My grandmother was a smart lady, who taught me many useful lessons in life. Like to be wary of dodgy logic, where two true premises are incorrectly linked in a way that produces a false conclusion, which in turn often becomes the justification for idiotic beliefs, unethical behavior, or worse.
So, if “all penguins are black and white”, and “all old TV shows are black and white”, it obviously doesn’t mean that therefore all penguins are old TV shows. Or my grandmother’s favourite example: “horses eat grass; I eat grass; therefore I am a horse”. The mere mention of this silliness – apparently she learned this in primary school in Lithuania, so it obviously brought back many happy memories for her – would always make my grandmother’s eyes light up, and for the next ten minutes she’d giggle like a child.
Although the point she was impressing in my young mind was important, and enduring: no matter how blindingly stupid something may seem to be, we humans have an in-built predisposition to buy into it as long as it appears to be logical. Even if it isn’t. Ergo, the increasing popularity of a lifestyle fad that seeks to return us to our caveman roots, based on the combination of two seemingly simple premises.
The first: our hunter-gatherer ancestors were generally physically fit and lean and muscular. They were also pretty healthy, insofar as they did not suffer from many modern diseases, like diabetes and osteoporosis and tooth decay.
The second: cavemen only ate things like meat, fruit and vegetables. They ate these foods raw, or if cooked, only by fire. They didn’t eat processed foods, or even supposedly healthy rice and grains, as these require complex preparation way beyond caveman capability.
And, in the course of chasing after their lunch (or perhaps in the course of fleeing from creatures interested in making them into lunch) our cave-dwelling forebears lived in a way that required lots of sustained movement, occasional bursts of intense activity, lifting heavy things like rocks and clubs, thumping their chests and swinging from trees, etc.
The conclusion: cavemen were thin and fit and healthy, and cavemen ate and exercised in a particular way. So if I eat and exercise in the same way, then I too will be thin and fit and healthy.
Seems logical, doesn’t it?
Of course, your average caveman, by definition, lived in a dank and smelly cave, scrounging about in a daily struggle to find food and fresh water, and so was often malnourished. Plus your average caveman had a life expectancy of about 30 years. Assuming, that is, he or she was not first crushed by a falling boulder or eaten by a marauding saber-toothed tiger in the meanwhile. Meaning they usually died well before ever getting a chance to experience diseases like diabetes or osteoporosis or tooth decay.
Such nit-picky detail, however, is completely irrelevant to a growing global tribe who, in the name of health and wellbeing, swear that getting in touch with one’s inner caveman is absolutely the way to go. Apparently this has been the fastest growing “diet and lifestyle movement” in the USA over the past decade, and has now reached Australian shores. In the process sweeping through Brisbane in much the same way that floods and bushfires are prone to do, as I learned this past week while in town for a series of meetings.
Welcome, dear reader, to the weird and wonderful world of all things paleo.
For those of you who don’t know, Brisbane is the capital city of the Australian state of Queensland, a vast territory about three times as big as Texas and, if Aussie folklore is to be believed, about three times as redneck as well.
Never mind that Queensland is the fastest growing state in the country, and somewhere that many non-Australians would give their eye teeth to settle in, attracted by a fabulous climate, comfortable lifestyle and booming economy. For anyone living south of the border, Queensland remains the Great Barrier Reef and a few decent beaches, and beyond that just a big empty space of sweltering heat, cattle, beer swilling football fanatics, loony-bin right-wing politicians, inbreeds and cane toads.
The state capital of Brisbane is known in the rest of Australia as “Bris-Vegas”, with a reputation of being the most backward, xenophobic, monumentally dull place in the whole country, if not the whole planet. This despite the city being home to 2.5 million people, and thanks to wave after wave of migrants and a sustained resource boom, a thoroughly multicultural, cosmopolitan and happening place to be nowadays, if you ask me. (By the way, in case you didn’t get it, the nickname is Aussie-style irony at play).
Still, having grown up in Sydney where these sorts of stereotypes were drummed into me, I certainly didn’t expect to discover a cutting-edge, New-Age lifestyle movement in Brisbane. But there you go, I did. Another fabulous example of the surprise and wonder that travel can bring.
It began on my third morning in town, when I woke up and immediately despaired at the prospect of yet another hotel buffet breakfast, of the all-you-can-eat-you-could-be-anywhere-in-the-world-let’s-overdose-you-on-cholesterol-and-starch-and-other-assorted-fried-shit variety. So more in hope than with any real sense of expectation, I went online and typed in: “Brisbane healthy breakfast”.
