Primal in Philly: How I Lost 71 Pounds in Six Months by Eating Like a Caveman

Follow our new blogger on his unorthodox path to fitness

tim_body_400That, on the left side of the picture, is me on December 31, 2009. My age: 41. My weight: 295 pounds, the heaviest I’d ever been in a lifetime of being heavy.

I’ve also always been tall — I’m 6’4″ — so people always told me I “carried it well.” I now know they were full of it. How? Because, as of this morning, I weigh 224, and people miles away can see the difference. (Just glance to the right.)

In my family’s house, food was love — and I was loved to excess. My mother, bless her, baked cookies and cakes and shoo-fly pies by the score, and my favorite snack was half-inch-thick slices of Velveeta and pickle-pimiento loaf on white bread slathered with enough Miracle Whip to choke a horse. My high school nickname? “Skinny,” of course.


I'm no longer sure how big I was when I started college, but when my girlfriend left for a semester overseas, I got down to 220 — I was so heartsick all I could eat was Tastykakes and chocolate milk (and vitamins — health conscious even in melancholy!). That regimen, however, didn't last a day beyond her return. We eventually married and had kids, and when my elder son was 7, his aunt persuaded him to become a vegetarian. As progressive, supportive — OK, lazy — parents, we went veg too. Pastas galore! Certainly didn't help my weight.

For the last decade, I've been bouncing between 260 and 290. The first time I lost that 30 was on Atkins. (Fluorescent pee — thank you, ketosis!) A couple of years later, I lost the same 30 again — along with the will to live — eating only raw foods. And last year, I just gave up. Figured this was simply the way I was going to be — a Snickers bar and a pack of peanut M&M every day, two heaping spoons of sugar in every cup of coffee (unprocessed cane sugar — health conscious even in corpulence!), as much rich, crusty bread as my wife could bake. I thought I was happy.

Then, at a Christmas party for my son's Civil Air Patrol squadron last December, I started a game of keep-away with the cadets — I nearly dropped to the ground after 10 minutes. I knew I had to do something. I had a vague idea of going Atkins/low-carb again since it had worked quickly the last time, but my plan wasn't set until New Year's Day when my wife sent me a link to Free The Animal, an ongoing record of one man's impressive weight loss following the tenets of "primal" living.

Primal — or paleo, as it's also known — is inspired by the way our ancestors ate and moved before the rise of agriculture 10,000 or so years ago. It eschews grain-based carbohydrates (breads, pastas, cereals, the high-fructose corn syrup that's in just about every bit of commercially prepared food) and legumes (beans, peanuts) and replaces those calories with copious amounts of veggies, moderate amounts of (raw) fruit and nuts, and unashamed portions of high-fat, protein-rich meats and fish, and encourages short bursts of intense physical activity rather than endless hours on the treadmill. Within 10 minutes of clicking around the site, I was hooked — it just made sense to me that since humans evolved in times of both unpredictable abundance and prolonged scarcity, dietary fat (long-lasting, efficiently metabolized stored energy) couldn't possibly be the enemy it's been portrayed as over the past 30 years or so. And as I thrum with renewed energy and watch my body get visibly leaner each day while counting nary a calorie, I'm convinced I'm right.

In future posts I'll talk about the specifics of how I eat and exercise now (hint: a lot less than you think) and discuss the research that supports the primal approach, as well as the compromises one has to make trying to eat this way in modern-day Philadelphia (have you ever tried to down a cheesesteak without the roll?).

tim_head_350I know, I know — your cholesterol is shooting through the roof just hearing about all the sirloin and eggs I eat. Well, let me tell you, mine's dropping like a three-day-old bagel from Billy Penn's hat — we'll cover that and other health markers in a future post too. And with primal beginning to bubble into the mainstream — you may have seen this recent New York Times piece on the "caveman lifestyle" — a lot of critics are surfacing; we'll wrestle with them from time to time, because, heck, it's possible I'm not 100 percent right.

I hope you'll stick with me on the rest of my journey — I want to increase my general fitness and strength levels while losing another 20 pounds or so — and chime in frequently whether you're a primal enthusiast yourself or just think I'm an fad-following idiot. See you at the meat counter!

"Before" shots by Lillian Haas. "After" shots by Zoey Sless-Kitain.

Be respectful of our online community and contribute to an engaging conversation. We reserve the right to ban impersonators and remove comments that contain personal attacks, threats, or profanity, or are flat-out offensive. By posting here, you are permitting Philadelphia magazine and Metro Corp. to edit and republish your comment in all media.

  • http://freetheanimal.com Richard Nikoley

    Awesome, Timothy. Congratulations.

