The Stone Age Diet: Why I Eat Like a Caveman
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A few years ago, as I approached 40, I found I couldn't do up the top button of my jeans. Through my twenties and most of my thirties, I'd taken size 32; now, I needed a 36. I was in denial for months.
What stopped this was an unforgiving changing-room mirror. As I stood there without my T-shirt, I was confronted with the harsh reality that I had a spare tyre. There it was; like it or not, I was facing the onset of middle-age spread.
I decided to do something about it. First, I cranked up a serious exercise regime. I jogged every other day and did weights on the days in between, taking Sundays off. Diet-wise, I ate the universally recommended high-carbohydrate, low-fat foods: lots of rice, lentils, pasta, oats, fish, chicken and fruit and veg, but little red meat.
It didn't work. Yes, I felt fitter and was more muscular -- but my waistline wasn't going down.
As I was about to give up in despair, I stumbled across the website of Art De Vany www.arthurdevany.com, an economics professor from California. I was dumbfounded. The guy was in his sixties and he looked spectacular. His muscles rippled, but not in the muscle-bound bodybuilder way. What's more, his stomach was flat and he had a genuine six-pack. He put people of 30 and younger to shame.
What was De Vany's secret? For nearly two decades, he'd been eating and exercising as humans did in Paleolithic times -- the early Stone Age. He'd come across research suggesting that we should be eating like our hunter-gatherer forebears -- lean meat, fish, vegetables, nuts, but no grains, beans or dairy. It had made sense, so he took it up.
As De Vany points out, the fossil record reveals that our cave ancestors were not only slim, lean, fit and healthy, but that they did not generally suffer from many of the diseases that plague us today, such as cancer, allergies and heart disease. What's more, as long as they weren't gored by a wild beast or struck down by infection, they lived as long as we do today. They stayed agile and vigorous until they dropped (no wheelchairs and care homes for them).
I decided to give the idea a month's trial. That way I could assess initial results and check that the diet wasn't hazardous to long-term health. My first port of call was Archers, a good-quality butchers near my home in Norwich, to pick up five pounds of mince to make up bolognese and chilli sauces (without pasta, beans or rice), along with six pork chops, big joints of beef, kidneys and a slice or two of liver. "Dinner-party?" Jamie behind the counter asked. "No," I said, "it's all for me."
Next, I hit the supermarket to pick up 20 cans of tuna in spring water, five cans of corned beef (not ideal due to the salt, but good for emergencies) and olive oil. Other than that, the shelves were off limits; they were lined with cereals, dairy, baked goods or sugary foods -- all of which would have been alien to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. In a health-food store, I picked up a selection of nuts -- brazils, pecans, hazels, almonds and walnuts -- and a tub or two of raisins; all staple snack foods for the Stone Age eater.
For me, giving up things like toast, breakfast cereals, dairy products, potatoes, pasta and sugary desserts was easy. After a few weeks, I lost the taste for anything sweet. The only thing I did miss, and still do sometimes, is cheese.
I still had nagging doubts about taking on such an extreme diet. However, the more I looked into it, the more I became convinced that eating Stone Age-style is not only good for you, but possibly the most natural diet for humans.
One of the leading researchers in the field of Paleolithic eating and fitness is Loren Cordain, a professor in the health and exercise department of Colorado State University. He makes no bones about it: "The human genetic makeup is identical to that of Stone Agers. Those people were optimally adapted to the types of foods they could gather or hunt, and there's no evidence to suggest that modern humans are any different," he says.
According to Cordain, our modern diet, with its emphasis on refined cereals, sugars, vegetable oils and dairy products, was introduced in the "wink of an eye," with serious ramifications for our health. "The changes that have occurred in the Western diet are far too rapid. Our genes have been stable, but our diet has not."
In his book The Paleo Diet (Wiley), Cordain argues that the rot set in with the Neolithic (agricultural) revolution some 10,000 years ago. As farming took over the world, bringing with it new foods such as bread and dairy products, so our health and fitness declined. We got fatter, and shorter. Come the Industrial Revolution, things got even worse. "Neolithic, industrial-era and modern-era foods... underlie virtually all the chronic diseases of civilisation: coronary heart disease, hypertension, type-2 diabetes, gout, obesity, acne and breast, colon and prostate cancer," Cordain says.
