes. We live on the third floor of an old townhouse, and by our second week as tenants, I was horrified, if slightly awed, by the power of the ancient ventilation system which seems able to redirect any sound or smell in the building right into the vent by my pillow—particularly the most irritating ones. We cheered, quietly, when the older daughter of the downstairs family made it through the third bar of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on her violin a few months ago. And we try our hardest not to suggestively nod at our other neighbors like we know they rolled themselves a little somethin’ the night before.
It just so happens that the violin-playing daughter and her younger sister enjoy pancakes, and most mornings, the sugary, carb-y smell of dough frying in bubbling butter wakes me up before my alarm. Charming and quaint on a normal weekday, a lot less so when you have to psych yourself up for a plate of eggs for the seventh day in a row.
I went through every variant of the things I knew: I poached. I fried. I scrambled. I soft-boiled. I medium-soft-boiled. I added vegetables. I took them out. Try as I might, I craved the variety afforded by verboten food groups—a piece of toast with some peanut butter, a bowl of yogurt with fruit. One week in, I searched until I found evidence that some Paleo dieters allow yogurt, as long as it’s made from coconut or almond milk. Others, calling themselves “Primal,” allow full-fat dairy. One such adherent told me he interprets this loophole by allowing himself a bowl of heavy cream and some bananas every few days. To each his own. I chose to interpret it by allowing myself a little bit of full-fat yogurt and the occasional piece of fruit. Many Paleo-ers allow fruit, and some allow limitless quantities, but almost always with a caveat: certain fruits—of course those I deem most delicious, like bananas and pineapples—should be eaten in moderation, due to their high sugar content. When it came to satisfying my fruit cravings, it felt like every relevant fruit chart I came upon in books or online—high-sugar fruits on the top and low-sugar ones on the bottom—not-so-subtly steered me towards opting for the occasional lime wedge and calling it a day.
An Average Paleo Day in the Life:
8 a.m. Eggs. Poached, fried, scrambled, soft boiled. Any which way. Bacon.
10:30 a.m.: Handful, or three, of nuts.
12:30 p.m.: Salad with meat on it, or stir-fried vegetables and meat.
3 p.m.: More nuts. Toward the end of my experiment, a piece of fruit (because I was trying to limit fruit consumption, per some paleo literature)
7:30 p.m.: Roasted chicken, meat, or fish (salmon fillets, quick-marinated skirt steak, shrimp stir-fry), vegetables or salad, a glass of red wine.
9 p.m.: A couple squares of dark chocolate.
10:30 p.m: Another glass of wine, another square of chocolate, with some nuts.
12 a.m.: Dream of sandwiches and beer.
I work at a food magazine, which means I sit a stone’s throw away from a test kitchen that whips up delectable eats all day long. It was a cruel twist of fate that my Paleo stint coincided with a story we were working on about pie. Endless pies emerged from the office’s oven—salted caramel apple and chocolate chess being just two of the most delicious in a long list. The first few days I brought my lunch to work without incident—it’s pretty easy to make a paleo-friendly salad—but as the days advanced, the smell of pies drove me out into the wilds of midtown. At one nearby Middle Eastern restaurant, I ordered a salad with chicken—safe enough, I thought. Bonus: It came slathered in tahini. Delicious. I was about to dig in when it occurred to me that tahini might not have been an easily accessible condiment on the tundra. What to do? I quickly turned to technology, downloading an iPhone app called “Is It Paleo” ($0.99 from the app store). I was relieved to see it green-lit the paste, but it still admonished that “just because it’s Paleo doesn’t mean it is good for you.” Back at my computer, I found myself on another website, where ensued a spirited debate about the Paleo-ness of hulled versus unhulled sesame seeds. I almost instantly got bored trying to parse through the logic of each side, so decided the safest bet was just to nix the stuff.
Snack time proved problematic. I usually go for a cup of sugary yogurt or a cookie with my mid-afternoon coffee. When I ventured online to various Paleo websites, I found suggestions like this: Eat gizzards. “They’re conveniently snack-sized and packed with nutrients!” wrote someone on paleopowerchallenge90.com. “Try them on their own, or on a skewer with roasted veggies.” Seriously? It doesn’t have to be a bag of Doritos and a Big Gulp, but I don’t want to snack on conveniently sized gizzards at my desk. Jerky was another tried-and-true Paleo snack, as was a pile of straight-up cold cuts. I crave none of these foods at 3 p.m. So I usually settled on some nuts or, towards the end of my challenge, a piece of low-sugar fruit. One evening, faced with a few overripe bananas—which I’d usually turn into banana bread without a second thought—I sliced them up and put them in the freezer. These little banana rounds took on the role of unexpectedly delectable sweet snack, and are now something I keep in my freezer at all times.