    Now I’ll head over to FTA, Twitter and FB to send some traffic your way.

    Stuff like this makes it all worth it.

  • http://primaltoad.com Primal Toad

    Awesome article. This is one that I will be bookmarking and showing all the naysayers.

    I have been primal for 2.5 months and will never look back.

  • David Rourke

    Nice article. I’ve gone from 184 to a much more healthy 154 this year on primal, without ever counting anything. Not going back.

  • lynn

    I have been eating paleo/primal too for the last two months. Love it! I have a ton of energy and I’m down to my ideal weight after dropping 12 pounds. Totally got rid of that middle aged belly fat. I was raw vegan too on and off for awhile and could never sustain it. This way is so much more natural and easier. My muscles are popping too, must be all that protein. Now if I could only get my husband to come on board too.

  • fran

    Dude you’re looking pretty hot in that after shot!

  • Garth Huckabay

    Sounds like you got it all figured out now. Keep at it! I also like http://www.marksdailyapple.com and http://www.crossfit.com – some of the best nutrition and fitness advice around!

  • Vivian

    Long-time (3 years) primal eater here. Lost 75 pounds and regained health – good trade! It’s easy to keep on keepin’ on eating this way – I can’t imagine ever going back. Good luck in your journey! Looking forward to reading your upcoming posts.

  • Susan

    I have been LC-90% Primal for the past 14 months. I lost 40 lbs. fairly quickly and am now losing at a much slower rate – but still losing. I eat this way now for the joint and mobility improvements and to keep my weight in the normal range for my age. I don’t see myself ever going back to eating sugar or grains on a regular basis. The rewards of this way of eating are to good to pass up. But now, I really need to get more serious about the physical fitness part of this program. You really look terrific! You actually look like you feel energetic!

  • Warren

    From one “fad-following idiot” to another, welcome to the tribe! Curious. Philly is a great food and beer town. Did you give up the suds as well as the subroll?

  • Timothy Haas

    @Everyone: Thanks for your kind words and for sharing your own great stories. I hope you’ll keep offering inspiration and tips!

    @lynn: Getting spouses and significant others involved will be the topic of a future post. My wife is currently in a weight-loss study at Penn, so while she’s not doing primal eating with me, we are doing a fitness routine together, and it’s made a huge difference for both of us.

    @fran: Cheers! You are the first person (apart from my wife, who’s contractually obligated) ever to say that to me in 41 years.

    @Garth: Great links, and things I will definitely be mentioning down the line. Mark Sisson’s The Primal Blueprint was the second primal resource I consulted when beginning.

    @Susan: As I get near my goal weight, the fitness part of the equation is becoming more important to me as well — I’ll be writing about it frequently.

    @Warren: Thanks for the welcome. The only tragic element in this otherwise ecstatic experience is that I’ve pretty much lost my taste for alcohol. A couple of months ago, Triumph Brewing Co. held this great one-day event called Funk Fest — really wacked-out, experimental local brews (a green apple lambic, some medieval thing with rosewater, etc.) — and I didn’t even get through half of the small-glass nine-beer flight.

    I still enjoy the occasional glass of wine, but the thought of a full, rich pint of Victory’s Storm King (my favorite local stout) makes me clutch my midsection. I don’t think it’s carb avoidance, at least not consciously — the drink just doesn’t bring me the same joy it used to.

  • http://www.arthurdevany.com Art De Vany

    Richard, the author of Free the Animal website, acknowledges that he learned most of this from me. He is a good student and has taken it his own way, as all who follow the lifestyle must do. Take a look at my site and see the deep side of the primal life from someone who has lived it for more than 25 years–called the grandfather of the paleo movement. Or read my forthcoming book, The New Evolution Diet.

  • http://labs.kortina.net/ Kortina

    Awesome to hear this, Timothy! We’re big fans of the caveman at my office in center city Philly, so if you’re ever in the Rittenhouse area and feel like a primal workout, some grub, and a chat, email kortina/at/venmo/dot/com and we’ll do some burpees or other fun workout and get some sunshine in the park.

  • http://christophdollis.com/p Christoph Dollis

    Timothy, thou truly rocks.

    And Richard, way to set the example and light the way.

  • Jon Gay

    You da man! Keep it up… You look great.

  • Dee Korzenowski

    Way to go brother!! I am proud of you! Guess I’m going to try it my self now – as soon as I finish the loaf of homemade rye bread. Lol. Seriously, you have inspired me, Thanks!