What popped up first was a relatively new place in an up-market inner city suburb. So I hopped in a cab, and five minutes later was seated at one of the rustic wooden tables of The Primal Pantry, in a very pleasant outdoor terrace, shaded by trees, a block back from the Brisbane River.
A waitress handed me the menu and only then did I realize that this was not a “normal” cafe, in that The Primal Pantry only serves food prepared strictly in accordance with Paleo Diet principles. Also otherwise known as the Caveman Diet, the Stone Age Diet, the Primal Diet and the Neanderthal Diet (or as per one particular bestselling diet book, the Neander-Thin Diet….).
Mr Google quickly told me that the basic thesis here is that our body was not designed to eat or digest most of the stuff we consume in the modern world, and our “unnatural” diet is thus the root cause of obesity and illnesses ranging from cancer to hypertension.
By contrast, so the logic goes, you’ve never seen a fat or sick caveman, now have you? (Of course, apart from fossilized bones and some wall smudges in France, no-one has really ever seen a caveman except in the movies, fat or sick or otherwise. But that’s just me being a pedant, focusing on minor technical detail).
21st-century paleo devotees therefore believe that by adopting the eating habits of early humans (that is, like the half-ape-half-men who were running about the planet 10,000 years ago in the Palaeolithic era – hence the name), they too can become as exceptionally fit and healthy as our great-ancestors were.
Thus if cavemen ate a diet of raw or simply grilled meats, fish, eggs, fruit, vegetables, seeds, nuts and berries, we should too. And if cavemen didn’t eat sugar or refined products or dairy or gluten or grains, we shouldn’t either. And if cavemen killed their food with their bare hands before clubbing a woman over the head and dragging her by the hair back to the cave…. um…. well…. pass on that one for now ….
According to The Primal Cafe web-site, if you adopt the paleo way “the result is a diet most compatible with the way our bodies are innately programmed to process food that will lead to improved health outcomes, increased energy, and a reduction in blood sugars that can cause cardiovascular disease and diabetes”.
Options on the menu included a “Caveman Plate” of maple smoked bacon, lamb, poached eggs, mushrooms, fresh spinach and raw tomatoes. There was also bone broth with pan-fried marrow and thyme, Middle-Eastern spiced mince on toast with poached eggs and dukka, cauliflower “fried rice” (cauliflower pulsed in a food processor until it resembles rice, then stir-fried in coconut oil), and my eventual selection: a crab and egg omelette with fresh basil leaves.
In the drinks department, I passed up on the Bulletproof Coffee (a long-black infused with grass-fed butter and brain octane oil, whatever the fuck that is), and opted instead for Monkey Fuel – banana, cinnamon, almond milk and nutmeg, whizzed together in a blender.
All of which, to be perfectly honest, I found to be just a little bit confusing. The “toast” was a bit chewy and cardboard-like, the juice blend felt kind of fuzzy in my mouth, and coffee with brain octane oil and butter added was plain old weird. But this, I would suggest, does not a caveman make. I mean, apart from the totally cool bone broth and marrow, nothing seemed all that different to what I could have ordered from any breakfast menu at any other trendy cafe.
More to the point, while I may not know all that much about stone-age people, I do know enough to figure that they almost certainly never made coconut flour or chocolate brownies in little cave ovens. Plus they sure as hell didn’t have juicers, blenders, or food processors capable of turning cauliflower into rice.
You see, as a number of archaeological scientists and evolutionary biologists have pointed out, the inconvenient truth for paleos is that the diet has little grounding in prehistoric reality. Thanks to evolution, we are biologically different to our Paleolithic ancestors. Whilst at the same time, thanks to progress and human ingenuity we couldn’t eat the same foods as Paleolithic man, even if we tried. Natural and artificial selection has over time transformed the animals and plants we consume beyond all recognition.
So for example cauliflower, much less cauliflower fried rice, didn’t even exist 10,000 years ago – it is a veggie created by humans through millennia of cultivation and selective breeding, starting from the brassica oleracea (essentially a form of wild cabbage). Similarly, in stone-age times corn was an inedible field grass, tomatoes were horrid little berries, and wild bananas were largely filled with indigestible seeds.
When put in this light the whole paleo thing suddenly seemed to me like little more than a cleverly marketed but inherently flawed syllogism. A case of hyped-up nonsense that my grandmother would surely have warned me against, and so I finished breakfast feeling no more primal than when I’d arrived.