Dinners cooked at home were easy enough to manage, though my clothes smelled of pie when I came home so I’d have to strip down immediately and change, occasionally coming back to the hamper, like a jangled scent hound, to take a hit. I rely on a few basic ingredients to make speedy dinners on weeknights, soy sauce and tahini being two of my favorites. Both were off-limits (soybeans are legumes), so I was forced to get creative. I packed dishes with herbs and spices—adding huge handfuls of roughly torn mint, basil and cilantro to salads to give them a Thai twist, or whizzing almonds, red peppers, garlic, paprika and cayenne in the blender to make a twist on a classic Romanesco sauce to accompany meat or fish—finding that it was actually fun to cook within these new restrictions. And, thankfully, red wine is deemed acceptable in the diet, the idea being that cavemen came upon fermenting, rotten fruit all the time—or something. I didn’t care about the explanation. Same with dark chocolate, which the diet permits, grudgingly, and in sparing amounts, for three reasons I could figure: (1) cacao is an antioxidant, (2) chocolate is a product of fermentation—good because it promotes healthy bacteria, and (3) allowing a few indulgences every now and again increases the chance you’ll maintain the diet.
But eating out was a whole ’nother story. Offending ingredients popped up everywhere—a dash of soy in this, a nob of butter in that, and bread, oy, bread; I found it easiest to nix restaurants altogether. To those Paleo dieters out there I spoke to who likened sugar and refined carbs to nicotine: Imagine a world in which it were illegal for people to eat cheese or bread before they turned 18. And while it is, indeed, possible to eat more Paleo than not—i.e. maybe that steak is marinated in soy sauce, but it’s better than a bowl of pasta—I spent my paleo stint playing Whac-A-Mole. It was one huge exercise in self-discipline. Whoops, there’s a wheel of cheese. Eek, here comes a loaf of freshly baked bread. Get away from me, beer. I received an e-mail at work promoting a forty-five-dollar, four-course Paleo meal—“organic vegetables, hormone-free meats, and the popular Paleo favorite, offal”—at Patina, a restaurant in Los Angeles. Should the diet be adopted more widely, no question that the restaurant community would respond accordingly, but at this point, Paleo-only restaurants are few and far between. Or, possibly, they exist only in that weird foreign land known as L.A.
I noticed, as I undertook the experiment, that people assumed I had taken up residence in the middle of a Venn diagram with three interlocking circles: “Paleo,” “Crossfitter,” and “Techie.” If I’d been male, my circle would have grown even larger. The strict paleo-ers I met were overwhelming male, a result, perhaps, of marketing gone awry—would it change things if it were named the Warrior Princess diet? My guess re: the tech-centric overlap is that the paleo lifestyle and the tech community are both into “hacks.” Tech people hack the world, making information accessible to the masses and exposing secrets. Paleo people hack the dietary guidelines that the government has prescribed for decades. (The food pyramid, laid to rest in 2011, and the current food plate, tells you to eat loads of grains and limit fat. The truth, sayeth Paleo-ers, is that grains are terrible, and fat good, as long as it’s the right kind.)
To say I don’t readily identify with this group is a gross understatement. If presented with a tire in a gym setting, I’d probably kick at it instead of heave it. And when the wireless craps out, my primary means of troubleshooting is to hold my laptop higher to the ceiling. It was nice, for a brief period of my life, to be associated with these tire-lifting, Apple Genius Bar folk.
Alas, physically, I felt mostly the same—except I wanted a sandwich. I read up enough about the health of the diet to conclude that it’s not the be-all, end-all of dietary well-being. It’s inconclusive, at best. Gary Taubes, a darling of the Paleo community who points to sugar as being one of the main culprits in our nation’s unhealthiness, proudly eats three eggs with cheese and bacon or sausage every single day and shows us on his website that his cholesterol remains fine. (Or at least that’s what I could surmise, not being able to read blood charts.) Bacon every day? Seemed too good to be true.
When I emailed Alan Rozanksi, chief of cardiology at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital (who, in an interesting twist, is Dave’s uncle), he resolutely told me the opposite. He deemed bacon “simply a horrible food. Besides raising LDL”—bad cholesterol—“it can also lead to heart disease.” He noted that the Mediterranean diet, which, like Paleo, promotes the consumption of vegetables and minimal processed or sugary foods, but, unlike Paleo, advocates a low-fat diet with plenty of legumes, is the one diet with robust scientific data to back up its health benefits.
My Paleo challenge, however, produced my own personal set of robust data: Eating and cooking bring me joy. It’s why I got into the food world professionally. (My first meal, post-Paleo, was a pizza at John’s on Bleecker Street. The crust was crispy yet chewy in the delectable way only dough can be. My first few bites were like one huge exhale. To finish off the meal, I headed to Rocco’s across the street for two rainbow cookies. Bliss.) For those who choose to go Paleo and feel better because of it—for either emotional or physical reasons—I salute you. As for me, I’m going to stick to a middle-of-the-road approach and Michael Pollan style, avoid processed foods as much as I can and eat more green, leafy things (both, it’s worth noting, tenets of the Paleo diet). I’ll allow myself toast with peanut butter in the morning, and pasta at dinner, if it makes me happy—and being happy is good for one’s health too, right?
As such, if, by the time a wee one arrives, the jury is still out on whole grains, I’ll afford him a luxury his fellow caveman wee ones couldn’t have had and pour him a bowl of Cheerios.