Caveman cuisine at the office: Stressed executives are resorting to the diet of their ancestors to deal with the modern world

September 30, 2013 5:59 pm

Caveman cuisine at the office

By Charles Wallace

Dan Benjamin is an entrepreneur whose business is at the cutting edge of the US’s technology and online media industries. Yet when he began experiencing a host of unexplained allergies, high cholesterol and hypoglycaemia, he ignored his doctor’s advice and put his family on a diet likely to have been eaten by his hunter-gatherer ancestors 100,000 years ago.

Mr Benjamin, the founder of 5by5, a producer of internet broadcasts, had just gone Paleo. The Paleolithic diet – lots of lean meat and animal fat, no grains such as bread and pasta, or dairy products – has taken Silicon Valley workers by storm. Pizza is out at all-night strategy sessions; grass-fed beef is in. “The Paleo diet is huge among tech people,” he says. “Early adopting is one part of it, but there’s probably an epidemic of bad eating among tech people who are working long hours, have sedentary jobs and are eating mainly pizza and fast food.”

He adds that it is much more than a passing phase. “I know it’s seen by many people as a fad diet but it wasn’t a fad diet for the thousands of years before we invested in agriculture and started having the modern problems we have today. I know that after switching to this diet, the medical problems I had were gone.”

Mr Benjamin attributes his conversion to Mark Sisson, a former marathon runner who has built an entire industry out of the Paleo craze. Mr Sisson says he was the first to turn the Paleo movement into a profitmaking business on a large scale. He presides over Mark’s Daily Apple, a blog called that gets 50m page views a month, a burgeoning book publishing business and a supplements company. “I’m sitting on a billion-dollar brand if this is done right,” says the tanned and lean 60-year-old, whose privately held business, Primal Nutrition based in Malibu, California, does not disclose revenues. “This a paradigm shifter.”

Change course

 

Food

Out with grains and dairy products, which were only introduced with modern farming. In with lean meats, fats and green vegetables

Exercise

Out with cardiovascular exercises such as jogging and swimming. In with strenuous exercises such as weightlifting, once or twice a week.

Light

Out with night lights and days spent entirely inside away from sunlight. In with half an hour of sunlight every day and sleeping in a completely darkened room.

So popular is the Paleo trend that Mr Sisson has started hosting weekend conferences, charging $849 a head to teach adherents how to eat better and exercise correctly. There is a luxury version for $2,200 per person for a weekend of instruction.

“I’m in a very stressful, metric-measuring industry,” says Greg Barnett, an account director with CA Technologies, a computer software company who recently attended a luxury retreat with his wife, a pharmaceutical saleswoman. “The retreat really helped me handle stress and improve my mood.”

Mr Sisson reasoned that people would pay for information that is already well known if it was presented in an organised and attractive way. “Having built a platform with the concept of giving away all my information for free, there is an assumption that people will still want to pay for a version of that information that has been condensed or organised into a readable format,” he says. His company has sold 500,000 books related to the Paleo diet.

Another businessman who has carved out a profitable niche is Robb Wolf, who after a series of personal health issues became a nutrition and exercise researcher under Paleo diet pioneer Loren Cordain of Colorado State University. Mr Wolf runs what he calls a medical risk assessment company, which he says has been helping municipalities reduce medical expenses using Paleo diet techniques.

In a pilot study in Reno, Nevada, for example, Mr Wolf’s company identified firefighters and police constables who were at high risk of heart attack and stroke. If these officers were to suffer an attack while on duty, it could cost the city up to $4.5m. After the pilot programme saved Reno an estimated $22m in medical expenses by reducing the number of heart attacks and strokes suffered by municipal workers involved in the pilot compared with emergency workers not on the diet, Mr Wolf says his company was given a contract to put the entire police force and fire department on a Paleo regime. He is now doing the same for the elite Navy Seals.

“For me, this is taking an evolutionary biology perspective and applying it to medicine,” Mr Wolf says. “In the past, we didn’t eat certain foods, we had a high degree of exercise, a consistent period of sunlight, and a high degree of socialisation.”

Although there are many variations, the basic diet involves replacing grains and dairy products, which were introduced with modern agriculture 10,000 years ago, with lean meats, fats and green vegetables. In addition, Paleo adherents often do strenuous exercise such as weightlifting once or twice a week (but give up cardio exercise such as jogging), try to get half an hour of sunshine every day and sleep in a darkened room, mimicking life before electricity.

The supposed benefits of the Paleo diet were first discussed in an article by S. Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1985. They believed that humans were being confronted by a rash of health-related problems that were previously unknown and for which genetic adaptation had poorly prepared them. “Such developments as the Industrial Revolution, agribusiness and modern food-processing techniques have occurred too recently to have had any evolution effects at all,” they wrote.

The Paleo theory has been controversial ever since the paper was published. Mr Wolf is the first to admit that conventional medical community “is still completely sceptical” about a diet high in saturated fat. But he points to a study by Staffan Lindeberg at the University of Lund in Sweden which found the blood sugar response to carbohydrate intake was better after a Paleo diet than a Mediterranean diet, which emphasises whole grains, vegetables, fruits and fish.

Still, criticism persists. One of the most vocal sceptics is Marlene Zuk, a professor of evolution at the University of Minnesota. In a recent book called Paleofantasy, she insists that human genes have evolved since the introduction of agriculture and as a consequence grain and dairy products may not be as much of an anathema as Paleo supporters maintain.

“Instead of denouncing modern living as unsuitable to our Stone Age genes, we need to figure out what parts of that life send us too far out of our evolutionary zone of tolerance, and to do that, we need data, not blanket condemnation,” she writes.

For businessmen such as Mr Sisson, the debate only adds to the appetite for his books and other information. He takes a fairly liberal interpretation of Paleo; after all, he admits, Paleolithic man did not have food supplements such as whey powder, which is made from cow’s milk, and is one of his bestselling products.

“I choose the best parts of modern technology and modern food production and incorporate those into a lifestyle that recognises that we do have this built-in recipe that wants to make us strong and fit and lean over our lifetime,” he says. “Occasionally there are things that we find resonate with those genes that didn’t happen 50,000 years ago but still work now. I make my living using technology: I’m not going to camp out in my backyard and hunt my neighbour’s pets.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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