How I took up the paleo diet and lost weight eating like a hunter-gatherer…

ancient landscape

First published summer 2007.

It was back in the early 2000s. The summer was ebbing to a close and I was approaching middle-age. No big deal, I told myself. No need for a mid-life crisis. After all I still had all my hair and it was showing no sign of receding. The only problem was, there was a little (or should I say growing) Achilles heel lurking in the proverbial woodwork. And I was in denial about it.

What was this crack in the facade?

A spare tyre around my waist. It wasn’t Firestone proportions. But despite being reasonably fit (daily press-ups and sit-ups) the writing was on the wall.

The other tell tale sign was my jeans size. I was taking size 36 and even then I was only just squeezing into them. Whereas through my twenties and early thirties I took size 32. There was no doubt about it, I was on the slippery slope to getting a stomach. And any dreams of achieving a “six pack” were just that – dreams.

So I vowed to do something about it – and succeeded. But not before making more than a few failed attempts.

First off, I cranked up my exercise regime. Being the kind of person who doesn’t do things by halves, I bought every fitness book I could by retired SAS and Royal Marines’ authors. It was a case of no gain without mega pain. So I jogged for 30 minutes every other day, and did heavy duty PT on the days in-between, taking Sundays off.

Once I got over the initial aching muscles, I felt a good deal fitter. But it took a lot of willpower to keep it up. Especially going out for a run at 6:30 am.

Being an author and journalist at the time my work involved sitting at a computer for most of the day (as it does for most of us). So, from the point-of-view of health, I needed to incorporate a fairly heavy duty exercise regime into my life. Luckily being freelance meant I wasn’t tied to my desk and could easily be flexible. I could get up and go for a walk or pull some weights whenever I liked, unless I was on a tight deadline. So it was a lot easier than if I had a 9-5 job.

Diet-wise, I ate the universally recommended high carbohydrate, low fat foods. But I didn’t eat the junk food thinly disguised as slimming aids – like low-fat potato chips or “sugar-free” desserts. Instead, I cooked up Chinese, Mexican, and Indian dishes with brown rice. Making my own sauces meant I could keep the salt and sugar content very low, whilst keeping the food tasty with herbs and spices. For breakfast, I often ate porridge or All-Bran with skimmed milk and a few raisins.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I had an iron will. I sometimes slipped. I found it difficult to resist cheese on buttered rolls, for example. But on the whole I did pretty well. And I did get results. The exercise made me fitter and the diet got rid of most of the edge of chubbiness that was beginning to encroach. But no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t seem to lose my stomach. My size 36 jeans were still tight and I had difficulty doing up a couple of pairs.

That wasn’t good enough for me. I felt there had to be a way of getting back to the way I looked in my twenties. So I read more fitness and diet books. Most of which were vapid, boring, and seemed to be written by people with fixed grins and mega-buck dental jobs. The military fitness books were by far the best because they were lively and had attitude (and the authors looked rugged, rather than plastic). But somehow even they didn’t hold the answer.

Just when I was about to give up, I came across a curious and somewhat unlikely web site. It was just one page, put up by US economics professor Arthur “Art” De Vany. It showed pictures of him at sixty-three-years-old looking phenomenally fit and muscular. His stomach was flat and, yes, he had a genuine six pack. This man was not approaching early middle age. He was way past that. Yet he was putting people of thirty and younger to shame.

I was dumbfounded. So I carefully read through his web page. The first thing De Vany made clear was that he was not a “trainer to the stars, a reformed overeater, or a recovered food addict (the most common types of authors in this genre)”. No. De Vany was a scientist and athlete and a truly successful example of what he preached.

So what was De Vany preaching?

For just under two decades he had been eating and exercising in a way that mimicked the diet and activity patterns of our Paleolithic (Stone Age) ancestors. He’d come across some early ground-breaking research suggesting that we should be eating like our hunter gatherer forebears – lean meat, fish, vegetables (no grains, beans, or dairy products).

It had made sense to him. So he took it up himself. As De Vany pointed out on his Internet discussion forum, the fossil record reveals that our cave ancestors were not only slim, lean, fit and healthy, but they did not generally suffer from many of the diseases that plague us today, such as cancer, allergies, and heart disease. What’s more, providing they weren’t gored by a wild beast while out hunting or struck down by infection, they lived as long as we do today. The big difference was they stayed agile and vigorous until they dropped. No wheel chairs and care homes for them.

