Brian Prochaska used to eat three bowls of cereal a day.
Now he has traded his Cap’n Crunch for eggs, bacon and salsa; his shredded wheat for spinach wraps and carbohydrate-smart fiber; and his Life cereal for chicken, turkey and lean muscle meats that are purely the product of grass-fed animals.
Prochaska, 36, is part of a growing Augusta subculture whose members seek good health through a selective return to the habits of their Paleolithic ancestors.
The “Paleo” lifestyle, as it is called, involves eating large quantities of meat and fish and then fasting between meals to imitate what man’s distant relatives faced between hunts. Vegetables and fruits are fine, but foods such as bread, pasta, milk and sugar – which were unavailable before the invention of agriculture – are not.
The belief behind the movement is that the human body evolved for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and the goal is to wean today’s generation off what is seen as many millenniums of bad habits. These urban cavemen, as some describe them, choose cross-fit exercise routines focused on sprinting and jumping, to replicate how a prehistoric person might have fled from a predator.
In a city overrun with energy drinks, vegetarian menus and yoga studios, caveman customs defy other people’s ideas of healthy living. For many, it is seen as the way America can restore a nation, where for the first time in two centuries, a rapid rise in obesity has the current generation of children on a path to living shorter lives than their parents.
“People seem to get caught up in technology and think that they can re-create what man was designed to eat. They can’t,” said David Hurdle, lead cross-fit instructor at Quantum Academy in Evans. “Nature is a lot smarter than we think. Dating back to the days of natural selection, it has provided us with what we needed to evolve, and we have gotten away from it.”
The Paleo lifestyle around the country was once a lonely pursuit. In the past year, though, the effort has become increasingly popular among the area’s military, recreational leagues and cross-fit communities. Thousands have kicked processed foods to the curb in hopes of getting back to healthier times before the Industrial Revolution, when a shift toward manufacturing changed the way humans ate and lived.
A report published in The New England Journal of Medicine shows the prevalence and severity of obesity is so great, especially in children that the associated diseases and complications – Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney failure, cancer – are likely to strike people at younger ages.
Prochaska and Hurdle have a history of diabetes in their families and are not taking risks. In the past four years, they have adopted cross-fit routines and Paleo diets.
They started out strict, living off juice for the first month and then adding meats and vegetables such as mushrooms, zucchinis and greens to their diets. Hurdle, a 39-year-old Philadelphia native, said the transition was hard at first. He had difficulty sacrificing pasta and giving up the soft pretzels he had grown to love. In addition, a lack of carbs resulted in his losing about 15 pounds, some of which he needed to support appropriate body-fat levels.
Prochaska had the same problem, and after four months, the men say, they began to adjust their diets, adding back some carbs such as sweet potatoes and oatmeal, to stay lean, but also to remain strong.
“The biggest obstacle is eating what you need to be healthy,” Hurdle said.
He said the average person will struggle with a Paleo diet, mainly because of the absence of sugar, especially in an American culture that craves desserts and pastries. The switch could make it difficult to accommodate recipes and eat at restaurants and might result in an increase in grocery bills. Hurdle urges people to not think of food as something that was meant to be cheap, though, and says that $100 extra is like preventative care on a car; over the long run, the Paleo diet will cut down on medical bills and health insurance costs and lead to a longer life expectancy, he said.
“Is the thing that keeps you alive where you want to cut corners?” said Hurdle, a former soldier studying kinesiology and sports medicine at Bryan College. “You can be penny-smart or you can invest in your body.”
There are tricks to sticking to the Paleo lifestyle, including eating honey, drinking almond milk and buying carb-smart or spinach-made wraps and breads. Also, some people reserve one meal a day or one day a week to cheat and satisfy cravings for ice cream, cheese, mayonnaise or soy-based foods.
“Once you get a feel for it, you kind of get to know your body and where an appropriate balance is,” said Prochaska, who finished in the top 10 in the Southeast Regionals of last year’s Cross Fit Games.
Damoi Cross, 26, found his balance in a diet similar to Paleo that’s based exclusively around fish. He’s called a peskatarian and started the routine at age 11 after seeing a video on how animals were cleaned and processed.
At first, the smell of meat would give Cross strong urges to revert to his old habits.
“Once I made the switch though, I was committed,” said Cross, who has added more eggs and nuts into his meals to get sufficient protein. “I feel more alert and energized.”
Prochaska agrees, saying his blood pressure has stabilized, his core is stronger and he is less grumpy because he has fewer headaches.
“If you are curious about it, try it for a month,” Prochaska said of the Paleo diet. “The worst thing that will happen is you went 30 days without bread. But who knows, you might eliminate something from your diet that will help you feel better.”