In diet, eat like a caveman

Three years ago, Charles and Julie Mayfield connected through a food swap at their gym.

They shared platters of lasagna, pots of chicken soup. And fell in love.

Their love survived. But not their diet.

Early in their courtship, they developed a passion for a new — and also very old — way of eating.

They turned to a cavemen-like diet — plants, meat, seafood, vegetables and a little fruit.

You won’t find dairy, beans and wheat in the Mayfields’ cupboards. Nor will you see sugar, soft drinks or processed foods.

Nuts and seeds are OK. But peanuts, which are legumes, are not allowed.

The Mayfields follow the Paleo (short for Paleolithic) diet, a low-carb regimen gaining some intrepid adherents, that they believe humans followed up to 2 million years ago. If they can’t forage, hunt or gather the food, they won’t eat it. (How this works today: Charles Mayfield hunts deer and quail, and fishes. They eat blueberries cultivated in their garden. In the end, they buy most of their food from local farmers markets and Whole Foods.)

Paleo devotees believe our bodies are genetically programmed to eat like our ancestors. Supporters believe this diet is rich with minerals, vitamins and anti-oxidants.

Critics, including some trained nutritionists, say the diet is too restrictive and excludes lots of healthy foods that the body needs.

“Why is being like our ancestors the goal?” said Sally Brozek, a registered dietitian at Piedmont Hospital. “Why would we want to live that way? ... Our ancestors didn’t live long enough to develop diseases.”

The Mayfields and others who tout the Paleo diet believe a return to Stone Age eating habits can reverse soaring obesity rates, as well as cut cases of diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases.

Passionate about all foods Paleo, the Smyrna couple recently penned a new cookbook, “Paleo Comfort Foods” (Victory Belt, $29.95).

The glossy cookbook filled with gorgeous photographs features everything from spicy salmon dip and spicy chicken wings to chicken enchiladas and chipotle dipping sauce.

“A lot of people get tired of grilled chicken on salad,” said Julie Mayfield, who is 37. “And I am not one who can eat the same things day in and day out.”

Enjoying strong sales since its release in September, the book ranks No. 18 on Amazon in the cooking/food/wine category.

It’s another sign of the buzz surrounding the Paleo diet.

Paleo blogs and Twitter feeds are popping up everywhere.

But it’s not all good buzz.

At a recent community health fair, Brozek received more questions about the Paleo diet than anything else.

Brozek dismisses the Paleo diet as nothing more than a fad. She said dairy, grains and beans (all no-nos in the Paleo diet) are nutrient-rich and important for a well-rounded, healthy diet.

Americans are already too reliant on animal-based sources of proteins, she said, suggesting a shift toward eating more protein-rich beans.

In some ways, the Paleo diet is similar to the once-hot Atkins diet, mainly in that they’re both low in carbohydrates. But the Paleo, also known as the “caveman diet,” is also distinct.

The Paleo diet discourages processed foods, sugar and soda. At the same time, the Paleo diet encourages people to buy pasture-raised and grass-fed meat. And they encourage Paleo followers to get plenty of sleep.

Still, whether people can stick to this way of eating long-term remains to be seen.

Robb Wolf, author of “The Paleo Solution,” said some eat a strict Paleo diet during the week but kick up their heels, so to speak, on the weekend.

Perhaps most striking is looking at the type of person flocking to the diet. While Atkins was considered primarily a weight-loss program, the Paleo diet attracts some athletes and fitness enthusiasts.

In fact, many of the CrossFit gyms across the country, including those in metro Atlanta, have adopted Paleo as their diet of choice. (Charles Mayfield owns a CrossFit in Vinings.)

For Reynolds DeLisle, a member of a CrossFit/east Decatur location, the Paleo has been life changing.

The 41-year-old said she’s always gravitated toward eating low-fat and healthy foods, but found herself struggling to keep her weight down as she approached her 40s. Once she switched to the Paleo diet about 18 months ago, the weight melted off. She lost a dress size in the first two months. Since then, she’s dropped at least one dress size, maybe two.

“It’s helping me stay fit, and I feel great,” said DeLisle who lives in Decatur.

DeLisle said the diet also gives her energy and helps her stick to four-times-a-week intense workouts.

She said she also likes how she can eat whenever she wants and however much she wants as long as she sticks to the approved food items. There’s no calorie counting.

She doesn’t eat ketchup because of the sugar in it. She buys her sausages and bacon at a market.

Her typical daily diet? Eggs, sausage and fruit for breakfast, a turkey roll and homemade kale chips for lunch and pork tenderloin and a non-starchy vegetable for dinner.

She admits it’s a hard diet to stick to all the time. She took November and December off to enjoy traditional holiday meals and treats. As the holidays wrapped up, her pants felt snug. No more “cheats,” as they are called by “Paleos.”

“Sometimes, I have to eat a piece of pizza because it makes me feel so badly it reminds me that this is not a diet once in a while, it’s a change of eating, and I just don’t feel well if I don’t stick to it,” she said.

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Shrimp and ‘Grits’

Hands on: 30 minutes, less if shrimp are already peeled and deveined Total time: about 30 to 40 minutes Serves: 4 to 6

For the “grits”:

1 head cauliflower, “riced” (see technique below)

1 cup almond meal

3 cups chicken stock

1 clove garlic, minced

Salt and pepper, to taste

For the shrimp:

1 to 2 tablespoons bacon grease, coconut oil or clarified butter

1 sweet red bell pepper, diced

1 sweet green bell pepper, diced

1 cup mushrooms, sliced

2 teaspoons Cajun seasoning

2 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined

2 tablespoons almond flour

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup chicken stock

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

3 to 4 green onions, sliced diagonally

3 pieces cooked bacon, crumbled (optional)

To “rice” cauliflower: Wash cauliflower and cut into large chunks. Feed through food processor using a shredding blade. Alternately, you can hand “rice” by using a box grater to grate the cauliflower.

To make the “grits”: Mix cauliflower, almond meal, chicken stock and garlic in a large saucepan over medium heat. Cover and reduce heat to medium or medium-low, simmering for 20 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so, being sure nothing sticks to the bottom of pan. Cook until most of the liquid is absorbed. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

To make the shrimp: In a large skillet over medium heat, heat bacon grease, oil or clarified butter. Add red and green bell peppers and mushrooms, cooking until vegetables are softened. Add Cajun seasoning and stir. In medium bowl, coat shrimp with almond flour. Add to pan along with garlic and sauté until shrimp are pink. Stir in chicken stock and lemon juice along with most of the green onions (save some for garnish). Be sure to loosen any browned bits on the bottom of the skillet. Simmer for 5 to 8 minutes to reduce liquid.

Serve shrimp over “grits” topped with optional crumbled bacon and remaining green onions.