This time last year, you might not have heard of the Paleolithic Diet, usually abbreviated to the Paleo diet, or just Paleo. Now it seems to be popping up everywhere, in Israel as in the rest of the world; it topped Google’s list of the most searched-for diets for 2013.
The premise seems deceptively simple, if strange to those of us who were raised on the notion that we should be eating foods that are low in fat, particularly cholesterol. Proponents of Paleo, also known as the caveman or hunter-gatherer diet, take a predictable, back-to-nature approach, advocating the consumption of meat, eggs and certain fruits and vegetables, generally organic-raised or grown. Processed foods of any kind are off the menu, as are grains, legumes, most if not all dairy products and high-starch vegetables. What was good for our ancestors must be good for us, the diet’s followers say.
Some express a degree of caution, such as Mor Duani, who teaches in the Alternative Medicine Department at Tel Aviv’s Kibbutzim College. “Hard-core believers in this diet eat a lot of fat, a lot of liver, red meat and protein,” she warns. “We needed it back in prehistoric times but we don’t need it to keep warm today.”
It’s been called the vegan diet for carnivores, a term that makes those in the know cringe. Paleo may sound like a quick way to lose weight, but in fact most people who try it are hoping to find relief for health issues such as such as diabetes or chronic fatigue syndrome.
In Israel, Paleo has had a small but steady following for a few years now. Liraz Blumenfeld, a 30-year old nutrition consultant, first became interested in the diet six years ago, after developing gluten sensitivity.
“I was living in the U.S. then, “ she explains, “where information was more readily available at the time, and I made a gradual shift in my diet that simply made me feel better.” Blumenfeld, who lives near Tel Aviv, is raising her 2-year old son, Daniel, on the principles of Paleo.
“It’s cleaner and healthier than any other diet I have come across,” she says. “For me, it’s a way of life.” A few years ago, she admits, people did not take her seriously. “They would laugh, look at me weirdly, tell me I don’t look like a caveman,” she recalls. “But today people are more open, more exposed to information and I think they are genuinely interested in what I have to say.”
This openness is certainly facilitated by easy access to information on the Internet, in both English and Hebrew.
From her home in Tel Aviv, Israeli-Canadian Ruth Almon maintains a website offering detailed information on all things Paleo. Paleo Diet Basics, which Almon started earlier this year, gets as many as 4,000 “hits” a day from users who will find everything from a recipe for homemade mint chocolate to a comprehensive holiday survival guide.
Blumenfeld, meanwhile, gleans new recipe ideas from Paleo Israel, a Hebrew Facebook group whose membership has doubled in the past year. One of the group’s administrators, Dany Damry, says more Israelis join every week and he expects this trend to continue into 2014. “Health has long been a hot topic in Israel and now we are at a critical mass,” he explains. “There is a sense of great commitment rather than a wish for a quick way to lose weight.”
The group’s page is more than just a place to exchange recipes and tips, as Damry explains. Members have joined together to obtain discounts on grass-fed meat and organic foods. There are two pilot farms for cattle and sheep, one in the Golan Heights and one in Emek Hefer.
“It’s still in the early stages,” Damry explains, “but the idea is that we will be able to buy meat that is raised humanely, not grain-fed and affordable.” Right now, most meat consumed today in Israel is exported and, Israeli Paleo followers agree, it is hard to determine its exact origins. However, it is generally accepted within Israeli Paleo circles that red meat is preferable to poultry, because of the antibiotics and growth hormones given to birds raised for meat.
It’s a different story with organic vegetables and eggs. Most Israeli convenience stores stock organic or free-range eggs, but very few sell organic vegetables. Perhaps that’s why people around the country increasingly opt to have seasonal organic vegetables delivered to their doors, usually through Community Supported Agriculture.
As for eating out, not even trendy Tel Aviv has restaurants targeting followers of Paleo, but with growing numbers of Israelis adopting this lifestyle, the day might not be far off.
Joanna Chen is a poet and a literary translator whose work has been published in literary journals in Israel and abroad. She blogs at www.joannachen.com.
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