Eat like a caveman to shed weight

Video producer and Greenscreen Studio operator Gary Ow swore off exercise after he completed national service because of the pain he suffered.

But as he did not watch his diet either, he paid the price. His weight climbed steadily, topping out at 82kg in 2012. At the time, he was producing a movie, Hsien Of The Dead, and had to huff and puff his way through the physical demands of production.

“I was overweight, out of shape, I had no stamina,” said Mr Ow, 37.

The meat lover learned about the paleolithic or paleo diet online and got started on it in August that year.

In four months, he lost 20kg and he has kept almost entirely to his caveman diet since then.

“I live on meat, vegetables and fruit,” he said. “Paleo works because there is no refined sugar. I tell myself sugar is poison.”

There is a caveat, of course – his diet “needs near-daily exercise, meaning resistance and cardio work on alternate days”, he said.

Like him, a growing number of people here are opting to eat like Stone Age hunter-gatherers, eschewing food such as grains and processed food for a simpler menu of mainly meat, vegetables and fruit.

Eat like a caveman to shed weight

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(Photos: ST, TNP, AFP, Shutterstock, Facebook/Spinacas)

GROWING FAN BASE

The caveman diet, also known as the paleo diet, has taken the United States by storm and in a sign of the growing interest here, eateries serving paleo-style food are springing up.

Less than two years ago, there was just the intriguingly named Caveman Food, a stall in the basement of the Square 2 mall in Novena.

Now, you can also get your fix at Project Paleo in Philip Street and The Daily Cut, which has an outlet at One Raffles Place and a second one opening this month in One-North.

More paleo eateries could open here. The founder of Caveman Food, Mr Michael Tan, said he is busy making preparations to franchise his business, with five parties having indicated keen interest to be franchisees. If that works out, he will open a central kitchen.

He also hopes to open a paleo restaurant by the end of the year.

One thing Mr Ow has noticed is that there are now more salad bars, which tend to be paleo-friendly. These are places that serve meal-sized salads, with enough protein to fill you up, he said.

Those on the paleo diet typically cook their own meals, as it is easier that way to keep to it.

But these days, you can also get a paleo-friendly salad delivered to you from Spinacas, a salad delivery service, or get help from Zero Cuisine’s paleo-friendly Cauliflower Mash powder.

Zero Cuisine, the company behind the new cauliflower mash product that is sold online and in speciality food stores, said it has sold more than $10,000 worth of it here and in the US since the middle of last year.

Spinacas founder Phyllis Chua said she has noticed that many of her customers appear to prefer eating like a paleo dieter, and are opting for more whole and unprocessed foods and avoiding simple carbs.

In any case, the caveman diet already has a fan base that is growing, considering how several CrossFit facilities have opened here in recent years.

It is the de facto diet among many die-hards of CrossFit, a high-intensity strength and conditioning programme that originated in the US.

The recommended diet for CrossFit practitioners is the Zone diet, which involves measuring the amount of food that you eat, but many just go for the simpler paleo diet instead.

“It’s much less regimented and easier to follow. You don’t have to measure the food,” said Mr Darren Blakeley, director of UFIT Urban Fitness, a fitness provider that also offers nutritional counselling. Its sister company is CrossFit Bukit Timah.

WHAT THE DIET IS ABOUT

To eat like our paleolithic ancestors means to omit food that was not available before agriculture took root some 12,000 years ago.

According to Dr Loren Cordain, a leading advocate of the Paleo diet, what you should not eat on the paleo diet are grains, legumes, dairy, refined sugar, potatoes, processed foods, salt and refined vegetable oils (but olive, walnut, flaxseed, avocado, coconut and macadamia oils are fine).

The list of types of food to be avoided is long, considering how much food is processed these days. It means omitting common items such as soft drinks, cakes, bread, alcohol and more in your diet.

The paleo diet is basically about eating food from these five food groups – meat, fruit, nuts, seeds and vegetables, said Mr Blakeley, a vegetarian who has a master of science in nutrition and exercise from the United Kingdom.

“The agricultural revolution changed the way we eat. We’ve adapted to grains but that does not mean they are good for us. The paleo diet tries to go back to the way we used to eat,” he said.

