Of carbs and cavemen…

Well, it’s Pancake Day, and man, I’d love a damn pancake. But I won’t have one. This is as good a time as any to talk a bit about our current diet. I’m not trying to evangelize here; I’m too lazy to care whether other people do what we do. But I’ve been mentioning words like “primal” and “paleo” on Twitter and Facebook recently, and a few people have asked me what that’s all about. So why not?

For the past six weeks or so, the Snook and I have been following a modified primal/paleo diet. We eat meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and dairy. We try to avoid grains, potatoes, legumes, and sugar. We’ve each dropped a couple kilos, but it’s not really about losing weight. We finally realised that eating this way makes us feel the best. It’s been a long process to get here…

Some of you will remember that ten years ago we decided to try the Atkins low-carb diet, and we had some moderate success with it. It was hard though, mostly because we kept trying to replicate our favourite carby things using weird Frankenfood ingredients. We also weren’t good enough cooks back then and our repertoire of low-carb meals was much smaller. Eventually we just gave up, got a bread machine, and put the weight back on.

Seven years ago I joined Weight Watchers and we ate according to the WW Points Plan for most of the next year. I ended up losing a lot of weight, but I was starving and obsessed with food the whole time. I was terrified of going to social engagements where I couldn’t control what I was going to eat. it worked, but it sucked. Then I developed some painful stomach issues (duodenitis), stopped going to meetings, and gradually put the weight back on. Again.

Then came the running years. I ran and ran. I ran 5Ks, I ran 10Ks, I ran half-marathons, and last year I ran a marathon. I never lost any significant weight from running. Not a bit. We didn’t have a specific eating plan during these years, but it was pretty healthy. (No junk food, minimal sugary treats, cooking just about everything ourselves.) Some people lose weight by doing lots of cardio, but I don’t. I just got injured and burnt out.

Last year I read an article about the Slow Carb Diet, and we decided to give it a try. The idea is that you eat low carb for 6 days out of the week and then go nuts on one day. (A lot of the Jamie Oliver meal posts refer to “Cheat Day.”) We switched from eating muesli and yogurt for breakfast to eating scrambled eggs, meat, and beans. We started making extra dinner and taking the leftovers for our lunches (rather than buying sandwiches). We both noticed how much better we felt eating like this. We also noticed how CRAPPY we felt on the Cheat Days. We didn’t lose a lot of weight, but we liked the other aspects.

The final changes happened late last year. My friend Geoff was doing Slow Carb too, and he pointed me towards the Mark’s Daily Apple site. I started learning about the paleo diet and “going Primal” (Mark’s philosophy about eating/exercising/living in the way humans were meant to). Out of the blue, an old Weight Watchers buddy sent me a copy of Gary Taubes’s book Why We Get Fat, which also argues that modern life and the modern diet are bad for us. The more I read, the more convinced I became that we should give it a try. We made the final switch after the Christmas holiday.

So what does this actually MEAN in practical terms? For breakfast, we have eggs and protein. For lunch, we have leftovers from dinner. For snacks, we eat nuts, fruit, and the occasional bit of cheese. For dinner, we just make good food with meat, fish, and vegetables. No pasta, no rice, no bread, and no potatoes. We don’t even miss it; I swear. In terms of alcohol, we opt for red wine over beer. We try to observe the “80% rule” and don’t stress or worry about occasionally straying from the plan. (I had garlic bread, beer, and potatoes on Friday, for what it’s worth.) For exercise, we’re focusing less on “chronic cardio” and more on incidental exercise (what Mark calls “moving around a lot slowly”). We ride our bikes. We go for walks. We do the occasional personal training session. We have a short run every now and then. For lifestyle, well, we’re doing our best there. We’re trying to “unplug” more. We’ve moved our morning alarm back a bit as well as our bedtime. We’re trying to get outdoors more often. We’ve dropped a little bit of weight, but nothing major. My blood pressure, cholesterol, and iron levels continue to be just fine.

So that’s that. We’re not, like, militant about this and I’m not going to be offended if you invite me over and serve potatoes. I’m also not going to try to convert you; there are no bonus points for bringing more cavemen into the fold. (But if you want more details or links, let me know and I’m happy to provide.) If you’re one of those weird people who find it, like, personally offensive that I don’t eat bread, please just don’t bother commenting. I am perfectly willing to concede that some folks are fine on a high-carb diet. I’m just not one of them. But isn’t that great! More pasta for you! I’ll just be here in the corner nomming on some pot roast, turnip mash, and garlic green beans. Yum.

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  1. i’ve been really happy with the changes i’ve made along these lines. the best thing is not being hungry. and the second best thing is not feeling bloaty and sick from bread, pasta and rice (i do miss my vegemite toast a bit tho!). i’m not being a nazi about it either, the 80% rules gives me breathing space, and i am so much better off not counting those stupid WW points. im even finding it easy to say no to cake. and of course, i have started to lose weight, so somethings working! i dont understand why people think theres one right way to live, eat, breath. there isnt. whatever works. and there is not one thing that works for everyone, tho there are always those who say ‘well it worked for me’. which is good, but im me! thanks for all your support with this, and for posting about it 🙂

  2. Ever have one of those days where you feel like all signs are pointing you to the same place? Interesting reading this – thanks for sharing. I’ve heard about similar dietary changes from a handful of people recently and am intrigued. Although I wonder how the change has affected your food budget? I’m not sure our grocery budget could handle the increase in protein, but maybe I’d be surprised what we save on grains. Thanks again for sharing!

