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Adherents to Paleo diet find weight loss success by eating like our ancestors

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

Low-carb diets like Atkins and South Beach have come in and out of fashion for years, but the latest reaches far back into human history for its inspiration.

"Paleo people joke that it's the fad diet with the longest life," says Melissa Joulwan, an Austin writer who transitioned to a Paleolithic diet a few years ago after a lifetime of struggling with her weight despite consistent exercise and following traditional low-fat, high-carb diets.

The Paleo concept is simple: Eat like our ancestors did in the millennia before agriculture, which means no grains, dairy, processed foods, sugar or legumes.

Before agriculture, hunters and gatherers ate meat and plants that didn't require processing to eat, but thousands of years later, grains and processed foods have become the foundation of the American diet. Manufactured foods, especially those based on flour like pasta and bread, are inexpensive, but anything made from grains, including corn, lead to a spike in blood sugar and can damage the insides of the intestines, say proponents of gluten-free diets, which are certainly not limited to people who fall in the Paleo camp.

"The evidence to support eating grains is underwhelming," says Michael Roussell PhD, a Livestrong.com adviser, citing a recent Harvard study that found that, contrary to what we've been trained to believe, simple sugars and refined grains are more detrimental to our health than animal fats. "Just about everybody can benefit from eating less carbohydrates because we're often not eating the best types."

Vegetables and fruit contain plenty of carbs and fiber, and the carbohydrates are easier to digest and don't raise your blood sugar like the starchy ones in white potatoes, rice, corn and other grains.

But when you make a switch from a majority-grain diet to one of mostly animal fats, proteins and vegetable carbs, how your body processes those fats changes, too. "The less carbs you eat, the more saturated or animal fat you can eat," Roussell says. "It changes how your body metabolizes lipids."

When Joulwan first started looking into Paleo diet after hearing about it through her CrossFit workout group, she had a hard time getting past the conventional mind-set that fat is bad.

"When I first heard that half my (calories) would be from fat, I almost had a heart attack," she says. Just like our bodies need fat and salt to function, our bodies need cholesterol, too, and the lean protein and nuts consumed in a typical Paleo meal contain healthier unsaturated fats and low levels of saturated fats.

But as Joulwan slowly started changing her diet — before going fully Paleo she eliminated grains for a year and then took out dairy for another year even though she doesn't have allergies or intolerances — she started losing weight she'd been holding on to for years and realized that almost everything she thought she knew about food and nutrition was wrong.

"Your body doesn't see the difference between a potato, a slice of white bread or a Snickers bar because the sugar is perceived by your body in the same way," she says. "Any grain in its evil little heart is a sugar."

Like with any diet, cutting out sugar seems to be one of the hardest steps, and if you are particularly addicted to sweets, make sure you don't swap candy for candy-sweet fruits. "Fruit sugar is OK as long as you've broken your sugar demon," Joulwan says.

It's the same thing with stevia, honey or other natural sweeteners: A body that is conditioned to eat sweet food will continue to crave sweet food.

Joulwan, a founding member of the Texas Rollergirls whose book about the experience, "Rollergirl," was published by Simon and Schuster almost five years ago, started blogging in 2008 about her recipes and Paleo discoveries on The Clothes Make the Girl (theclothesmakethegirl.com). She's persuaded both her father and a close friend to switch to a Paleo diet, and both of them have lost more than 60 pounds each.

Over the past year, she's compiled more than 100 recipes for her first cookbook, "Well Fed: Paleo Recipes for People Who Love to Eat," which will be available in paperback on Amazon.com and as a PDF on her site in early December.

Just days before Thanksgiving 2009, Kim Semenov decided she was ready to make the Paleo leap. She didn't eat much more than turkey on Thanksgiving that year, but since then, she's learned how to make everything from chicken pot pie to gumbo and rice made with cauliflower.

As a member of a CrossFit group in Houston, Semenov often brought her Paleo dishes to group potlucks, and she realized that the Paleo options at restaurants and meal delivery companies were limited. She and her husband, Vitaly, moved to Austin this summer and started CaveMan Cuisine, a Paleo meal delivery service.

Because you can't just melt cheese on a tortilla or boil a pot of pasta for a quick meal, many people start trying to eat a Paleo diet but stop because it seems like so much work.

"No processed foods mean you have to cook everything," Semenov says. "And it gets boring eating chicken and salad every day."

She uses almond and coconut flour as a flour substitute so she can make things like pizza dough or even banana bread. It's not classically Paleo, but Semenov knows it's hard to ask people to give up so many of the foods they love. "A lot of people say, 'I don't want to go to Paleo because I'll miss out on this or that,' " Semenov says. Cooking and having a closer relationship with the food that you put in your body is a tenet of Paleo, but Semenov knows that everyone needs a break from cooking. She takes orders online (cavemancuisine.net) and makes deliveries twice a week. Eventually, she wants to open a Paleo storefront and cafe.

The transition to Paleo wasn't hard for Semenov, especially when she started feeling more energetic for her daily workouts, lost weight and stopped having to take medication to regulate body fluids. "To me, that right there was enough proof that it works."

Paleo critics are plentiful, from archaeologists who say that modern humans have evolved so that they don't have to eat like hunter-gatherers to meat-free (or meat-light) environmentalists who say that too much animal consumption will destroy the planet. One of the biggest criticisms is the cost. "If you are going to eat steaks every day, it is going to be expensive," Semenov says, but whether or not you have a roll on the side isn't going to be what breaks the bank. "If you're going to eat better, it's going to cost more," says Semenov, who buys almost all the ingredients for her meals at the local farmers' markets, but she points out that many ingredients, such as grass-fed ground beef or organic produce, don't cost that much more at a market than at a grocery store.

