Which is more primal, hard cider or a strawberry margarita?
Would a self-respecting cave man check his iPhone after 8 p.m., as long as he was wearing amber goggles?
What about that morning beauty regimen? Is coconut oil or castor oil more likely to restore that neo-Neanderthal glow to a woman’s cheek?
To the uninitiated, the much talked about Paleo diet — a nutritional regimen centered around pasture-raised meat, eggs, fresh fruit and vegetables, and nuts, in the spirit of our cave-dwelling forebears — may seem like another low-carb fad, the South Beach diet dressed up in a mammoth hide.
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But the time has passed when it could be written off as a fringe movement of shaggy-haired Luddites with an outsize taste for wild boar meatloaf.
Lately, Paleo has charged toward the mainstream, not only as a hugely popular diet (it was most-searched diet of 2013, according to the Google Trends Zeitgeist list) but also as a cave-man-inspired lifestyle that has spawned a fast-growing industry.
There are now glossy magazines on the Paleo lifestyle, conferences like Paleo f(x) that feature Paleo speakers and products, and vacation retreats like PrimalCon, billed as a five-day immersion into all things Paleo. There are Paleo books, action figures, beauty products, liquors, sleep masks, “barefoot” shoes and clothing, not to mention a glut of places that sell all manner of Paleo foods, including almond-flower macaroons, elk jerky and grainless granola bars.
And, of course, Paleo has its celebrity followers. Actors like Megan Fox, Jessica Biel and Matthew McConaughey have reportedly taken the plunge.
“Ancestral health,” to use a term popular among Paleo followers, has gone mass. For them, Paleo is a way of life, a philosophical prism that colors everything from child rearing to sunscreen.
“It’s like taking the red pill or the blue pill in ‘The Matrix’; once you take the red pill, there’s no going back,” said Karen Phelps, a freelance writer in Ashland, Ore., referring to her conversion to the diet a few years ago, when a successful weight-loss push ended up becoming a total-life commitment.
“It’s a total rabbit hole,” she said. “You start thinking, ‘Wait a minute, if I can fix my diet from ancestral health principles, what else can I fix through ancestral health principles?’ The list is endless.”
Certainly, trendy diets and quasi-religious zeal have long gone hand in hand, a point familiar to anyone who has ever endured a newcomer to, say, Atkins spinning out soliloquies on cheese omelets. Even so, such dieters tend to limit their enthusiasm to what’s on the plate. Who ever heard of an Atkins bedroom or an Atkins medicine cabinet?
But among the Paleo crowd, limiting one’s enthusiasm for Paleo to food is almost a rookie maneuver.
“Most people come to the Paleo diet thinking, ‘Hey, I can lose some weight,’” said Cain Credicott, the editor and publisher of Paleo Magazine, which sells at the checkout counter at Barnes & Noble, next to Bon Appétit.
“Everybody recognizes now that if you eat a squeaky clean diet but are still going to bed at 1 a.m. after watching TV, waking up at 6 a.m. with an alarm clock and slathering yourself with sunscreen, it doesn’t matter how good your diet is, you’re not going to be healthy,” Credicott said.
The basic theory of the so-called cave-man diet (which, at this point, you would virtually have to live in a cave to be unaware of) is that the modern diet, with its reliance on grains, starches, dairy and processed sugar, is not what the human body evolved to thrive on and has contributed to widespread “diseases of civilization” like diabetes and heart disease.
That is why leaders of the movement like Loren Cordain and Robb Wolf advocate a “wild” diet that falls roughly in line with that of those Paleolithic forager ancestors who had not yet learned to cultivate and eat grain, much less pry the lid off a Pringles can.
Paleo is not without its critics. The science has been endlessly debated: Some nutritionists counter that verboten foods like grains, dairy and beans contain valuable nutrients, such as calcium, vitamins B and D, antioxidants and fiber. Elizabeth Kolbert, in a recent New Yorker road test of the diet, also pointed out that a meat-heavy diet has dire environmental implications. Still, proselytes often find that being Paleo quickly becomes a round-the-clock duty.
