Defending the Caveman
Why have so many local residents adopted paleo eating and CrossFit workouts with cultlike reverence? One writer ventured to find out.
Illustrations by Paul Hostetler
(page 1 of 2)
Todd West was at a crossroads with his health. He was overweight, plus he had high cholesterol and a family history of heart disease.
His doctor gave him an ultimatum: “You need to do something yourself or else I’m going to put you on medication.”
That mandate motivated West to make a change. But he loathed the thought of returning to the gym and the same exercise routines that had always failed to inspire him. Instead, he decided to try CrossFit, a high-intensity, communal-style workout that focuses on natural body movements such as lifting, climbing and running.
The first six weeks were brutal. “It was humbling,” says West, 40, a fundraising consultant for nonprofit organizations who lives in Lake Barcroft. But eventually he found himself starting to enjoy the burn, and the camaraderie of exercising in a group. When the club offered a six-week “paleo diet challenge,” he decided to sign up—even though he wasn’t quite sure what he was getting himself into.
As it turns out, he was committing to giving up sugar, dairy, wheat, rice and corn, among other foods.
That’s when things got real. Within a week or two of adopting the new diet, West says he began shedding weight. Within three months, he lost 15 pounds. After six months, he was down from 190 to 165 pounds. His cholesterol dropped by 30 percent and he took three inches off his waist. “I’ve had my pants taken in twice,” he says.
Alternately referred to as the “caveman diet,” “Stone Age diet,” or “hunter-gatherer diet,” paleo eating is based on the theory that our digestive systems haven’t evolved much since the Paleolithic era more than 10,000 years ago.
“The idea is to emulate and mimic the nutritional characteristics of diets from that time with contemporary foods,” explains Loren Cordain, founder of the diet and author of a series of books on the subject, including The Paleo Diet and The Paleo Diet Cookbook.
That means processed foods, sugar, dairy products, salt and cereal grains (all products of modern agriculture and manufacturing) are off limits. So are legumes, including peanuts.
“Those foods were never consumed by hunter-gatherers,” contends Cordain, a professor in the department of health and exercise science at Colorado State University. “When you replace those foods with real, living fruits, veggies, meats and seafood, the nutrient density of your diet increases exponentially.”
Many paleo proponents will tell you, however, that the diet alone isn’t the secret to weight-loss successes like West’s. It’s the combination of the diet, paired with regular workouts—CrossFit in particular. The two disciplines have enjoyed a bromance of sorts ever since Robb Wolf, a onetime Cordain disciple and author of The Paleo Solution, introduced the diet to the CrossFit community a little more than five years ago. Before then, many CrossFit devotees adhered to the Zone diet, which advocates a balanced intake of protein (30 percent), fat (30 percent) and carbohydrates (40 percent).
Though the paleo diet and CrossFit were developed completely separately, there is an interesting correlation between the two philosophies. Paleo restricts your diet to foods that were purportedly eaten by hunter-gatherers, while CrossFit’s stripped-down workouts seek to mimic the physical activities that cavemen engaged in for purposes of survival. You may not be hunting wild bison when you do CrossFit, but it can be just as challenging.
To better understand the phenomenon and the fuss, I decided to sign up for an introductory class at Potomac CrossFit, a gym (or “box,” in CrossFit parlance) located just a few blocks from the Court House Metro station. The program is led by the facility’s owner, Brian Wilson, a strapping ex-Marine who also owns Patriot CrossFit on Glebe Road.
“CrossFit is continually varied functional exercises,” explains Wilson, 34. “One minute you might be doing push-ups, the next minute squats, followed by pull-ups and short sprints.”
How hard can it be? I thought. I jog regularly and do Pilates, so I figured I was at least partially prepared.
The session starts out with four participants standing in a circle, doing rudimentary stretches. Then we begin the workout sequence: 10 standing squats, followed by 25 push-ups—basic stuff. Next we walk outside for a quick jog down a small hill and up another short slope. Back in the gym, we pick up barbells, swooping them between our legs and over our heads 10 times. I am sweating by this point, but feeling good.
Then Wilson looks at the clock. “All right, let’s see how many sets [of that sequence] you can do in 12 minutes,” he says. “Three, two, one, go.”
I start off the sequence strong, but quickly realize I am not used to this level of intensity. (I typically jog by myself, so it’s not a competitive endeavor; and in Pilates you only do a small number of repetitions of any one movement.)
By the middle of my second set—as I am making my way up that small hill that now feels like Mount Everest—I am just coherent enough to have an epiphany: I am not in CrossFit shape.
Panting heavily, I ask Wilson how it is that so many have survived this initiation period to become committed CrossFit junkies. “It’s miserable, but it’s fun,” he says. “So you bond with the people around you.”
Does CrossFit plus paleo equal the cure to all that ails us? The regimen certainly has its believers.
Among them are Arlington residents Liz and Ryan Powell, both 28, who adopted the lifestyle in late 2008. Ryan, now a CrossFit trainer at Potomac and Patriot, went cold turkey and adopted the paleo diet overnight. His wife took a more gradual approach.
