Food

Eat bacon like a modern caveman

It's a fried and tested theory.
IMAGE Daniel Welsch
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These days, I can’t remember exactly how I got into the paleo diet, but it had something to do with those hideous 5-finger shoes. Maybe I saw some English tourists wearing them around and googled to find out what the deal was, maybe a friend sent me a link.

Either way, I ended up on a paleo blog, reading a rave review of some expensive 5-fingered monstrosity. And through some random clicking, soon found myself sucked down the rabbit hole of Mark’s Daily Apple.

Mark Sisson is the godfather of the paleo movement, and more than anything I was impressed by his six-pack abs—despite the fact that he’s over 60 years old. On his blog, he talks about everything paleo—or in his words, primal. I like to think of it as “paleo without being an obsessive weirdo”. In other words, he doesn’t exactly frown on booze.

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The theory is simple and logical: biologically, we’re the same as those people out on the savannah 100,000 years ago. We’re designed to eat natural food: real plants and animals, nothing processed. And we’re meant to move around. A lot. 

Our health problems today, according to primal theory, come from sitting at desks, staring at screens, and eating processed foods that would have been completely unavailable to our ancestors—in quantities that would have been impossible to obtain in a hunter-gatherer society.

And one of the main culprits in our modern obesity epidemic? 

Sugar.

Sugar is considered a basic staple food today, but until the 18th century, it was a luxury. If you were one of our prehistoric ancestors and had a sweet tooth, you’d have to stick your arm in a beehive for a bit of honey, or just wait for some seasonal fruit—there was no popping out for a smoothie every afternoon. 

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When processed sugars appeared on the scene in large quantities, the argument goes, it began wreaking metabolic havoc on humanity. We’re just not designed to have our blood sugar constantly spiked.

On the other hand, paleo glorifies fat. Fat has been available to our ancestors since the beginning—conveniently attached to protein in the form of animals.  Delicious, edible animals. Of course, this flies in the face of everything I learned in high school health class. Back then we were supposed to be following the food pyramid. 11 servings of grains per day, 4 of fruit and 5 of vegetables. Meat was an afterthought.

Not so in paleo circles. Paleo, primal, whatever you want to call it… Meat is the key to everything. Then vegetables. Maybe some fruit, nuts or berries if you’re peckish between meals. And that’s about it.

My first act after reading about the paleo diet for an afternoon was to go out and buy a kilo of bacon. My girlfriend at the time wasn’t thrilled. But I started adding bacon to everything. Calories, I had decided, just weren’t that important. As long as I avoided sugar and processed carbs, everything was going to be fine.

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The week I gave up sugar, I learned something important about what addiction means. I spent the whole week with a nameless craving, a yearning in my heart and belly. A yearning I had never felt before, but I knew—just knew—would be solved by a few bites of ice cream.

It was tough. But for reasons I still don’t quite understand, I persisted. Have I mentioned this was more than 6 years ago? Well, guess what… I now have much better energy throughout the day. And I haven’t had a cold since. It’s not exactly scientific, but very common to hear among people who “go paleo”—colds are something that happens to other people.

When autumn comes and everybody else is miserably clutching kleenex to their swollen noses for a month, we’re chomping on bacon like there’s no tomorrow, healthy as mules—and stubbornly defending our paleo diet as the reason for our "good luck".

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Which brings me back to where the whole adventure started: with bacon. I was wrong about calories, actually. Mark cleared it up on his blog, a few years later. He said something like “I never suggested eating all the bacon you want. A calorie is still a calorie.” Well, maybe in my youthful enthusiasm I had missed that part. 

In any case, my life was better than ever. Some chronic skin issues were gone, my mood was great (something that almost never happened during an earlier experiment with vegetarianism) and somehow, I was gaining muscle by doing only primal-approved exercise: bodyweight squats, pushups, pullups, sprinting... and little more. 

Of course, there are arguments against the paleo lifestyle… for one, didn’t “cavemen” only live to be 25 or 30 years old? Well, first off, don’t call us cavemen. And secondly, the lifestyle fully embraces science, where science actually works. 

It’s true that modern science has created a lot of good things, which have increased life expectancies—a lot of that, however, comes from hygiene, vaccinations, antibiotics, stuff like that… not from high carb diets. Prehistoric hunter-gatherers hardly died, as far as we can tell, of heart-disease from bacon or bison overload. In any case—and this is more relevant than ever in our new world of "alternative facts”—there are some pretty smart people on both sides of the debate.

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Human health, as it turns out, is incredibly complex. And it’s difficult to study effectively, for various reasons. One is the scientific community’s insistence on the use of rats as proxies. Well okay. If a strain of rats genetically engineered to get diabetes gets diabetes in the middle of a diabetes study, does that mean I can’t eat bacon?

Clearly it does not. A lot of other studies are based on surveys: how much broccoli do you eat in a week now, compared to last year, two years ago, and five years ago? Good question. It’s very difficult to actually control what people eat all the time for a study: therefore, a lot of studies are more than a little bit suspect. If some scientists say bacon will kill me, while others say it’s probably saving my life… well, I’m going to believe the scientists who are telling me what I want to hear.

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What about cholesterol? That’s one of the big debates—and as far as I can tell, paleo is winning. The US has recently eliminated the hard limit on dietary cholesterol from the official recommendations, and a lot of other countries are following. 

It’s just what paleo types have been saying for about a decade: there was never any real evidence that eating cholesterol raises your cholesterol. If that were the case, how do cows end up with so much cholesterol on an all-grass diet? All in all, a paleo lifestyle has benefited me quite a bit: no colds, higher energy. More muscle mass and a better mood. 

The only thing it hasn’t done is given me a six pack. But if Mark Sisson’s abs at 60+ are any indication, I’ve got a long time to start cutting back on the bacon.

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Daniel Welsch
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