De Vany put a lot of emphasis on “evolutionary fitness”, as he called it. So a lot of his web page covered what he considered more natural ways of keeping fit, which mirrored the exercise habits of ancient peoples. For example, De Vany recommended bringing a high degree of variation into your exercise routines (something I wholeheartedly agree with). Most modern weight lifting workouts are repetitive and focus on specific muscle groups. Jogging is also repetitive, not to mention tedious and treacherous on your joints. De Vany, however, recommended using “power terrain” for running and walking. This entailed finding a natural, countryside environment with small hills and varied terrain. You then run fast for a couple of minutes, take it down to a jog, then walk for a while, and repeat the process, and maybe run up and down a few small hills. In essence, the kind of exercise ancient man had to do as part of daily life.

This very much appealed to me. I’d already been doing this up to a point, as I don’t care for too much regimen and discipline. Most people find it very hard to stick to repetitive activity. The upshot was, I immediately set about creating my own exercise regime that mirrored the activity of ancient man, gleaning what I could from De Vany and other academic sources. I put together a fitness plan based on ancient stick fighting techniques that exercised every muscle in my body, but also kept a good degree of randomness and, if done slowly, had an almost meditative element – a bit like the Zen-based martial arts of the Far East.

Besides looking at De Vany’s online materials I began looking at other resources on ancient diet and fitness. Interestingly, I found quite a bit of academic research on the subject. All of which pointed to ancient eating habits as being the healthiest, most natural way for humans to eat. It seemed like a low carbohydrate, high protein diet was the way to go; not only for health, but to become lean and slim and to achieve the kind of body that is our birthright.

The fossil record shows that Stone Age people were far healthier and fitter than modern man (bearing in mind Paleolithic peoples didn’t have drugs like penicillin to fight infection). And they ate large amounts of fruit and vegetables.

To me, mimicking the Paleolithic diet as best we can in the modern world made a hell of a lot of sense. Nevertheless I was still skeptical. I had to find out more before I was willing to take up this way of eating myself.

A little more research brought me to another website advocating eating like a cave man. It had a lot of solid research – scientific papers and so on. What’s more, the site was run by respected academic Loren Cordain, a Colorado state University sports-science professor. His researches proved beyond reasonable doubt that what we ate during Paleolithic times (early Stone Age) is our natural diet.

“The human genetic makeup is identical to that of Stone Agers,” he said. “Those people were optimally adapted to the types of foods that they could gather or hunt, and there’s no evidence to suggest that modern humans are any different.”

Archaeological evidence makes clear that Stone Age man did not suffer from heart disease, strokes, osteoporosis, obesity, hypertension, diabetes, allergies or other chronic diseases. One group of scientists made a detailed study of ancient eating habits and published their findings in the Journal of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine. As well as reviewing dietary data from archaeological sites and bone excavations, they also examined the health and diet of the few existing hunter gatherer populations. According to their research, during the Paleolithic period, the primary ingredients of the human diet were meat, fish, shellfish, leafy vegetables, fruit, nuts, insects, and larvae. Typically, they would have consumed game meat, such as venison, which is high in iron and low in fat, but a good source of the beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids. Fruit, vegetables, and nuts rich in minerals, vitamins and soluble fibre were also eaten in abundance.

Cordain says people following this type of diet will “lose weight and get healthy by eating the food (they) were designed to eat.”

That was good enough for me. I wasted no time in testing out the Paleo diet for myself, and happily threw out my brown rice in favour of dino-burgers. I decided to give it a month to see whether the claims of Cordain and De Vany had any validity (I think it is good to maintain healthy skepticism). The amazing thing was, within the first week, I started to lose weight. And I felt so much better – full of energy and vigour. I was convinced. And forgot all about giving the diet a one month trial. Now I’ve been eating like a hunter-gatherer for five years or so without backsliding at all. The results were so pronounced that there was no way I was going to touch a chocolate bar or cake or anything that didn’t fit into the diet.

What were these amazing results?

Well, number one, my size 36 jeans became a loose fit, rather than an almighty squeeze to do up (in fact, within a couple of months of being on the diet I had to make a new hole in my belt with my Swiss Army knife). What’s more, my fitness activities started reaping real dividends. My spare tire was going flat and I had noticeable muscle definition all over my body, which did a lot for my self-respect. Now I can fit into a size 32 pair of Levis and I continue to feel and – although I say it myself – look better. Plus I have a great deal more energy. Instead of feeling tired after a meal I’m now raring to go. And I no longer experience the “afternoon slump” at all. As the day wears on I remain ready for action.

I’m not saying the hunter gatherer diet makes you super-human. You still get colds and flu (though not as bad), and you still have off days. But overall there is a marked difference in energy and fitness levels. If you have to run for a bus or sprint up some stairs, for example, you won’t even be panting. Or if you play ball with your kids you’ll be able to easily keep up without flagging. As far as I’m concerned, the hunter-gatherer diet is certain to produce a lean and muscular body – whatever your age. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. If you take it up, I believe you will say the same within six months or sooner.

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Jimmy Lee Shreeve View All →

Author and journalist

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