In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan outlines the problems created by not feeding cattle what they have evolved to eat – grass. Feeding cattle corn, he says, violates the biological or evolutionary logic of bovine digestion. And moreover, most of the health problems that afflict feedlot cattle, “can be traced either directly or indirectly to their diet.” As a type 1 diabetic, I know all too well what it means to suffer health problems related to diet. No matter how carefully I count carbohydrates, no matter how carefully I dose my insulin, most of the time I end up too high or too low. That, in turn, makes me feel lousy. So what I’m ultimately left with is the sense that food – which I need and which I also love- is making me feel sick.
Just at the time I was struggling with this idea, I read Eric Devine’s essay, Why I Eat Like A Caveman. Eric, who follows the Paleolithic Diet, eats no dairy, no grains, no sugar, and no processed food. I first reacted to his diet with disbelief – how could anyone give up all grains? But the more I thought about it, the more logical it seemed. Humans, just like cattle, should eat what we’ve evolved to eat, not what is easy and comfortable.
Both curious and skeptical, I decided to try the Paleolithic Diet. And here I am now, after a week of eating Paleo-style, saying that for the first time in the 8 years since my diabetes diagnosis, food is not making me feel sick. I still have doubts about whether this is a diet I could continue long-term, or if this is a diet that will give my body enough energy to run marathons. And as a newbie caveman, I’m still full of questions. Looking for guidance from a pro, I talked to fellow type 1 diabetic Eric Devine to learn more about eating like a caveman.
The Paleolithic Diet has become very popular in recent years. When and how did you hear about it? What motivated you to try it?
I heard about the Paleo diet through CrossFit. Many athletes who CrossFit also use the Zone diet or Paleo, or Zone proportions with Paleo-only food. I had used the Zone for over a year, had leaned out to a very low level of body fat and wasn’t happy. I was sick of the measuring and constant calculating. So I turned to the discussion boards on CrossFit.com, did some additional online research, and then just went for it. The simplicity is what drew me in: “Eat this, and not that and you’re good to go.” And I have been.
I’ve read that many times people who start the diet go through a transitional period of not feeling well. Did you experience this? How long did it take for your body to adjust?
The carb flu is common, but I did not experience it. For most people–and it varies depending on carb addiction–a month is a normal adjustment curve. I’ve always strayed from carb dense meals simply because of the fluctuation they cause in blood glucose levels. With Paleo, my only concern has been getting enough carbohydrate. Vegetables have very few carbs and tend to satiate quickly when combined with protein and fat, leaving little room to work in more carbohydrate through fruit.
Was it complicated to adapt your insulin requirements to the changes in your diet? (Are you on a pump?) Did you have any issues with highs and lows at the beginning of the diet?
I have been on the pump for 10 years now and the most significant change I have seen for insulin requirement is my basal rate. I have had to increase it during my wake-time hours, but I don’t believe that’s a reflection of the diet. In the past four years I have put on 20 pounds of lean muscle. My body needs the additional insulin to support those pounds. If I didn’t workout in the manner I do, I imagine my basal rates would have dropped considerably all around, as they have dropped significantly during 12-5am, which was always an issue for me. I have curtailed the “dawn phenomenon” since going Paleo. I don’t know if it’s the increase in protein, or lack of refined foods, but those highs are gone.
Most of us eat grains and dairy because they’re quick, easy, and tasty. What do you snack on? Pre and post work-out foods?
I don’t really snack, but if I do, it’s typically protein (chicken or ground beef or steak), almonds or a piece of fruit. Pre-workout I eat raisins (1/4 cup). They are high on the glycemic index and in my mind, still Paleo. Ancient man certainly didn’t have them in abundance, but I give myself a pass here so as to avoid a low. Post-workout nutrition involves another pass: protein shakes. I know, not even remotely Paleo, but for what I do, the window of recovery needs to be filled with protein and a moderate amount of carbohydrate. For sake of recovery and my overall health, I down a 20-40 g protein shake with another 10-20 g of carb (usually an apple).
Fruit is a part of the Paleolithic Diet, but for diabetics fruit can be problematic as it can cause rapid blood sugar spikes. Do you eat all fruit? Do you chose only low-glycemic fruit?
I eat mostly apples, grapes, berries and bananas. I don’t see spikes from these and limit high glycemic raisins to pre-workout. I also will only eat one serving of fruit, so the carb total is never extreme.
I assume you use significantly less insulin on the Paleo Diet than on a grain-based diet. Has your insulin/carb ration changed? Many of us bolus around one unit of insulin per 10 grams of carb. What do you do?
I used to bolus an 8:1 for breakfast, and it’s now 12:1. Every other point in the day is 15:1. However, I eat very small amounts of carb per meal (at most 50 g), so the ratios aren’t so much of an issue. My basal rate delivers 27 units daily and I will bolus only 4-6 units to cover for meals. I believe 33 units daily is a relatively low dose for a man who weighs 195 pounds.
Tell us what you eat. What is a typical breakfast? Lunch? Dinner? How strict are you? Do you ever “cheat?”
Breakfast is scrambled eggs with spinach, cooked in either olive oil or bacon grease (4-6 eggs and a heaping mound of spinach). Lunch is mixed vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, zucchini, etc.) or a salad with chicken or fish or red meat, mixed with olive oil. Dinner is much the same as lunch and I consume any additional protein/carb/fat if I feel they are needed throughout the day/evening. My goal is 100-150g carb, 200g protein, 100g fat. The fat may vary because I don’t measure it. I do cheat once in a while. I have a predilection for chocolate and cheesecake. But I do try to limit cheats to when I really want them, which is usually on special occasions/holidays.
