GN Focus | Healthy Living

Feed your inner beast

As our societies battle soaring obesity rates, dieters are harking back to Palaeolithic times. GN Focus digs up some details on this suddenly trendy eating craze

  • By Gareth Kurt Warren | Staff Writer
  • Published: 07:15 October 19, 2011
  • GN Focus

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  • Image Credit: Agency

With the UAE near the top of the sofa league as one of the world's fattest countries, pudgy paranoia has engulfed the country. However, despite having access to a number of world-class health clubs with trainers, parks with running tracks, and gyms with swimming pools in our own apartment complexes, we still hope that the latest ‘Hollywood diet' will magically return us to our ideal weight, requiring little or no exercise and letting us fit into those old jeans from ten years ago.

Caveman diet

A new craze that's impressing diet junkies around the world is the palaeolithic diet — a plan based on the eating habits of people in the Palaeolithic era, which spanned 2.5 million years ago to 12,000 years ago. Also called the caveman diet, it came to prominence about 30 years ago and has been gaining momentum ever since. The diet promotes overall health and weight loss and allows you to eat foods that create a sense of fullness while eliminating cravings.

Eating like a caveman doesn't mean limiting yourself to raw meat and water. The diet takes cues from our genetic heritage as to what foods may be the healthiest for us today. It's relatively simple: eat nothing but meat, chicken and fish (preferably lean) with fresh veggies, nuts and berries and stay away from grains, potatoes, sugar and dairy products, as you would stay away from the plague.

The stress on staying away from grains, dairy, legumes and alcohol is because it causes inflammation in the body, explains Melissa Hartwig, 37, co-founder of Whole9, an online community that focuses on fitness and healthy nutritional habits. "The kind of inflammation these foods promote is systemic (full body) and chronic (long term). This inflammation, which often starts in your digestive tract and spreads throughout the body, forces your immune system to work hard doing things that aren't its job, leaving it unable to manage your body's day-to-day repair and maintenance functions. Systemic inflammation is a major risk factor for a host of lifestyle-related diseases and conditions, including cardiovascular disease and stroke."

Avoiding grains could generally mean a lower carbohydrate intake. Hartwig suggests a few substitutes: "Carbohydrates are fuel for intense activity and for the brain. Most folks do feel [better] and perform optimally with a moderate amount of carbohydrate in their diets. However, grains are not the only source of carbohydrates. Vegetables and fruit are a far more nutrient-dense source, and do not promote systemic inflammation. There is the same number of carbs (and fibre) in a medium sweet potato, a cup of butternut squash or a medium apple as there is in one serving (1/2 cup) of oatmeal." If you are eating a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and high-quality animal protein sources, you shouldn't need supplements, but vitamin D3, and fish oil are among the few that are commonly recommended.

Hartwig and her husband Dallas give GN Focus a peep into the palaeo lifestyle. "You don't have to be an athlete to experience the benefits of eating this way ­— it helps us look, feel and live our best every day. We still enjoy some not-so-perfect foods from time to time, but our health is so strong now that our bodies are much better able to handle these choices."

In a country with groaning buffets, hundreds of fast-food joints and cuisines from around the world, the palaeolithic diet might seem ridiculous. The surprising fact is that most restaurants can easily accommodate a palaeo diet. Choose a protein source, skip the starchy sides (such as rice or pasta) and double up on the vegetables instead. Ask about hidden ingredients. Many sauces and dressing are sugar-laden, and not every ingredient in each dish will be listed on the menu. Whereas beverages are concerned, alcoholic or carbonated, one does not have to stop completely, but keep in mind that the lesser you drink, the healthier you will be. How much and how often is totally up to you.

Considering that your average Palaeolithic human had a shelf-life similar to a semi-decent 1970s pop song, the diet could indeed be a passing fad. A 2004 study analysing plants of the Upper Palaeolithic age found in the Middle East proves that grains, wild wheat and barley featured heavily on our ancestors' dining tables.

Does it work? Ask Arthur De Vany. The 74-year-old scientist, athlete and Musclemag posterboy is the original creator of Evolutionary Fitness, the first integrated model of the Palaeolithic diet. Eyebrow-raising figures on his website claim that he has less than 8 per cent body fat with the health, physique and energy levels of an 18 year old. At the end of the day, as many diets will tell you, exercise is required in order to achieve rapid weight loss. However, small changes to our lifestyle help as well. We may not see immediate results, but these changes will prove fruitful in the long run.

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Slave to the cave: my 30-day regime

Expect stomach cramps and plenty of malodorous emanations if you embrace the month-long plan recommended by Whole9's Melissa Hartwig. At least, that was my experience on the Whole30 diet, pretty much eating only meat and vegetables. For a month, there were no carbs, no legumes, no dairy, no sugar, no preservatives and no alcohol.

The best thing I did was start in Ramadan. Since it's totally understandable that people's routines change quite substantially during this period, most people made allowances for me. Better yet, the iftar buffet seems almost geared to the palaeo diet, heavy as it is with kebabs and salads.

The Whole30 is quite like the Atkins Diet, but because you cut out refined carbs totally, you don't have the sugar cravings you do on Atkins. Although at one point I did sort of want a double chocolate cake, I wasn't compelled to rush out and stuff my face.

The slip-ups come from unexpected sources: sauces, whether on a steak or out of a jar; curries laden with sugar and yoghurt; even tabbouleh (it's the bulgar wheat). But once you've got a routine going, eating five meals a day including one within half an hour of waking up and your snacks are sorted (smoked meat is a revelation), it's one of the easiest diets around. Especially if you cook at home ­­­— the only way you can truly monitor what's on your plate. 

Best of all, it helps you shed the fat (I lost seven kilos over the month with a combination of diet and exercise), makes your skin glow, leaves you feeling energised all day - and the cramps disappear within a few days.

­­­— Keith J. Fernandez/GN Focus Editor

GN Focus