  • Amber Baker

    I am so proud of you uncle tim! you look great! I am seriously thinking about it, but with cacey at home it might be hard cause i am sure i still have to get her some things like bread and pasta but i am not sure how that will work out? although she probably can do without too! The worst part will be giving up pasta cause thats my favorite, oh and also oreos and milk! lol. i will def check out all the pages listed in your article, cant wait to read your follow ups!

  • BBQking

    Congratulations! Those pictures say much more than a thousand words about the results of tenacity and willpower.
    I have some questions because I would like to try this diet out:
    How did you begin the diet? There are a lot of processed foods in my house right now and I feel it would be such a waste to throw it all out!
    Also, were there any times early on when you couldn’t stand the cravings for some of those homemade treats, or was it all smooth sailing?
    This is truly an inspiring story.

  • Melanie

    I’m so, so, so, so very happy for you! Tears in my eyes happy because you have no idea how much I can relate to that dismal feeling that you’ll never be the size of one human being!! I failed so many times on every diet imaginable.

    I’ve finally lost nearly 50 lbs, mostly through Primal living, and I feel much better in general. My husband couldn’t get his arms around me and now he can throw me over his shoulder and squat my weight!!!

    Hopefully your story will inspire others!

  • Matthew Groff

    Hey Tim Congrats!! You look great!! Maybe I should give it a try, because I am at the heaviest I have ever been in my life! I am 38, 5’5″ and weigh around 370lbs!! Yes, I said 370lbs! I should weigh between 130lbs to 150lbs at most for my height.

    I have back problems, knee problems, ankles and feet are swollen contantly, have low energy, and can barely walk any distances with out getting out of breath.

    I think I could do it, but the problem I would have is giving up a lot of the grains, milk, and even pasta. But I think I could give up pasta, I do not eat a lot of it except when I do have it for dinner.
    I love fresh bread right from the oven. Mom makes it her breadmaker using wholewheat, cranberries, and nuts. So delicious!

    I know my problem is I do not eat enough fresh fruits and vegetables! I also drink way too much soda!

    I look forward to the articles! Please contact me so I can get information about going “Caveman”.

  • Cammy K

    Congrats, Tim! You look great!!! Amazing accomplishment. MIss you! -KCK

  • http://www.robbwolf.com Robb Wolf

    Outstanding and inspirational transformation. It’s almost like this stuff works!

  • B Rotker

    Congrats Tim and keep up the good work.

    Grok On!

  • DReed

    @ Matthew Groff,

    It’s tought to give up the grains, but definitely doable. It probably sounds daunting to you now, but give it a try and see how it goes. I have been 80 – 90% Paleo for about 6 years, used to weigh 225, and now I am at 175. The first two months were tough, I won’t kid you, but after I got over that hump I felt great and like others, never looked back. I occasionally have some bread, even a piece of pizza, but my everyday typical diet is Paleo, so I don’t stress when I do have a treat once and a while. Another must is exercise. Look into CrossFit (www.crossfit.com), a global exercise philosophy which many Paleo people subscribe to. You can do it too!!!

  • DReed

    @ Tim,

    Awesome results Tim. Keep it up. If you haven’t checked out Cross Fit yet, give it a whirl (www.crossfit.com). Lots of like minded Paleo people do cross fit workouts. I’m sure there is a gym near you.

  • http://www.brookfarmbooks.com Jean R

    Hey Tim!

    Wow! You look just great and I never would have recognized you in your new shape. I can just imagine how proud your family is of you.

    It must be a lot of fun having more energy.

  • jenni

    It’s precisely our diet and behaviors of the last century that has brought our species into a new era where it’s very common for humans to live to the age of 80. How long did paleolithic peoples live for? They’d make it to 25, that is if they were lucky. I would be dead by now. Since we live longer, our bodies are more exposed to illnesses that we never would have if we lived for a shorter period of time. We have to worry about cancer because of this. Sure over eating is not a great idea in the long run. Even still, we’re still healthier than cavemen ever were. Why can’t people just admit we eat too much of everything, not just sugars and red meat. Sure we have higher accounts of heart disease and obesity than other parts of the world, we can at least say that we live more than three times as long as people did 1,000 years ago. I can’t see anything a little exercise and cutting down food won’t be sufficient.

  • jenni

    Also, I don’t think Paleolithic people ate corn, bananas, tomatoes, potatoes and almost all of the fruits and vegetables we enjoy today. We domesticated all of these plants to produce food we could eat. Our stomachs are still evolving to accept some of the foods we have now, even though they have nutrients we benefit from. Recent studies have shown stomach bacteria has a huge role in the weight of human beings. Bacteria can change the way your stomach digests food and your metabolism. These effects can be far reaching and may answer why certain races metabolize food differently than others. If fact, my own metabolism has changed since I’ve been using probiotics. I gained 20 pounds in two months after using them, even thought my diet was the same as always. I was even eating two meals a day. These findings might drastically change the way we look at obesity.

