Taking dietary cues from the distant past

You are what you eat. This century-old proverb accurately describes Edgewood student Hope Quade’s life. Diagnosed with wheat allergy at age eight, she constantly faces concerns that an accidental consumption of gluten could cause her to become ill.

Last year, she adopted the Paleo diet, a tribute to our caveman ancestors in the Paleolithic period, helped her reduce the enduring insecurity.

Although the definition is not cut and dried, the premise of the Paleo diet is that hunter-gatherers lived for 2.6 million years before the advent of agriculture and domestication; modern diets consisting grains, dairy, legumes, and processed foods are not sync with human evolution and cause so-called “diseases of civilization.”

The diet has become a buzzword for people like Quade with health conditions as well as people in pursuit of clean eating. In a community of vegetarians, marathoners and cyclists, the Paleo diet has found devout followers. It also has triggered heated debates on its scientific basis.

Local merchants are increasingly catering to the paleo diet, with Whole Foods and Willy Street Co-op playing leading roles in purveying grass-fed meats, bulk nuts and coconut flour. Quade said her mother found shelves full of coconut aminos, a substitute for soy sauce, and an assortment of organic produce at Woodman’s.

Restaurants like Graze, Tempest Oyster Bar and Weary Traveler Freehouse are willing to accommodate Paleo customers. Last year, the first Paleo bakery Paleo Mama Bakery opened, dedicated to helping customers “stay healthy while still satisfying their sweet tooth.”

But even before the diet scored the most searched diet in the past two years according to Google, it had gained momentum in Madison under the radar.

Joe Disch, who works in the flow goods department at Willy Street Co-op, started his website Paleo in Madison in August 2012 due to a lack of local resources.

Suffering from the Hashimoto’s disease, a thyroid condition, Disch has wandered through various eating habits until settling on Paleo. For him, most rewards come from “mundane things” such as better quality sleep and relief of “little aches and pains.”

Beyond the caveman-inspired dietary habits, the realm of Paleo has expanded from a diet to a lifestyle. Although the spirit of going back to the Stone Age has been around since the 1970s, Disch argues it has not caught national attention until recently thanks to the Internet. Now there are books, websites and podcasts on recipes, fitness suggestions and beauty products. With its endorsement from Hollywood red carpets and professional athletes, the Paleo regimen has caused a zeal among everyday Americans who look up to celebrities like Jessica Biel and Kobe Bryant as their inspirations.

“You’re in it to change your lifestyle,” said Quade, now an organizer of a community group “Paleo Badgers” for college students in Madison, referring to her determination to break the ties to the emotions in food. “I only eat because it’s my physiological purpose…  You know how a lot of college students are like ‘how do I ate a whole bag of chips? Why am I eating this whole jar of peanut butter?’ That’s stressor, not hunger.”

However, a trend is often accompanied by doubts and questions. More and more archaeologists, biologists and nutritionists challenge the basic theory of the diet, which is that modern humans inherit the same body from our Stone Age ancestors, expressed through the human genome that evolved over a period of 2.6 years.

In a 2013 TEDx Talk to debunk the myths about the Paleo diet, Christina Warinner, an archaeologist at the University of Oklahoma, argues that the current version of the Paleo diet “has no basis in archaeological reality.”

Similar to 21st century humans, paleolithic forebears adapted their food sources to habitats and seasons. Just like sushi is tied to Japan and falafel to the Middle East, Paleolithic “people in the Arctic have and will eat something different than people in the tropics,” said Warinner. “When we speak about Paleolithic diets, it’s very important to speak of them in the plural.”

Even grains and legumes that are widely recognized nonexistent throughout the Stone Age have been recently found in Neanderthal teeth. As for many beloved vegetables like broccoli, promoted by the Paleo diet for its extensive health benefits, likely did not exist for cavemen.

Disch acknowledged these findings, and stressed that personal diets should accord with individual needs. However, he argues that the value of grains has been overvalued and that lectins, a class of proteins in grains, are the culprit for some modern diseases.

Given its instant fame, there has not been adequate research on the Paleo diet and its potential impact on health over time. Susan Nitzke, professor emeritus in the Nutritional Sciences Department at UW-Madison, acknowledges the benefits of limiting highly processed foods and eating fruits and vegetables.

She encouraged healthy lifestyle pursuers to pursue “a more evidence-based approach as exemplified by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans” for example the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet or the Mediterranean Diet.

Only time will tell if the Paleo diet is a fad or a lasting trend. If there is anything modern omnivores can take away from the distant ancestors, Warinner narrows it down to three bullet points: increase food diversity, eat fresh, and embrace fiber and roughage.