That was the experience of Michelle Tam, a former pharmacist in Palo Alto, Calif., who has adopted a primal sleep regimen.
It all started four years ago, when Tam, now 40, tried the Paleo diet to combat sluggishness and a stubborn muffin-top. But it didn’t end when she shed the extra pounds, as she sought to reorder the rest of her life along those ancestral principles. She quit her hospital job and transformed herself into something of a Martha Stewart of Paleo. Her recipe blog, Nom Nom Paleo, draws more than 100,000 page views daily. And she has a best-selling cookbook, a cooking app and an action figure (although, oddly, it’s made of vinyl, not stone).
Tam also found herself altering her sleep to become more Paleo. As Mark Sisson put it in his seminal 2009 book, “The Primal Blueprint,” “our ancestors’ activity and sleep patterns were shaped by sunrise and sunset.” In the primal mind, the modern sleep ritual, interrupted by iPads and Jimmy Fallon, seems as unhealthy as a dinner of Fiddle Faddle with a Mountain Dew chaser.
That’s why Tam, a confessed television addict, decided to cut out all electronic devices after 8 p.m. If she has to check her iPhone, she wears amber goggles to block the blue-spectrum light that she believes interferes with her circadian rhythms. Next, she turned her bedroom into the equivalent of a Lascaux cave, removing all clocks (her two young sons serve as her morning alarm, she said) and installing blackout window inserts.
The move paid dividends.
“I used to envy how my young two boys would fall asleep almost immediately after their heads hit the pillow,” Tam said. “At dawn, they’d bound out of bed, eager to tell us about the previous night’s dreams. Now, I sleep like them.”
As Bloomberg Businessweek reported last fall, Indow Windows, the Portland, Ore.-based manufacturer of her window inserts, said traffic to its sight tripled after Nam tweeted that she was “the happiest zombie on the planet” thanks to the company’s product.
But the lifestyle does not end when you roll out of bed. For many, the quest to rid one’s daily regimen of “poisonous things,” to use Sisson’s phrase, includes the morning beauty routine.
Vita Pedrazzi, a former fashion manager at Harrods in London who now lives in the Canary Islands, said she used to be the sort of beauty obsessive who would slap on makeup to take out the trash, in part because of her sheepishness over her acne. But when the primal path inspired her to rid her bathroom of any product containing creepy-sounding chemicals, she adopted a zero-tolerance policy to any store-bought beauty product or cleanser — even soap.
As she proudly related on her blog, Vita Lives Free, Pedrazzi, 30, now makes her own beauty products, including a “no-poo” shampoo method (baking soda and apple cider vinegar, with a few drops of jojoba oil for the tips as a leave-in conditioner), body scrub made from olive oil and brown sugar, and toothpaste made with coconut oil and baking soda, with activated charcoal tablets for whitening. Although houseguests are shocked to find not so much as a canister of Ajax in her house — her horrified father-in-law recently raced out to the drugstore to buy toilet cleaner, instead of her white vinegar solution — she feels transformed.
“The new natural beauty routine totally transformed my skin, and I finally defeated my acne,” she said. “I was finally free.”
As the Paleo day continues, many find a way to keep at least a toe in the primal world at the office. A writer for Paleo Lifestyle Magazine recommends keeping a jar of virgin coconut oil in a desk drawer. (“If I end up getting an afternoon sugar craving or just feel like I’m in need of a quick snack, I just take out my spoon and eat a glob.”)
That may be one reason so many are looking to blow off some primal steam at the gym after work.
The preferred form of exercise for the Paleo tribe is CrossFit, a high-intensity workout that stresses Cybex-equipment-free motions like lunges and burpees, and the high-protein, low-carb diet of neo-cave men.