  • Bev

    Hi – I’m new to paleo – it sounds ideal but I can’t find just what a person eats on this way of eating. Would you mind enlightening me? No dairy? I need to see what people eat. Thanks so much

  • Frank

    Way to go brother. My success is similar to yours. I’m 42, 6’6″ and in March I weighed just over 300 lbs. In four months I have lost 49 lbs. Keep it up. You are truly an inspiration!

  • mike

    It’s true that our ancient ancestors ate very differently from the way we do today and were undoubtedly leaner, but they also had something else we don’t have today — a 40 year life span! Hey, that doesn’t mean you’re wrong but its just an observation.

  • Travis

    Mortality of our ancestors is something that needs to be looked at more deeply than average lifespan. Infant mortality rates play a large role in that number. Also, lack of modern sanitation, housing, and antibiotics likely had far more to do with mortality than diet. For the record I follow a diet that is close to paleo but not so extreme that I don’t occasionally enjoy a pizza or a sub sandwich. The little indiscretions make it easier to maintain over the long haul.

  • Janet L.

    This sounds like a variant on the original weight loss diet: The Banting diet first published in the 1860s.

    To me it sounds like just another variant on the low carbohydrate diet that people have been loosing weight on since the 1860s.

    The only distinct feature I’m picking up is for intermittent heavy exercise. Of course back when Mr. Banting wrote, I doubt if anyone but severe invalids could live as sedentary a life as the average couch potato nowadays. . .

  • Stuart

    Timothy,
    I have been eating primal for 5 weeks now. Down 28 lbs from 285 and 6′ 2″. Read the Paleo Diet and just finished the Primal Blueprint.
    Love the food. Feel great.
    Told my mother I am eating like a caveman. She asked my wife if I had started dragging her by her hair yet. :)

  • dave

    timothy, there is an amazing bodyweight fitness program called GUTS that will take you to the next level (getting totally ripped, doing handstand pushups, etc). no gym, no weights, no cardio and very low time ocmmitment. go over to http://www.transformetrics.com and try it out (i have no commercial relationship with these folks but have tried out personally 4 or 5 bodyweight programs and this one works for me the best).

  • Robyn P

    Timmy!
    Holy moly. You look amazing!!!!
    I was looking you up to see if you were still at PM. Want to consult with you at some point on computer stuff. (and we never did lunch :)
    But back to this! I completely espouse this diet. I learned about the “caveman diet” maybe 20 years ago while I was interviewing an anthropologist at Texas A&M. He had done years of research and was trying to get the word out and no one would listen. I eat much like this, but w/only occasional red meat. Freddie started eating this way a few months ago (also less red meat) and lost 20 pounds in 3 weeks without even trying. He looks and feels great. It seems like your body adjusts itself to your healthiest weight on its own. My feeling as far as the red meat goes (and I know everyone has their thoughts on this, and should do what works for them), is that in order to make it not a diet, but a way to eat for life, I personally don’t want to eat that much meat. (Questions abound for me: I’m not sure meat has the same makeup as back in caveman days, and I’m not sure our colons and enzymes are the same). That said, I do a lot more fish and poultry, so maybe it’s more of a Mediterranean/Caveman hybrid.
    Anyway, stay healthy, talk soon, and hi to Lil.

  • zephyr

    This is such a great story! Why have you not posted updates as promised? Some of the sites I have looked at make it sound just as complicated as many other diets I’ve seen. Some say one thing is OK,while others disagree. Any insight and advice, especially surviving in a a modern day Philly would be greatly appreciated!

  • http://www.wayneacupuncture.com paleo Philadelphia

    congratulations! i too have been primal since fall 2010 and seen amazing changes! now helping folks on the Mainline philly through nutrition counseling.

  • Antony

    Hi Timothy, great and inspirational story. Look forward to the follow up articles you promised about the bloodwork etc. Since this post was written a while ago, I’m hoping you’re still well and intend to follow up writing those articles. Greetings from South Africa.

  • ICDogg

    I stumbled on this article because I have just lost 71 lbs. in 6 months! I still need to lose more, though, and I’m neither as young nor as tall as Timothy Haas.

    And I’m pretty much also eating something you might call a “caveman” diet. I’ve had incredible improvements in blood sugar control, especially, as well as HDL and triglycerides, blood pressure, etc.

    Hope you’re still doing well.