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

That, 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?).

I 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.