Even within the Paleo community, some of those "no's" are negotiable. Some eat high fat yogurt and cheese, while others eschew New World fruits and vegetables, including those in the nightshade family such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. A recent New York Times story profiled Paleo eaters in New York who are taking the "caveman" approach to an extreme, often fasting and eating raw meat to really mimic our ancestors' eating habits.

Roussell says that most of us, even those who have insulin resistance or heart disease, could benefit from a modified Paleo diet. Cutting out dairy, legumes and all grains is "unnecessarily restrictive," he says, but in general, replacing refined grains with vegetables and both lean and even some fatty cuts of meat — and making sure you're exercising regularly, of course — can improve your overall health. "More research is showing that with people who have insulin resistance, they lose more weight with more fruits, vegetables and less grains."

Most Paleo eaters also fall somewhere in the middle, preferring to eat a gluten-free diet that consists mainly of meat and vegetables, but tailored to their own dietary needs, likes, dislikes and cheats, which Joulwan takes seriously.

Our ancestors weren't perfect, and neither are we, so during the holidays, special occasions and on vacations, Joulwan allows herself to eat some foods that are off-limit. Joulwan says she's able to maintain her diet because she slowly transitioned into it rather than cutting staples like milk and bread all at once. "We think of it like making good health deposits in a bank that you can withdraw later," she says, having just returned from a trip to Europe where she and her Paleo husband, Dave, indulged in the best cheeses, breads, chocolates and wine they could find, fine foods that our ancestors couldn't have even dreamed up if they wanted.

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504

Paleo Pad Thai

1 batch Sunshine Sauce (recipe, below)

2 large eggs

2 tsp. coconut aminos

2 tsp. plus 1 tsp. coconut oil

1/2 medium onion, thinly sliced (about 1/2 cup)

1 cup snap peas, thinly sliced lengthwise

2 cups cooked spaghetti squash

6-8 oz. cooked chicken, shrimp, beef, or pork, thinly sliced

Optional garnishes:

Chopped toasted cashews or almonds

Sunflower seeds

Sliced scallions

Minced cilantro

A squeeze of lime juice

In a small bowl, use a fork to scramble the eggs with the coconut aminos. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat, about 3 minutes. Add 2 tsp. coconut oil and when it's melted, pour in the eggs and let them spread like a pancake. Reduce the heat to medium and cover with a lid, letting the eggs cook until they're set and beginning to brown on the bottom, about 3-4 minutes. Flip and lightly brown the other side. Remove the eggs from the pan and cut into strips with a sharp knife.

Using the same pan, increase heat to medium-high and add 1 tsp. coconut oil. Sauté the onion and snap peas, stirring with a wooden spoon, until they're crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Add the spaghetti squash, chicken, and cooked egg to the pan and, stirring with a wooden spoon, cook until heated through, about 3 minutes.

Add the Sunshine Sauce to the pan and stir-fry until everything is well-blended and hot. Divide among two plates, sprinkle with garnishes, and dig in. Serves 2.

Sunshine Sauce

2 Tbsp. lime juice

1 clove garlic, minced (about 1 tsp.)

1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

1 Tbsp. coconut aminos (a soy sauce replacement that is available at many natural food stores)

1/4 tsp. powdered ginger

1/2 tsp. rice vinegar

1/4 cup sunflower seed butter or almond butter (no sugar added)

dash ground cayenne pepper (optional)

1/4 cup coconut milk

Place all the ingredients except the coconut milk in the bowl of a food processor and whirl until well-blended. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber scraper, then add the coconut milk. Process until it's blended and smooth.

Mango and Cream

The sweet surprise on the spoon with this dessert is the luxuriousness of coconut milk. Chilled and drizzled, it's luscious and feels decadent. No sharing necessary.

1 cup coconut milk, chilled

2 Tbsp. Caramelized Coconut Chips (recipe, below)

2 Tbsp. sliced almonds

2 cups fresh mango, diced

1 tsp. pure almond or vanilla extract

Put 1 cup coconut milk in the freezer while you prep the other ingredients. Make the Carmelized Coconut Chips and set aside to cool.

Heat a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sliced almonds and stir continuously with a wooden spoon until the almonds turn golden brown, about 3-5 minutes. Don't get distracted because they can change from toasty to tragic in a heartbeat.

Divide the mango among four bowls, then drizzle each with 2 Tbsp. of coconut milk. Sprinkle each with about 1/2 Tbsp. of the toasted almonds and caramelized coconut chips. Serves 4.

Caramelized Coconut Chips

1/4 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. cinnamon

1 cup unsweetened coconut flakes

Mix the salt and cinnamon with a fork in a small ramekin and save for later. Heat a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat, about 2 minutes. Add the coconut flakes and distribute evenly, so they form a single layer in the bottom of the pan. Stir frequently. They begin to crisp and turn brown pretty quickly. This step takes only about 3 minutes, so pay attention! When the flakes have reached an appealing level of toastiness, remove the pan from the heat.

Sprinkle the hot coconut flakes with the salty cinnamon and toss until evenly seasoned. Transfer to a plate and allow them to cool in a single layer for maximum crunch. Store at room temp in an airtight container, if they last that long.

(Options: You can replace the cinnamon with 1/4 tsp. curry powder, Ras el Hanout, garlic powder, chili powder, paprika or Chinese five-spice powder and use the flakes as a topping on salads, curries or grilled vegetables.)

— Recipes from 'Well-Fed: Paleo Recipes for People Who Love to Eat' by Melissa Joulwan