This week in Sunday Life I eat like a caveman

Of all the self-imposed guinea pig antics I’ve subjected myself to for this column, this week’s might be regarded as my bravest. For it entailed eating, oh-glory-be-yes, fat.

In a fat-fearful world, my no holds barred consumption of chicken skin, the crackling and the 3cm of subcutaneous tissue on my pork belly, several teaspoons of butter on my veggies, whole cups of full cream milk, chunks of ghee and avocado each day has freaked the innards out of most in my culinary orbit. And yet (boldly! fearlessly!) I’ve persevered with this particular experiment for three whole months.

Turn to the person to your left, and the one to your right. I’m betting one of you is making friends with your egg yolks right now, having picked up on what’s been dubbed the “paleo” or “caveman” diet. Images of loin clothes and bone gnawing aside, the diet boils down to something pretty innocuous: not eating anything fiddled with.

So, no grains, no additives, no sugar, no grain-fed meat, no mucked-around-with fat-reduced dairy.

And instead the unadulterated foods of our ice-age forebears. The subsequent claim is that doing so makes us healthier, thinner and live longer, a claim I had to test for myself.

For the bulk of our 2.6 million years on the planet our diet consisted of fat, meat and fibrous vegetables. Put simply, fat determined our survival. Ten thousand short years ago we started eating grains, gradually changing from fat-burning creatures to sugar and starch-burning ones. Which would be fine. Except our bodies have never adjusted – 99.9 per cent of our genes are the same as our caveman ancestors.

Grains by nature contain toxins in their husks (their only defense in the evolutionary chain) that we struggle to digest (ergo, bloating, gluten sensitivity, etc). Further, a grain-based diet signals “famine” to our primitive bodies – why else would we be resorting to the most energy inefficient, toxic food possible? Which is said to set off a domino of “coping mechanisms”, such as insulin, cholesterol and triglyceride spikes, as our bodies try to deal with a substance it has not evolved to ingest. The spiraling consequences of living grain-based lives is extensive, and backed by a fast-growing number of studies that show it’s making us fat and sick.

Now. I know, I know. All this turns the pyramid and the way you eat your cornflakes on its head. And it makes people angry. What do you mean we’ve been eating all wrong? We’re not meant to eat fat! Really? Who says?

On Saturday night I found myself at dinner with a bunch of paleos – two dentists, two farmers, a GP, some academics and the pin-up girl of paleo Nora Gedgaudas (at 50, she’s as toned and glowy as a young bride) whose authoritative and hyper-referenced tome Primal Body Primal Mind was my first introduction to the topic.

[Listen to my earlier podcast with Nora here.]

We ate the fish or the duck, poured oil over our asparagus and said no to the bread. We all drilled Gedgaudus, in Australia to speak at a series of Nourishing Australia conferences, on the guff all paleos tend to get drilled on. But didn’t cavemen only live to 30 – how can their diet be good? That was the average age, skewed by high infant mortality and death-by-charging-rhino, not diet. But don’t we need carbs for energy? No, it’s in fact the only food molecule that’s unnecessary for survival. Geez, all that saturated fat – it causes heart disease and high cholesterol! Again, no. The original study in the 1950s by scientist Ancel Keys that claimed as such was seriously flawed.

[To watch a video that explains this, click here.]

Since then studies have shown in just two weeks a saturated fat/paleo diet reduced cholesterol and triglycerides 30 points (equivalent to taking statins for six months).

My cholesterol dropped and I lost 2 kilos “going paleo”. But the most remarkable benefit has been its stickability. Once I’d escaped my sugar rollercoaster of yore and started eating 2-3 meals a day (fat satiates and so I now eat less) it just didn’t occur to me to “relapse” (carbs are addictive, so without them my cravings disappeared). Indeed, everyone around the table on Saturday had been grain-free for years, effortlessly. Which, to me, makes this whole caper less a diet and simply, innocuously, something that just makes sense.

