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Living Prehistorically In A Modern Age

A recent "Paleo Potluck" at the Somerville apartment of Michal Naisteter and Nate Rosenberg. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

BOSTON — The word “Paleolithic” might evoke images from the 1980s film “Quest for Fire” — or, more recently, the scruffy cavemen in those Geico commercials. But Nate Rosenberg says going back in time to eat like a Neanderthal doesn’t make him one.

“It’s obviously not a reenactment of Paleolithic life,” Rosenberg says.

The 27-year-old foraged through his contemporary kitchen in the cute Somerville apartment he shares with his Paleo partner Michal Naisteter.

“We eat modern foods,” he says. “In the Paleolithic era they did not have ground beef or, you know, dried oregano from Whole Foods and stuff life that, which we benefit from. But we try keep in mind our evolutionary history.”

Added Naisteter: “I eat fish, I eat eggs, I eat vegetables and I eat berries and nuts.”

Naisteter and Rosenberg are part of an international fitness and nutrition movement known as “ancestral health.” The theory is that while the food humans eat has evolved and gone “high-tech” through the ages, our bodies have not. Primal eating is pre-agricultural. “Going Paleo” means no processed foods, no sugar, no whole grains, legumes or dairy. But they eat lots of meat. Naisteter gave me a tour of their fridge.

The Paleo "Meatza" (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

“I would say we have about six pounds of ground beef right now,” she says.

There was some buffalo, and even a vacuum-sealed boneless free-range turtle.

“What is this big thing?” she continues. “A fresh pork ham. Don’t tell my mother, we’re Jewish.” Naisteter says her mother thinks her lifestyle is really weird, but she’s also trying to convince her mother to try it. “He’s already convinced his parents to do it,” Naisteter says.

Because, they say, eating Paleo has drastically improved their health. No more eczema, allergies, acne or stomach issues. Even so, dietitian and Boston University Professor Joan Salge-Blake is a Paleo skeptic — saying that was then, this is now.

“We should all be going back,” he says. “I don’t think we have to go all the way back. Let’s go back to grandma, and how grandma cooked, and she made dinner and she had fruits and vegetables and she had more grains and there was less sweets and treats.”

Salge-Blake also points out that the life expectancy for Paleolithic people was only 30-years-old. Of course Neanderthals lived in a much more threatening environment than modern-day Somerville. No sabertooth tigers here. Regardless, the life-span issue doesn’t deter Rosenberg and Naisteter from embracing their diet — or a clan of other like-minded eaters who showed up for a recent Paleo potluck. They’re all members of a Paleo group Naisteter and Rosenberg formed a few months ago.

On the menu: “Meatza” — a pizza-like pie with a ground beef crust topped with crispy bacon and veggies.

Evan Ferrell's very Paleo shoes -- Vibram Five Fingers (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

At the party, 32-year-old Evan Ferrell — outfitted in curious-looking flexible shoes called Vibram Five Fingers — brought coconut chard. He explained how going Paleo has changed his life.

“I’ve been suffering from this auto-immune disease, Ankylosing Spondylitis, for almost 10 years now,” he says, “so to be able to go off my medication, which I did about a few months ago, has been outstanding.”

The Paleo lifestyle isn’t only about food; it’s also about fostering physical prowess. Paleolithic man had to be strong and quick to pursue his prey — or run away from it. Modern hardcore Paleo athletes (and gurus of the lifestyle) scramble around on all fours and toss boulders for exercise. At CrossFit in Natick, it’s not quite as extreme, but there was a Paleo Challenge underway, where athletes lift and drop huge barbells.

Paleo fitness emphasizes heavy-duty strength and agility training, rather than cardio. No machines. Just leaping, crouching, sprinting and endless dead-lifts.

Vicky Hadden, a slight but taut 46-year-old mother of three, lifted a mammoth amount of weight over her head.

“This is 135 pounds, which is more than you!” she says.

Vikki Hadden, a 46-year-old mother, takes a break from her Paleo fitness routine. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Everyone at the gym says eating like a hunter-gatherer has increased their athletic performance. They’re stronger, faster, fitter. And they tend to eat lean cuts of meat.

But like any diet that rejects whole food groups, it’s always best to proceed with caution — and consult a doctor. There are a number of books and blogs on “ancestral health” espousing moderate-to-extreme tactics for living Paleo. Some people fast intermittently (the “feast-or-famine” approach) — or grow facial hair. Others donate pints of blood since early man likely lost a fair bit of it “on the hunt.” Most Paleos sleep for extended periods of time and get as much sunlight as they can. Then there’s the self-proclaimed New York “caveman” who likes to run — barefoot — across the Brooklyn Bridge.

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