The next day I meet my cousin, who lives in Brisbane, for a decidedly un-paleo catch-up over espresso coffee, grainy muesli, dairy yoghurt and wheaty toast. I mentioned my culinary adventures of the previous morning, and he in turn told me that right next door to where we were eating was a gym that specialised in “caveman training”, whatever that may be.
Seriously, what are the odds? So in the spirit of scientific research I took down the number, called later in the day to book a slot, and thus found myself that same evening standing on the rooftop of a run-down Brisbane warehouse. I was with a group of about a dozen super-fit looking people and a trainer, who had biceps bigger than my head, about to engage in my first ever paleo workout.
Strewn all around the rooftop were things like old tyres, rusted lumps of iron, and weighted sandbags, giving it all a decidedly cool, raw, and dare I say it, primal feel. The walls were covered in equal measure by graffiti and hand scrawled inspirational instructions. Assuming, that is, you are inspired by statements like: “train ‘til you puke”, “work out like the beast you are”; “if you need to throw up, then throw up and come back in”, and my personal favourite: “make ‘em scream, shout and puke – they pay us for it!”
Like the paleo diet, the idea behind caveman training is to take a 10,000 year old approach to the subject of getting fit. As described in the brochure: “In the old days when a lot of the comforts that technology affords us now were still inconceivable, people actually did physical work. Back then, people had to carry rocks and lumber, row boats, or climb mountains. Those were the days when people did all that work because they needed to in order to survive … [caveman training] drives its students to the best that their genetics will afford them … It dares its students to do the work that their bodies were designed to do”.
This is achieved by making you do a series of relatively simple exercises, like jogging on the spot, star-jumps and burpees, interspersed with other tasks like rolling a large tyre, hefting a beer keg above your head, swinging from monkey bars or trying to scale a wall clinging to a rope. Each specifically chosen to challenge joints and muscles in a way similar to what a caveman would have experienced back in Paleolithic times.
Sounds easy enough, but when translated into reality this became a hard-core blast of calorie-burning torture, individual exercises repeated in cycles of 20 seconds on, 10 second off, at high intensity, over and over and over again, non-stop for (only) 40 painful minutes.
It felt, to put it mildly, like I had been hit by a stampede of enraged woolly mammoths. After less than ten minutes my arms and legs were shaking, every muscle in my body ached, and small pools of sweat seemed to form instantly on anything I touched. At the fifteen minute mark I realised why this is called caveman training: I lost all ability to speak, my communication now limited to the occasional guttural grunt.
After twenty minutes of this madness I was so exhausted I could barely lift myself up off the ground to start the next exercise. This earned me some special attention from the trainer. He hovered above me while I grunted and whimpered and writhed on the floor, yelling words of encouragement which sounded a lot like: “come on, dig deeper, you pathetic pussy”. Although by this stage I was also hallucinating, so I can’t be sure.
Twenty-five minutes into it I found myself unexpectedly turning to God for assistance, silently repeating Jewish prayers I had learned at high-school. None, however, was forthcoming, and instead after thirty minutes my mind turned to obsessing with the notion that this was it, and I was going to die of an exploded heart on a Brisbane rooftop, of all places. And then as predicted, at the thirty-five minute mark I suddenly began to feel a churning in my stomach, and I very much wanted to puke my guts up. Thankfully I managed to hold it in, at least avoiding this ultimate indignity.
Almost as quickly as it had started the session was over, and I immediately collapsed to my knees, sinking into a puddle of my own sweat and agony. But the rest of the group, damn them, were all jumping around like crazed baboons, clapping and cheering and high-fiving their achievements.
All told, I can’t say I especially enjoyed my paleo workout. But whilst breakfast had seemed more like a gimmick based on logic gone mad, there is no denying that caveman training was possibly the most excruciating, heart-thumping, sweat-inducing exercise experience of my life so far. So maybe there is something in this paleo stuff, after all. Apparently all I need to do to access my inner caveman is dig deeper, and stop being such a pathetic pussy.
And then, while still heaving and panting and recovering from the workout, I noticed that two guys from the group, who in Aussie vernacular were “built like brick shithouses”, had lined up to join the next class, that was just about to start.
The mere thought of which brought on a fresh wave of nausea in me, so I somehow picked myself up off the floor, and slunk off into the night, heading back to my cave at the Sheraton.