This is a massive topic to cover in one column. I’ll be writing more about it in weeks to come, so feel free to post any questions or suggestions on the whole paleo thing below. I’ll also post a directory of doctors, dentists, farmers etc who support this way of living.

I know some of you might find it a little contentious…share! It’s a good discussion to have.

Also, stay tuned tomorrow. I’m making a big announcement…


Have your say, leave a comment.

  • Mark

    Don’t be cheap, buy the book & it will explain it all. You can’t get all the info in a small blog!!

  • lilly

    I know only two people who have Hashimoto thyroiditis who are doing very well. They have been holding a steady job for many years and have active life styles. (The rest of the people that I know or who I have met are not doing so well.) These two people that I know eat No sugars, except for fruit sparingly , no refined grains. They eat Grains that are non gluten in small amounts. One is vegetarian and One lady eats only fish as her meat in small amounts. Small meals throughout the day. Vegetables, legumes cooked properly and spiced accordingly. ( Soaking is important first when preparing legumes.) The lady who eats fish also has plain kombusha in her diet occasionally. Both watch their stress level and activity level. I have no gluten products, no meat and no refined foods. Only raw cheese in small amounts occasionally. I Cook with spices and try to be aware of my body regarding what is right for me to eat. If I have sugar I start having problems and that is my weakness even now. Also, not over eating on one type of food. For me, a flax seed drink from the health food store is necessary for regularity . It took me over 10 years to get where I am today.
    I knew what I was suppose to do, but was in denial that I actually really have to change my eating habits to get my thyroid better.

  • lilly

    I agree. This is the most accredited up to date documented study on a group of people regarding diet. (at least that I know of) I have friends that really enjoyed reading that book.

  • Katy

    Interesting reading all of the pro-paleo/pro-grain/pro-vegetarian arguments here – no topic more contentious than food, it seems! What are your thoughts on Dr Michael Greger’s videos looking at the brain-protecting benefits of grain, and the benefits of a well balanced vegan diet?

  • Emma

    Firstly, the paleo diet is NOT high in meat. It is high in non-starchy vegetables, natural fats, and then proteins. You essentially eat the same amount of meat as you normally do. Your plate should be at least two-thirds vegetables and the meat should be as fatty as possible.

    Secondly, you might want to read this:
    Similar to the Ancel Keys study that vilified fat, this study was quite significantly skewed by the intentions of the team involved. We are omnivores by nature, so many believe that so long as the animals are ethically raised we should have no qualms about eating the recommended amount.

    Thirdly, on your question of fruit, the issue with fruit and fruit sugars is the response our body has to it. In the early days fruit was scarce and hence consuming it inhibits the hormones that tell us we are full, all while the insulin response urges us to put down the excess energy as fat. Hence low GI fruits such as berries and high fiber fruits should be included in your diet only in moderation depending on your level of insulin sensitivity.

  • Emma

    Cholesterol is a naturally occurring substance within our bodies. We produce or release cholesterol in response to damage in the arteries due to inflammation (caused by, guess what, grains and sugars!) in order to patch up the holes.

    Blaming the consumption of cholesterol for heart disease is similar to blaming communities that have firefighters for house fires!

  • Emma

    I really recommend watching the movie Fat Head. It has this amazingly interesting timeline where it shrinks down human history to roughly one year or something along those lines. On that time scale it remarks that we’ve only been eating grains for around an hour, and grain based oils for around ten minutes (I can’t exactly recall. Anyone who has watched it more recently, feel free to correct my facts).

  • Emma

    I think you really have to test out your tolerances (e.g. some people can tolerate dairy in the form of butter and/or yoghurt while others can’t) but many nut allergic paleos use seeds such as sunflower instead of nuts, and egg-free paleo individuals use flax seeds or chia seeds instead of eggs in their cooking. For breakfasts you might want to try some soups and/or some stir-fried veggies (or eggs since you can have them at home). Some paleo vegetarians have decided to be occasional pescatarians but ultimately it is up to you and what your stomach/ethics can stand.