As John Durant, a founder of Paleo NYC and Barefoot Runners NYC, put it in his 2013 book, “The Paleo Manifesto: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health,” “other animals don’t ‘exercise’ so much as they either play or just do what is required to survive. Birds fly. Fish swim.”
In that spirit, humans are just supposed to do what humans naturally do — or did, 10,000 years ago — to stay fit: Climb. Run around. Hoist things. And never for unnaturally long stretches.
“Evolutionary fitness” die-hards can also partake in back-to-nature workout retreats like MoveNat started by a French exercise guru named Erwan Le Corre, where participants crawl up hillsides on all fours, play catch with rocks and balance on logs over creeks.
For those who spend their day rearing children, the primal impulse has made major inroads into parenting, too. Websites like the Primal Parent extol corn-syrup-free trick-or-treating, baby slings for “attachment parenting” and placenta-eating for new mothers.
Unstructured play, in particular, has become a cherished concept among Paleo-minded parents like Phelps, the Oregon devotee, who argued that “play is the method by which all mammals learn.”
Primal parents are the polar opposite of the hyper-achievement-oriented “Tiger Mom” model. Instead of overscheduling her 5-year-old daughter with cello lessons and science fairs, Phelps prefers to spend hours with her after school playing in a muddy creek near their house.
“She loves bugs,” Phelps said. “She loves dirt. I think she’s going to be an entomologist.”
Mud. Rocks. Olive oil showers. From the outside, it may be easy to conclude that the Paleo lifestyle is all about hair shirts and self-denial. But Paleos, too, know how to rage after the workday is done, even though liquor, logically speaking, should be off limits. (It’s not as if hunter-gatherers were slugging back highballs). Cordain’s 85/15 rule of compliance allows for wiggle room, after all.
For those looking to raise a glass, anything grain-forward, like beer, is typically out. But Paleos tend to look the other way on vodka (particularly potato vodka, which is free from all associations with gluten) and 100 percent agave tequila (hey, it’s cactus).
Pinterest, in fact, is brimming with Paleo cocktail recipes, like the Paleo Strawberry Daiquiri, courtesy of Paleo Girl’s Kitchen. It is made with organic strawberries, ice, fresh-squeezed orange juice, rum and honey. It sounds pretty much like a regular daiquiri.
In movements that require at least a dash of faith, however, sometimes it’s the spirit that counts.
HOW TO GO PALEO
Want to turn back the clock 20,000 years? Here are 10 steps to becoming a full-time Paleo-ite.
1. Food. Stick to grass-fed meats, seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs and nuts. Avoid grains, refined sugar, processed food, legumes and dairy.
2. Sleep. Turn your bedroom into a cave with blackout shades; eliminate alarm clocks and electronic devices.
3. Alcohol. It’s a stretch, but if you must indulge, steer clear of grain-based drinks like beer in favor of wine, agave tequila and hard cider.
4. Exercise. CrossFit is huge among Paleo fanatics, but the best weights are lying there in the underbrush. Think logs and boulders.
5. Parenting. Tiger Mom, meet Saber-tooth Mom. Instead of cello lessons, let the kids run wild in the woods.
6. Beauty. You’ll look good enough to eat, all right, when you swap out your drugstore medicine cabinet with DIY products made with household items like sugar, baking soda and vinegar.
7. Clothing. Enough with the animal-hide jokes. Tap your primal style in a “Re-evolve” T-shirt from CafePress and PaleoBarefoot chain-mail shoes.
8. Sex. This one may be a stretch, but as converts point out, there are worse things for your sex life than feeling trim, fit and well rested.
9. Reading. There is no shortage of Paleo bibles, including “The Paleo Diet,” by Loren Cordain, Robb Wolf’s “The Paleo Solution” and John Durant’s “Paleo Manifesto.” Or read the latest Paleo Magazine or countless blogs like Nom Nom Paleo.
10. Music. Your guess is as good as ours. Perhaps something with lots of drums.
| Alex Williams