Those savage salad eaters

by Gautam Raja

Have you heard about the Paleo diet? I know, another diet right—something faddy with a kernel of scientific truth taken to absurd levels that’ll just crash and burn in a few years? Probably not this one though, considering its basis in sound science and focus on long-term health, not weight loss.

So what’s the idea? Foraging in your garden for insects and worms? Eating only once during winter? Clubbing the neighbour’s dog for dinner? Well not quite, but harking back to ancient habits is the general idea. It was in the Paleolithic age that we evolved into modern humans. Millions of years of evolution shaped the way our bodies process food. Agriculture however, dates back only a few thousand years—not enough time, the argument being, for us to adapt to our modern calorie-dense grain-based diet.

Settling down was a good thing for the species certainly, but research suggests it wasn’t that great for individual health. The Paleo diet, as propounded by Loren Cordain, sets to explain this. The average lifespan was low for our cavemen ancestors, but also, their lives involved getting clobbered on the head, gored by boars and starving. The ones who did survive, enjoyed good health all their lives—something seen even in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies.

After the agricultural revolution, as we improved food supply and made life safer, more of us got to old age, but not necessarily in the best shape. Diseases, infections and deficiencies took hold and we became the largely sickly creatures we are today. But increasing population and a need for food storage meant that most of our calories came from starchy carbohydrates.

The Paleo diet is, at its simplest, a shift back to the original make-up of our calories. It’s going back to eating large amounts of fruits and vegetables, as well as fish and lean meats. So far, it sounds like most health recommendations, but it goes on—a bit startlingly—to eliminate dairy, rice, wheat, legumes and beans.

By now you’ve probably guessed that I’m either planning or have already started Paleo-style eating. Well, a bit of both. I’ve drastically reduced my intake of starchy carbs, and increased intake of fruits and vegetables. I can’t, or rather won’t, completely avoid bread, rice, milk or cheese. But even with a part-adoption, I feel a difference. The first few days away from rice and bread were hard—I felt irritable and hungry. But soon, a lightness of being descended. There was no post-prandial crash and bloating, no mid-afternoon sleepiness and fewer cravings. I had increased energy, especially on my bicycle, and slept even better than before.

A lot of fat fell off me, but since my protein intake stayed fairly high, along with strength exercise, my weight didn’t reduce drastically. Today, the “new me” wardrobe of a year ago desperately needs replacing with clothes of smaller sizes. I also haven’t had a cold since I switched over—this after years of catching every cold that went around.

The trouble is, this isn’t for anyone who loves food. For example, with poultry, chicken breast is okay, but chicken wings, thighs and legs are deemed too fatty for regular consumption. To me, that’s an order to take the joy out of my life. Also, grains are an easy way to plump up a plate, as well as easy to eat. For the first few days, my jaw muscles actually ached with the extra chewing I was doing.

And so, I’m being very moderate in my moderation. I want to be healthy like my ancient ancestors, but that salad habit of theirs? That’s a little too brutal for me.

First published in Gulf News, May 3, 2011