“First, I removed my cereal in the morning, then my rice at dinner, and so on,” says Liz, who teaches beginner CrossFit classes for kids at Potomac and Patriot (she also runs the recipe blog Tasty Paleo Fun). “It was my 12 steps of seeing how I felt and how it adjusted to my lifestyle.”
Both claim to have garnered significant results. “I felt better,” Liz says. “I saw improvements in my health, attitude and energy. We both got leaner, though neither of us was overweight.”
Ryan had battled a severe case of irritable bowel syndrome for years, but once he changed his eating habits, he says, it vanished.
“Both of us are so happy with the choice…and have decided that this will be our lifestyle,” says Liz. “If we’re blessed enough to have children, we want to raise them paleo.”
Matt Finkelstein, who adopted CrossFit three years ago, also counts among the faithful. He says that after two years, his fitness level hit a plateau—until his coach recommended a paleo challenge.
“It was rough in the beginning, as my body was ramping off carbs and ramping up protein intake for energy,” says Finkelstein, 44, who lives in Arlington’s East Falls Church neighborhood and handles business development for a software company. “My workout performance initially went down noticeably. Then I hit a crossover point, where I was having more energy in the gym and stopped missing the things I wasn’t eating.”
At that point, Finkelstein says his CrossFit sessions got a turbo boost. The number of timed pull-ups and push-ups he could do went up by 10 percent, while his timed push presses increased by 20 percent. He also lost six pounds.
Rock Spring resident Brad Winkelmann claims even more dramatic results, having dropped more than 50 pounds since he adopted the caveman diet. From the beginning of the year to July, he went from 280 pounds to around 230.
“The biggest thing for me was my annual blood-work results,” says Winkelmann, 40, a former police officer who now owns a property management company in Arlington. “My bad cholesterol (LDL) plummeted and my good cholesterol (HDL) skyrocketed. My doctor said that they were the best he had ever seen.”
Believe it or not, Winkelmann says he achieved all of this with a daily breakfast that includes a pound of bacon and three eggs fried in pork fat.
Sounds a little like Atkins, right?
Stories like this worry cardiologists like Michael H. Goldman of Virginia Cardiovascular Care in Arlington. “That is very unhealthy,” he says of the fat-laden spread. “Our ancestors did not have fried bacon or eggs.”
In principle, Goldman endorses many of the ingredients that are central to paleo eating—including fruits, vegetables, wild grains and fish, with lean meats and non-processed carbohydrates eaten sparingly. And there’s certainly no harm in cutting out refined sugar and sodium.
But he’s not convinced that all patients who claim to eat paleo are moderating their intake of fatty foods that, while on the diet’s “approved” list, are considered bad for heart health when consumed in large quantities.
“Let’s take a giant step backwards,” Goldman says. “What’s reasonable and makes genetic and physiological sense? It’s very basic: Everything in moderation.”
Anne Mauney, a registered dietitian in Arlington and author of the blog fANNEtasticfood.com, is similarly skeptical, though her concern isn’t what the paleo diet allows, so much as what it leaves out. Dairy products, whole grains and legumes (all of which the diet prohibits) can be important sources of protein and dietary fiber.
“Any diet when you’re taking out entire food groups works well in the short term,” Mauney says, “but a more balanced approach is better for sustained, long-term healthfulness. People think paleo will solve all their problems in a day. The question is whether they can sustain the diet or will they yo-yo? Following fad diets leads to falling off the wagon.”
Other experts question the diet’s fundamental premise, arguing that the eating habits of our ancestors are virtually impossible to replicate (even grass-fed beef is domesticated, and the vast majority of the fruits and vegetables we consume are farmed, not wild).
“Even if you wanted to try to eat what people were eating a long time ago, the majority of those foods are simply not available,” evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk noted in a recent interview with Nutrition Action Healthletter, a publication of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Early humans were not eating plants or animals that resembled very closely the plants and animals that we eat today.”
A professor at the University of Minnesota, Zuk is author of Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet and How We Live.
“I’m not arguing with people who say, ‘I started eating this way and I feel great!’” Zuk continued. “But it’s also perfectly possible that people who eat in a variety of other ways, as long as they’re not subsisting on Coke and Cheetos, would be healthy as well.”
It’s hard to get a sense of just how many people adhere to the paleo diet—given that the community is diffuse and isn’t presided over by any governing body—although Cordain’s first book has sold well over 100,000 copies to date, and his cookbook quickly hit the New York Times best-seller list when it was published in 2010.
The primal diet certainly has its share of fans in Arlington, some of whom I find gathered one evening at Potomac CrossFit. They are there to taste-test a selection of new menu offerings from Power Supply, a local meal-delivery service specializing in paleo cuisine.
Launched in 2010 by co-founders Patrick Smith and Robert Morton, the company distributes roughly 3,500 premade lunches and dinners per week—each costing $11 to $15 or more— to a number of drop-off points in the area.
“We help our customers sustain their own cooking,” says Smith. “Our meals are a break from that routine and they’re a replacement for ordering in or dining out instead.”