Two years ago, I saw a young man in my office who had decided not to return to college after his freshman year. He had been a very good high school hockey player, and I asked him what he was doing now to stay fit. He replied that he had joined a fitness facility, part of a national franchise system, and “I’m going on the Paleo Diet.” As I was among the clueless at that time, I quizzed him about his diet.
He told me that it was an attempt to duplicate the diet of our ancestors prior to the development of agriculture (thought to be about 10,000 years ago). This meant no processed food, no dairy products, no grains or legumes, no refined sugars. Lean meat, nuts, fruits, and low-starch vegetables were okay.
When I saw him for a follow-up visit 2 months later, I asked how he was doing with what I called his “caveman diet.” He said, “I lasted about 6 weeks, but I’m still working out four times a week.” It turns out that while my patient had drifted away from his paleolithic diet, enough other people have climbed on the bandwagon that there are now a couple of magazines devoted what has broadened beyond diet to what could be called a paleo lifestyle.
Devotees of the live-like-our-ancestors movement hope to avoid the “diseases of civilization by exercising frequently, particularly doing things that mimic our ancestors activities such as running, jumping, climbing, and throwing. A committed paleo person should wear a minimum of clothes and try to go barefoot as often as possible. He should have frequent contact with nature and get plenty of sun exposure for his source of vitamin D. His sleep patterns should be in sync with the sun cycle, and he should avoid stress by simplifying and downsizing his life.
This sounds like a lifestyle most toddlers strive for everyday. They prefer to run around nude and shoeless, climb just for fun, and throw anything within reach. It got me wondering what paleo parenting might be look like. Certainly, it would begin with breastfeeding. But, for how long? I don’t think we know the answer to that. It may not have been as long some breastfeeding advocates believe.
I suspect young children are smart enough to find shade in the middle of day to take a nap if we allow them. My obsession with the hazards of sleep deprivation makes the paleo’s attempt to link sleep to the sun cycle particularly appealing. It would benefit parents as well as the children for them to all go to bed when the sun went down. Paleo parenting would mean no TV. What a concept!
Of course, there are several flies in this ancestral ointment. First, I suspect that our prehistoric ancestors seldom lived into their fourth decade. How many of the “diseases of civilization” are simply the effect of aging on bodies that were not genetically engineered for longevity? How much do we really know about the diet and lifestyle of our paleo ancestors? Carbon isotope studies and microscopic analysis of ancient stool samples are pretty scanty evidence.
And, why choose to set our target to emulate before the development of agriculture? Some grain and a few root vegetables aren’t going to send our children on the road to obesity if they are active and getting adequate amounts of sleep.
There can be many advantages to adopting an “ancestral lifestyle,” but we don’t have to peel the onion all the back to prehistory to reap the benefits. Heck, I bet if we rolled back to pretelevision, we would be a much healthier society.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.