  3. It sounds very similar to what WW is now calling “Filling and Healthy”, or what was called “Core”. It’s basically eat whatever you like from this list of allowed foods and anything you eat that isn’t on the list you have to count the points to a maximum of 49 per week. The list is essentially anything unprocessed with some exceptions for very high fat fish and meat. No bread, no pasta, no white rice.

    I think the concept is sound, and I’ve tried eating like that for a couple of days here and there, but I miss the “not allowed” stuff too much for it to be a permanent change. Right now, I still go to WW meetings and eat mostly from the list, but I don’t track points. This is reflected in my achingly slow weight loss, but at least I’m not gaining and I think I’m eating the same way as I would if I wasn’t trying to lose. And really I’m only 2kg over goal, so I don’t care that much….

  4. Staci – If you’re thinking about trying it out, definitely check out this blog. It’s written by a Mom whose family (her, her husband, and their four girls) recently went paleo. Very applicable to your situation!

    The cost is definitely the biggest drawback. Protein is a lot more expensive than grains. We’re getting better at reducing the weekly cost, but it’s still more than we’d spend otherwise. (One big benefit of our upcoming kitchen renovation is getting a bigger fridge and freezer, which means I can buy meat at Costco in bulk and freeze it.) We’re trying to stick to seasonal veg, but it means that certain times of the year you eat a lot of the same things. I haven’t resorted to coupon-mania yet, but that’s another option I guess.

    The other drawback is just food prep time. We’ve been using the slow cooker a lot to free up our evenings, otherwise there’s a lot of chopping and cooking!

    Julie – I thought I’d heard that WW had incorporated some low-carb stuff after I left. That’s cool that they’re giving people that option. Sounds like you’ve got a system that works for you. My problem is that I can’t moderate my intake of the “not allowed” stuff very well, and it ends up easier for me to just abstain most of the time.

  5. We’ve been able to find some savings by buying local meat in bulk. It’s pretty easy to split half a hog between two couples/families if you’ve got a chest freezer and the meat is SOOO tasty. 🙂

  6. I know so many people who are following this diet at the moment but it’s interesting that you eat some things I thought were not “on the list” like dairy products for instance. Anything that cuts salt, sugar and processed foods out of your diet can’t be bad! The thing I don’t understand from the strong proselytisers of this diet (of which you aren’t one!) is why we want to replicate the diet of the caveman as there’s really no evidence that it served them particularly well. And what cavemen ate would be dependent on where they lived.

  7. Dairy is one of the things we’ve modified. Mark Sisson reckons it’s okay in moderation if you’re not lactose intolerant. I like my cheese.

    With regards to the cavement, actually there’s evidence that they were quite healthy! Once you allow for the lack of modern medicine and the greater chance of getting eaten by a predator, apparently their lifespan and health were better than ours. They certainly didn’t suffer from heart disease, cancer, and diabetes to the extent we do. (Recent article about this.) The Gary Taubes book goes into this a *lot* with a lot more citations. In addition to the fossil record, he also cites a lot of recent evidence around hunter gatherer tribes and primitive civilisations that experience a rapid health decline once they come into contact with Western civilisation and start eating like us. His book features a stunning photograph of three Australian Aboriginal men who look like Olympians. This article mentions a 1984 study where some Aboriginal men who’d become overweight and diabetic after adopting the western lifestyle moved back to the Outback and their traditional way of life and basically reversed the damage.

    Happy to lend you the Taubes book if you’re interested in delving into the basis for the theory…

  8. “And what cavemen ate would be dependent on where they lived.”

    Forgot to address this. Yes, very much! This is an argument for why most people eat WAY TOO MUCH FRUIT. Throughout most of human history, people didn’t have access to the year-round selection of (giant, sugary, genetically modified) fruit that we do. They were limited to what was local, organic, and in season for only a few months of the year. (This is why the only fruit we eat is what we get in our Food Connect box.)

    I can’t bring myself to set a hard and fast rule about that though. I can’t bear the idea that I should never in my life eat a white truffle without flying to France first. Globalisation has some benefits. 🙂

  9. I lived in a remote Aboriginal community. Looking at photos of the people 100 years ago is heartbreaking. They were lean and fit. They ate only meat they caught (and kangaroo is very good for you) and vegetables that grew naturally in the area. Now they eat the very worst of a Western diet – fatty lamb, white bread, Coke etc. Have a very high rate of diabetes and kidney disorders.

  10. That’s it, that’s exactly it. I guess the trick is to figure out how to get the benefits of their lifestyle without having to run down kangaroo. 🙂

  11. More fuel for the caveman diet… there is also a evidence that the development of agriculture 10,000 years ago had a seriously negative impact on overall health, including bone density, height and dental condition of acheological remains from before and after the onset of farming. Some of that is probably due to famine (putting all your effort into a crop is fine as long as it doesn’t fail!) but mostly just reduced nutritional value of staple high-carb crops compared to the more varied hunter-gatherer diet. The development of agriculture gets blamed for a whole lot of other nasties too, like social and sexual inequality, and over-population. But I really don’t want to live in a cave and catch my own meat!

  12. For the doubters, I started eating paleo-like about 6 weeks ago, not because of the caveman logic, but as a way of eating endorsed by nutritionists as a way to remove foods that commonly cause inflammation and other health issues in many people. While I’m still pretty sure I don’t have any particular sensitivities, I love the way I feel eating this way, and have lost 10 pounds without feeling deprived or hungry. I will, however, still have a weekly pint or two – I found I don’t miss pasta or cereal, but really missed a good IPA.

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