This seemed almost unbelievable. Was conventional "wisdom" about nutrition wrong? All I could go on was my own experience.
After two weeks of going Stone Age, I was already beginning to lose weight and my jeans felt looser. What's more, I felt so much better, full of energy and vigour. I found myself bounding up hills without getting out of breath. I was convinced, and forgot all about giving the diet a month's trial. I was in it for the long haul.
It was one of the best decisions I've ever made. Six months into the diet, I achieved my goal and could get into a pair of size 32 jeans without a squeeze. My spare tyre was flat! I could even wear tight-fitting T-shirts without feeling self-conscious. I'd given up jogging in favour of weightlifting workouts that mimicked the activities of ancient hunter-gatherers. This brought real dividends in terms of fitness and muscle definition.
Unsurprisingly, some dieticians are sceptical about eating like our ancient ancestors. They consider it a big, artery-choking mistake. "It's a dangerous diet that's going to kill a lot of people," says Dr Dean Ornish, whose book Eat More, Weigh Less (Collins) advocates a low-fat vegetarian diet. "I'd love to be able to tell people that steaks and pork rinds are healthy foods, but they're not. The evidence shows that those are the foods that cause people to get heart disease and cancer and to age prematurely."
It would have been easy to have been deterred by such comments. But evidence in favour of eating hunter-gatherer style is increasing. Recently, scientists at Lund University in Sweden found that eating like a caveman could prevent you developing diabetes. They compared two groups of glucose-intolerant heart patients. The first group followed a Paleolithic diet; the second ate a conventional low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet.
After 12 weeks, the study found that those on the caveman diet had normal blood glucose levels, while those on the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet had suffered an increase in blood sugar. Dr Staffan Lindeberg, the study's leader, said: "If you want to prevent or treat diabetes type-2, it may be more efficient to avoid modern foods than to count calories or carbohydrates."
This is old news to Ray Audette, author of Neanderthin (Saint Martins Press). He's eaten like a caveman for more than 20 years, after being diagnosed with diabetes. He looked into ancient diets, and "realised that grains, beans, potatoes, milk and sugar would not be edible to me," he says. "After I stopped eating them, my blood sugar went normal within the week. I'd also been suffering from rheumatoid arthritis for about a dozen years before that. It went away and never came back."
This way of eating is not for everyone. I've always liked meat and eaten fruit and vegetables, so it was easy for me. Five years after going Stone Age, I still take a size 32 in jeans and continue to have more energy. So there's no going back; I'm staying in the Stone Age.
The stone age diet: what to eat
- Rule of thumb: If you can't gather it from a bush or tree, or spear it, it's probably best not to eat it.
- What you can eat: Lean meat and fish. Fresh fruit and vegetables. Eggs. Dried fruit (without added sugar or vegetable oil). Nuts and seeds.
- What you can't eat: Sugars, grains (no oats, wheat, barley or rye, etc), beans, peanuts (a bean not a nut) and starchy vegetables (such as potatoes). Dairy products.
Owsley Stanley, known as the Bear, has eaten an all-meat diet for nearly 50 years. When he was young, he read that Eskimos ate only meat and fish, yet were very healthy and fit. This convinced him that humans are meant to be purely carnivorous. "I have eaten as a total carnivore for 48 years," he says. "I am nearly 72 and I have much the same body as I did at 30."
Stanley came to notoriety in the 1960s as an LSD chemist, celebrated in songs by the Grateful Dead and Steely Dan. It was Stanley who created the Purple Haze acid made famous in the Jimi Hendrix song.
Stanley recently posted his seven rules for healthy eating on the internet. They are:
- Eat only food from animals
- No vegetables
- Limit liver intake
- Avoid milk (except for butter and cheese)
- Eat as much fat as you like
- Don't cook your food much
- Avoid salt
Stanley had a heart attack in recent years, but he blames it on the broccoli and other"poisonous" vegetables his mother used to feed him as a boy. (Stanley's website is at www.thebear.org)