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Pondering a paleolithic past

As I troll the streets of Victoria lately, I have been reflecting on the life of early modern humans 40,000 years ago. Not the nasty, damp, cave-dwelling stuff, but rather the diet and movement part of life.

Pedicabbing, I've found, is remarkably akin to a hunter-gatherer existence. We troll for rides at least six to eight hours a day, constantly moving, aerobic activity mixed with short bursts of huff and puff anerobic hill climbing, like setting traps and chasing down game. I must nibble all day or I get lightheaded and dizzy -- nuts and berries, trail mix -- washing it down with water. I have no appetite for a midday meal. Something heavy digesting in my stomach and I'll feel sick climbing Government St. with a load. Go out, however, without some breakfast of protein in my belly and I won't last out the day.

When I come home, I am ravenous, particularly for vitamin-rich fruit and for protein. I crave oranges, grilled meat, fish or chicken. I can almost picture myself gnawing on a roast leg of lamb around a firepit, like Ayla in Clan of the Cave Bear. 865312-963785-thumbnail.jpg

And then there are the positive endorphins from physical exertion. It is as if our bodies have been designed to reward ourselves with pleasurable, happy feelings when we have been physically working hard, out on the hunt all day -- even if our catch is lean.

Yesterday I made just $3 over lease. I rode almost constantly over eight hours, I talked to a lot of people, gave six rides earning a total of $48. Intellectually I was disappointed. Rationally I worried about finances should days like that continue. But inside I still felt calm, relaxed and optimistic. I ate and slept well. The positive endorphins, despite the lean catch, seem designed to help me feel pumped to go back out on the hunt another day in the hope of better gains.

On days where the returns are good and the physical exertion hard, I have felt close to euphoric. If I were Ayla, I can picture myself whooping and hollering, dancing around the firepit in celebration of my recent bounty and the work it took to bring it home. This natural high, without alcohol or stimulants, is almost scary in its mania-like similarities, but it comes with no bipolar crash.

In short, I seem to be thriving -- both mentally and physically -- on a lifestyle that mimics aspects of Cro-magnon life.

As a health writer for 25 years I've reportied on disturbing trends in obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. And at the same time I 've chronicled how nutritional research is finding foods like blueberries and pomegranates, walnuts and almonds, leafy green or colourful vegetables all confer health benefits or how omega-3 rich food, like fatty fish or flax, need to be added back into our diet. Or how removing refined and processed foods can eliminate some health ills, like irritable bowel syndrome or in increasing numbers, celiac disease from wheat products.

And now as a pedicabber I can see disparate elements of diet, exercise, disease and disability all coming together. Others are saying it, but to me it is ringing ever more true: we all would be healthier and happier if we could more closely emulate the food and physicality of our paleolithic past.

Evidence is everywhere that our genetic heritage hasn't caught up to the conveniences of modern life. These machines we call our bodies were engineered to optimally function in a different, distant age.

Take obesity. It is hard to ignore the obesity epidemic as a pedicab driver. Its ominous foot falls are shaking all Western nations, even the streets of Victoria. Obesity trends have alarmed me as a health writer reporting on children as young as 10 years old with indicators of heart disease. As a pedicab driver, it is even scarier.

"Each year, they get bigger and bigger," groaned Chico, riding for 14 years, of the people disembarking off the cruise ships. Drivers all tell stories of rides who were simply too big to get into our cabs. Or struggling with those who did.

Sometimes I see a big couple waddling towards me, engaging my eye, and I put my head down and think, "Oh please no. Please don't pick me." I don't want to embarrass them nor me by not being able to pull the load.

Travel writer Bill Bryson, in his 1989 book, The Lost Continent, wrote scathingly funny, but sometimes almost cruel, commentary on the burgeoning obesity epidemic in the US midwest, where it first became noticeable two decades ago. He described midwest women bloating almost overnight from once delectable teenage girls, "like a self-inflating raft from which the pin has been yanked."

Back then, I laughed at Bryson's observations. But I can't write humorously or laugh about fat these days. It is too easy, a cheap shot. And I know too many people now struggling with their weight in endless yo-yo cycles, trying everything to lose a few pounds, nibbling celery and carrot sticks. We are out of whack. The more one diets, the more one gains weight when eating "normally" again.

That's because starving ourselves in effort to lose weight only tricks our prehistoric bodies into believing food is scarce and calories must be conserved. Those struggling with obesity today carry genes from ancestors who survived the famines of the past. Eating unrestrained is not the answer, either. With all the abundant food around us,  eating without regular vigourous exercise, without building muscle and stoking our metabolism, simply packs on the pounds.

Part of a paleolithic palate
So to me, the solution to obesity, and perhaps to a lot of other modern ills like chronic disease, depression and anxiety, is to eat and move, as much as practicable, like a caveman. Ask, could Ayla have eaten this? Would Ayla have moved like this? Surprisingly, pedicabbing makes that ancient life come just a little bit more naturally.

Observes Randy: "Over the years, I've seen alot of pudgy drivers come into the barn in the spring, but if they last until September, they've dropped those pounds and are lean and muscular machines."

So move over Bob Green and Dean Ornish: I can see my paleolithic pedicabbing diet book soon gracing Oprahs' bedside table.


Posted on Thursday, August 9, 2007 at 03:20PM by Registered CommenterAnne | Comments2 Comments

Reader Comments (2)

Don't forget to include pizza slices from "The Joint".(smile)
August 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTerrence Wiens
You sisters never cease to amaze me!
Pedicabbing - and near 50 years old.! It's all I can do to throw my leg over the bar of my bicycle and ride around the barnyard!
Having read your reports, I'm inspired to put my helmet on and drive down the road to stretch the muscles a bit more!

I hope you write your memoirs, cause that's going to make some interesting reading.
Congratulations and Best Wishes on the new endeavours!
Aunt Audrey
August 25, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAudrey Middleton

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