You’re a serious athlete. Exercise burns carbs and requires a lot of energy. Many athletes eat pasta or bread before a serious workout. What’s your energy source?
I do CrossFit, and have for 4 years. I burn energy across all energy pathways but do not need bread or pasta to keep me going or for recovery. I workout 4-5 days per week, always with a strength component at the beginning, followed by a metabolic conditioning workout of varying duration (five to fifty minutes, but typically 10-15). Every workout is intense, but my diet keeps me going. I am at a constant “normal” range throughout the day and rarely have to worry about a high or low blood glucose to impede my workouts.
Loren Cordain and Joe Friel in “The Paleo Diet for Athletes” say you need to break the rules a bit in order to get the necessary nutrients for exercise (like consuming sports drinks). Do you do anything like this?
I do on occasion drink a Gatorade or Powerade, but always a low-carb variety, and only if I feel I’m dehydrated. Water does wonders and I drink an intense amount, but sometimes it’s not enough. I do also eat sweet potatoes, which some say are Paleo-friendly, but hardliners say are not. I would not eat them if I were not as athletically-focused. I do intend to try coconut water for recovery, as I hear it has the same electrolyte composition as our blood, where the other sports drink have only a few.
Being a diabetic means you’re hyper-aware of food – and this diet only intensifies food awareness, right? Are you ever *not* thinking about what you eat?
I am always thinking about what I eat, and know I always will. Even if I were cured tomorrow, I think I’d still be hyper-vigilant. I’ve had diabetes for 20 years and don’t know any other way. Adhering to Paleo hasn’t made it any worse. In fact, because my options are so limited, it’s easier. However, because of my athleticism, I have to pay attention if I want to recovery appropriately and continue to make the gains I have. Yet, the more I read message forums and blogs, I realize that such food awareness is not limited to people with diabetes. We share a remarkable amount of traits as bodybuilders, swimmers, marathoners, etc.
Do you ever crave grains? How do you overcome this?
I do not crave grains. I have abstained long enough and have read enough to truly be fearful of grains and what they can do to one’s body. I have not eaten rice or pasta in over three years and have only had a few bites of bread in that time. Oddly enough, I didn’t enjoy the baked goods as much as I thought I would. My palate has changed.
Does your family eat grains and dairy? What do they think about your diet? Do you cook separate meals for yourself?
My wife and children eat the Standard American Diet (SAD), replete with all things processed. I am not thrilled about this, but also know that food is tied far too closely to so many social issues to try and force my daughters to adhere to my lifestyle choice. I do offer as many healthy alternatives as I can, and try to limit the amount of processed food they eat. My daughters do enjoy vegetables and fruit and my eldest a fair amount of protein, but they are kids and still love all things sweet. I worry about this from an evolutionary perspective as well as from the vantage point of my genetic history. My extended family doesn’t really understand my diet, although “Why I Eat Like a Caveman” helped. They don’t mind that I do what I do, and try to accommodate, but I mostly pick my way through options presented and always make separate meals for myself at home.
What about expenses? Pasta, rice, and beans are among the cheapest foods. Meat and fish cost considerably more. Is this diet possible for someone on a tight budget?
Food Inc. addresses this very issue, and I think it is a sad commentary on our culture that we have invented a diet monopolized by grains. I understand the economics, and also realize that the world cannot support a society full of Paleo eaters. That does not mean I, or anyone, should just accept that and eat the “normal” processed foods that are socially acceptable. But in terms of cost, yes, Paleo is more expensive, and I am in no way “wealthy”. But I shop frugally, look for deals, stock up at the local butcher and freeze meat. Regardless of income, there is the adage of “Pay now, or pay later.” In terms of our health, this in inexorably tied to what we eat. It is no coincidence that the rise of diseases of opulence have spiked since Neolithic times. We are less healthy for our so-called abundance and end up paying in the long run with health-related costs from prescriptions to operations. I’d rather pay more each time I visit the grocery store and chalk it up to an investment in my health and longevity than I would want to save for the enfeebled existence so many fall victim to.
Cholesterol? Is yours okay?
I wish I had my exact numbers from my last test because I always have my Endo email the results, but I’ve deleted that email. However, from memory, I know it was well below 200, possibly 180 or so, with a superb ratio of HDL to LDL. It is a misnomer that by eating cholesterol in food that it relates to cholesterol in the blood (a common argument against Paleo and all the protein). It is the same argument that “Eating fat makes you fat.” If either were the case, based on our past decade of FDA regulations, as a nation we’d be faring much better by consuming cholesterol and fat-free everything.
The Paleo diet isn’t for everyone, so who is it for?
I have no business telling anyone how they should eat. I can only discuss my body’s response and the research that touts similar results. All indicators suggest that out SAD diet is killing us slowly. Therefore, any move away from the massive amount of refined food, high fructose corn syrup options that fill our plates and toward more natural selections is a step in the right direction. If you read a food label and get past five ingredients, step away. Go for food with one ingredient. I don’t want anyone to de-evolve, but to re-evolve. So if you’d like to make a positive change, here’s a way.
Eric Devine is a high school English teacher and writer who has lived with type 1 diabetes for the past twenty years. He is the author of This Side of Normal, a Young Adult novel about a character with type 1 diabetes. He lives in upstate New York with his wife and children and is actively involved with diabetes-related support groups, including the Sugar Free Gang, and the local Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
His athletic interests are what led him to eat paleolithicly, and you can find him pushing himself via www.crossfit.com and www.crossfitfootball.com workouts. His favorite website for food, health and wellness, and paleo discussion is www.marksdailyapple.com.