Over a recent dinner, I learned a buddy of mine has become a proponent of the Paleolithic Diet, an eating system allegedly based on that of our Pleistocene ancestors. We’re both exercise buffs — me mostly aerobic, he anaerobic — so we traded notes. Yet his wife worried that his stringency in keeping to the diet amounted to an eating disorder.
Having read Loren Cordain’s book several years ago, the paleo diet’s emphasis on protein (from lean meats and nuts) resonates with my skepticism toward the carb-focused diet advice usually directed at runners (e.g., this 2004 article where it began to dawn on the Runner’s World editors that maybe we need something beyond spaghetti to heal and build muscle). Unlike Atkins’s meat-and-dairy-heavy, vegetable-light diet, Cordain advocates lean meat, fish, and as many fruits and vegetables you can stomach — all of which wash down easy after a run. I lean toward paleo but with some carbs (mainly rice) thrown in to supplement my running. Which maybe means I just eat normal.
Where Cordain and I diverge is his emphasis on agricultural products (grains, beans, dairy) as the root of modern ills. He can ramble on about the faultlessness of the peer-review process all he wants but the trap I see most people falling into is eating more carbohydrates than they burn and then acting surprised when they gain weight. The demonization of carbs in the media is strong. But they’re not the problem; the problem is some people’s imbalance between consumption and exercise. Running a marathon? By all means eat as many bagels as you want before, during, and after.
I further learned my buddy had added a twist unknown to me: he refuses to eat before 2 p.m. He explained that prehistoric hunter-gatherers wouldn’t eat until then because their morning was spent searching for food. Apparently this is based on the experience of an anthropologist studying the Aché hunter-gatherers of Paraguay. I took him to task, warning him there’s no way to know from the archaeological record what time of day archaic Homo sapiens ate (my guess: any time they had food); and that proxy measures — that is, using a modern hunting-gathering culture as a stand-in for those 20,000 years ago — may be useful for, say, determining how to make and use an atlatl but become uncertain when studying ephemeral and transitory cultural practices. If the Aché don’t eat before 2 p.m., that’s just what the Aché do, not what everyone did during the Ice Age.
It should be duly noted that said dinnertime conversation took place after four pitchers of rum swizzles and several rounds of margaritas and beers — which shows you where our priorities were whilst communing with our ancient forebears.
Publicity shot of Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C.E. B.C.