We should be eating food from the land and food that’s tampered with as little as possible, he said.

While that sounds ideal, it may not be easy to follow, particularly for people who like their bread, noodles and, most of all, rice.

Furthermore, a major downside of the paleo diet is its cost.

According to Dr Cordain, followers of a true paleo diet would eat only the more expensive grass-fed beef, and not meat from cows that have been fed grain.

A recent survey of 35 diets by US News & World Report ranked the paleo diet last, saying that it is too expensive and too difficult to follow.

What some followers do is to adhere to it only as much as they can.

IS THE PALEO DIET HEALTHY?

Ms Fiona Chia, founder of nutrition consultancy Health Can Be Fun, said the theory behind the paleo diet is that the human body is not made to handle processed agricultural produce such as refined grains, legumes, dairy and other processed foods.

She agrees that cutting back on processed foods is not a bad thing, as most processed foods can cause an increase in one’s risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, or even cancer, she said.

Weight loss is also very likely with strict adherence to the diet.

However, Dr Lim Yen Peng, principal dietitian and head of the Nutrition & Dietetics Department at Tan Tock Seng Hospital said that “to achieve weight loss, a reduced calorie diet overall is more important”.

The best way to lose weight and maintain the weight loss is still through making healthier food choices, having a varied and nutritionally balanced diet and appropriate food portions, while at the same time keeping physically active, said Dr Lim.

“When a diet becomes restrictive, where important food groups are excluded, the diet will become nutritionally imbalanced,” she said, alluding to the fact that the paleo diet excludes some types of food.

However, there is little to suggest that people on a paleo diet have illnesses because of the diet, said proponents.

Some even think that a paleo diet, with its emphasis on protein and vegetables over carbohydrates, can help one manage certain medical conditions like diabetes, though there is little research to date on this front.

In any case, the evidence is not substantive as portion size is still important, whatever one’s diet is, said Ms Chia.

One point to note is that the paleo diet is potentially difficult to maintain over the long term, said dietitians.

“Like any FAD (fast-acting diets), they tend to be popular once the public starts to learn of the promising health claims made by popular celebrities such as Megan Fox and Miley Cyrus,” said Ms Chia.

But FAD diets – so called because they tend to promise fast weight loss – are not safe, as there should be a gradual weight loss of 0.5kg to 1kg per week, she said.

“A diet that recommends an extremely low intake of carbohydrates can result in undesirable health consequences such as ketosis,” said Ms Chia.

Ketosis happens when the body burns fat for energy, rather than carbohydrates, to produce ketones. It may cause weakness, dizziness, nausea, headaches and irritability.

When those on the paleo diet consume a rather large amount of dietary fibre without drinking enough water, constipation can be an issue, she added.

Her advice:

  • Follow the main principles of the diet, instead of adhering to it strictly.
  • Cut down on processed food
  • Increase fresh fruit and vegetable intake
  • Lead an active lifestyle

There is no such thing as the perfect diet as everyone has a different lifestyle.

If you are following the diet strictly, look out for any signs and symptoms of weakness, fatigue, dizziness or nausea, advised Dr Lim. “It is possible that you may not be taking in adequate and appropriate food that provides the energy required to support your body needs.”

For Mr Ow, a bottle of sugar-free Red Bull does the trick of sustaining his energy through the day, he said.

Yes, he cheats, a little.

Experts view on the caveman diet

Dr Lim Yen Peng, principal dietitian, head of the Nutrition & Dietetics Department at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, talks about the pros and cons of the diet.

PROS:

1. Eating more vegetables and fruit which are rich in dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals, will lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and certain types of cancers.

2. Avoiding processed foods will help keep one’s sodium intake within the recommended limits.

3. Cutting out refined sugar can help with weight management.

CONS:

1. Omitting dairy products can limit the sources of high-calcium food.

2. Cutting out grains and legumes means missing out on key nutrients such as vitamins (B and E), minerals (iron, zinc and magnesium), fibre and phytochemicals.

3. Cutting out grains, which are also major carbohydrate and energy sources, may cause one to run out of energy before the day is done.

4. Vegetarians would not be able to follow this diet.

Joyce Teo – [email protected]

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