Do we have a sensible desi version of the Paleo Diet that’s becoming popular world-wide? Shonali Muthalaly talks to experts in the city about what it is like to go back to the basics

Eat like a caveman? If you’re plugged into the gym circuit, you’ve probably heard of — or experimented with — the Paleo Diet. Popular with everyone from athletes to body builders, the diet is a contemporary, nutrition-plan based on the food our ancestors ate in the Palaeolithic era.

Loren Cordain, one of its leading proponents, calls it the ‘world’s healthiest diet’. Of course, like any sweeping movement, it has both die-hard fans and cynical detractors. As Paleo begins to filter from boot camps, gyms and dieticians into the general populace, we investigate the most sensible ways to do Paleo, or a form of it, in India.

London-based Jeya Prakash has been an aesthetic surgeon and age management consultant on Harley Street for more than 30 years. At the Medical Park, in Chennai, from where he consults once a month, he talks of launching a Pa Leo Enclave Campaign (PLEC) based on Siddha, Ayurvedha and naturopathy focussed on education, research and therapeutic trials. “If you do genetic analysis of 10,000 years you will find a 0.05 per cent change in the gene structure,” he says, talking about how “70 to 80 per cent of all modern diseases are actually nutrition disorders.” Food, however, has changed dramatically. “When I was in medical school we hardly ever saw people with diabetes, hypertension below 60 years of age. Now it begins at 25, and people have cardiac arrests at 30.” The reason, he says, is a combination of stress, a sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy food habits. “Processed food. Meat pumped with hormones and antibiotics. Vegetables poisoned with chemicals… And sugar. That’s the most dangerously addictive substance of all.”

Instead of an allopathic approach to health, Dr. Prakash follows the Paleo principle of recommending food that aids the “absorption mechanism of the stomach”: nuts, vegetables, herbal juices, spirulina…” Also, “No grains. No sugar. No processed food. No milk.” Basically, food that nurtures your body. He breaks away from traditional Paleo, however, by recommending ‘ancestral’ instead of cave man food, saying “We need to keep our racial characteristics in mind. The North Pole genes are different from the South. Food depends on geography. An Indian old Paleo Diet taken from Vedic text for instance will recommend 70 to 80 per cent uncooked vegetables and 20 per cent meat. In colder countries, they’ll have 70 per cent meat.”

In short, he says you need to “Go back to basics. Eat what your forefathers ate. And respect your body”. Talking about how food myths have ruined people’s health, he says, “Fifteen years of the food triangle made America fat. People were eating grains, and demonising fat. They said don’t eat oil, nuts, coconut. Next came the olive oil marketing... And India fell for it.” Exasperated, he lists home-grown power foods we take for granted, or ignore — “coconut, drumstick leaves, curry leaves…”

Founder of The Quad boot camp, which advocates a highly modified version of Paleo for its clients, Raj Ganpath says he went through a Paleo phase when living in California, doing everything from eating a grain-free diet to attending a certification seminar by Paleo guru Robb Wolfe. “In principle, it’s a great idea,” he says, “The Paleo approach is to heal the gut. If you heal your gut, you can tackle most diseases of civilisation. A major reason it works is because it’s low carb. You remove grains, cereals, dairy, lentils, millets, beans... So it’s basically meat, vegetables, fruit and water. And this is where it gets tricky. Especially in India.”

Since we are a culturally, primarily vegetarian society, meat is rarely served as a main dish. “It’s a side — like chicken curry. So it’s hard to eat ‘Indian Paleo’ food. Meat is good for you – but not now when animals are injected with hormones. Additionally, when they’re slaughtered all the stress goes into their fat and makes it toxic. Pesticides, including chemicals that have been banned in other parts of the world, are used in astronomical quantities in India… So if you eat only meat and vegetables here, you’re just loading up on toxins.”

Raj adds, “Instead, we recommend removing food that contains allergens, such as wheat. We tell clients to pre-soak lentils and legumes. Dairy is a big part of our culture, so we suggest curd and cheese, since even people who are allergic to both can usually tolerate these. And personally, I advocate rice, because cooked white rice has no anti-nutrients.” What we need to do, he says, is learn to eat much less of it. “At the end of the day, you can’t remove food groups. Paleo says to eat like our ancestors because we’re like them genetically; but you must remember, we don’t live like them. Stress levels are high. Most people don’t sleep enough. Sometimes we eat junk, it’s inevitable.” His basic rules? Hydrate. Avoid allergens. Remove toxins, preservatives and man-made transfats from your diet.

Best-selling author Rujuta Diwekar, a vocal supporter of traditional Ayurvedic eating principles says that going back to our roots makes sense. “But cutting out food groups doesn’t. Remember that our ancestors thought of food as a blessing, not a set of numbers,” she says, referring to the current obsession counting calories. “Paleo has been popular in the West for the longest time; and now when they are talking about the side effects, India is trying to adapt it. The diet can cause adrenal fatigue, infertility and carb flu, which is a disorder where people get unreasonable, irritable and tired.”

Discussing India’s rich grain culture, she says “We use grains such as rice to mark every auspicious occasion. It’s special because of the way we eat it; and we have more than 1,000 varieties of grains.” Rujuta advocates being wary of marketing, and sticking to food that is in season. “We may not know enough about their diets, but what we do know is that our ancestors respected diversity.”

Mark’s Daily Apple

Mark Sisson, former elite marathoner and triathlete, is the author of the best-selling health and fitness book The Primal Blueprint and publisher of the health blog MarksDailyApple.com. He talks to us about why ancestral ways of eating have become so popular and its future in India. “For one, the Standard American Diet has failed people for decades. Two, there’s inherent logic to this way of eating. Most people can grasp that our bodies thrive on foods that we ate during the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution rather than the evolutionarily novel foods of the modern day: processed foods with unhealthy industrial oils and added sugars. Three, it just works. “My publishing company, Primal Blueprint Publishing, has just put a new title called The South Asian Health Solution. It’s the first book to provide an ancestral health-based wellness plan culturally tailored for those of South Asian ancestry living in India, the U.S. and across the world — a population identified as being at the highest risk for heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and related conditions.”