To adhere to the paleo diet, practitioners must avoid a few taboo foods. Here's a broad-strokes paleo menu, according to California-based fitness company CrossFit Anaerobic:
• All meats, including beef, pork, lamb, duck, chicken, turkey, fish, shellfish and eggs.
• Any vegetable, except potato, corn and beans; sweet potato is OK, though.
• Any seeds, nuts or nut butters - except peanuts - prepared raw or lightly roasted and unsalted.
• Healthy fats, including avocados and oils from olives, almonds, coconuts, flaxseed or grape seed.
• Whole fresh fruit, no juice, but in moderation (1-2 daily servings).
• No sugar or artificial sugar.
• No processed snack or dessert foods, including cakes, cookies, candies, chocolate, pastries, chips, crackers and ice cream.
• No grains, including wheat products, corn products, rice, pasta, bread, oatmeal and cereals.
• No legumes, such as beans, peas, alfalfa, lentils, peanuts, soybeans and tamarind.
• No dairy, including milk, cream, butter, yogurt and cheese.
• No alcohol, including wine, beer and hard liquor.
The following celebrities have publicly acknowledged themselves as paleo practitioners:
• Meghan Fox
• Matthew McConaughey
• Jessica Biel
• Miley Cyrus
• Eva La Rue
• Uma Thurman
For years, health fanatics undoubtedly rolled their eyes at Fred Flintstone's seemingly ill-advised decision to order a massive rack of barbecued brontosaurus ribs for dinner at a drive-in restaurant. After all, the car tipped over with their weight.
In the 1970s, however, a dietary movement began gaining traction that suggests Fred and his Stone Age counterparts might have been on to something. About six years ago, the so-called paleo(lithic) diet - aka the primal diet, ancestral diet, caveman diet and hunter-gatherer diet - saw an upswell of popularity among those who say human digestive biology hasn't kept evolutionary pace with what man eats. Improving modern nutrition, proponents of the diet say, might require a trip in a culinary time machine.
"If [our ancestors] could pick it, dig it up or chase it down and prepare it for consumption, then we can, too," laughs local paleo advocate Anna Conrad. "That pretty much eliminates processed foods, anything that is artificial.
"Our brains don't recognize these ingredients, so we just keep eating and eating and, by the time we realize we're full, it's more of a physical fullness than a brain trigger."
Some of the biggest nutritional enemies, from the paleo perspective, are byproducts of man's shift from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agrarian one. Paleo advocates say the human stomach is evolutionarily ill-equipped to properly digest items such as grains, sugars and dairy products.
Modern man's stomach, they argue, is evolutionarily stuck in the Stone Age, and he should eat accordingly. The paleo-approved menu - unrestricted amounts of meats, vegetables, fruits and most nuts - reflects what humans were eating between 10,000 and 2.5 million years ago.
"The food that comes from the Earth and the animals we consume are the proper-engineered foods, not what comes out of a machine," says Conrad, a chemist-turned-personal-chef. In addition to teaching classes at local kitchen accessory store Mia Cucina, Conrad also cooks for a private clientele, many of whom request dishes that abide by paleo principles.
Now based in Chattanooga, Conrad, 46, was introduced to paleo about four years ago in Johnson City, Tenn., where a personal trainer asked her to assist his clients in a 28-day challenge to strictly adhere to the diet. She participated in the challenge herself and also created paleo-friendly recipes for the trainer's students to try at home.
In addition to losing 12 pounds and feeling more energetic, Conrad says her recipes were so well-received that she decided to compile more and self-publish a book, "The Paleo Diet: Cook Like a Caveman." The book will be repackaged and published in January as part of a four-book deal with New York-based Skyhorse Publishing. Also in 2014, Conrad will release three recipe "bibles" specializing in paleo-friendly versions of breads, desserts and comfort foods.
Paleo adherents say they have experienced weight loss, like Conrad, following a brief adjustment period as the body weans itself from processed, carbohydrate-heavy foods and grains. For some, the reported health benefits can be even more extensive.
"You won't have blood-pressure problems or cholesterol problems, and this is a way to control your diabetes," says Conrad, who describes herself as only 80-percent paleo compliant since she occasionally slips and eats cheese or sugar.
"These sound like big claims, but I've seen it," she adds. "Your physician may not agree with the approach, but he or she will certainly agree with the results."
Paleo's back-to-basics mentality has a kind of natural synergy with the crossfit fitness craze. Many crossfit athletes - who use a combination of aerobics, weight lifting and so-called "bodyweight" exercises as push-ups and pull-ups - say they have seen physical benefits from eating like a caveman.
"It's sort of the de facto nutrition protocol," says crossfit athlete and paleo fan Eric Griffith. The 39-year-old and his wife, Emily, 35, began shifting toward a more paleo-friendly diet about two years ago when they opened their gym, Crossfit Brigade, on Cherokee Boulevard. Thanks to the combination of crossfit and his more-primal diet, he says he has lost fat and added about 15 pounds of muscle.
Generally, the Griffiths remain mostly faithful paleo dieters, except for the occasional pizza or dinner date. Three times a year, however, they push themselves and their gym members to strive for complete compliance during 28-day challenges like the one that originally introduced Conrad to the regimen.
Participants in the challenges are usually pleased with the results, Griffith says - at least once they get over the initial lethargy that marks the body's adjustment from generating energy from paleo's higher amounts of fat instead of carbohydrates.
For some, paleo's effects can be more far-reaching than other diets.
"It really becomes a lifestyle," Griffith says. "Not only do we see people moving toward paleo eating, but they start looking at how to simplify the rest of their lives, how to be just a little bit closer to the food that they eat."
One of the paleo community's most outspoken advocates is California-based former champion marathoner and fitness author Mark Sisson.
Sisson, 60, says he was introduced to paleo about 12 years ago after reading the work of the movement's founding authors, such as Ray Audette ("Neanderthin") and Loren Cordain ("The Paleo Diet"). Building upon his own experiences and fitness philosophy, Sisson expanded the idea of paleo into a program he calls Primal Blueprint, which suggests that all humans have a genetic "recipe" to be healthy and happy.
Chattanooga-based personal chef and paleo cuisine author Anna Conrad offers the following dishes as potential offerings during a primal-friendly feast.
1 medium butternut squash
15 ounces coconut milk
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Fresh or dried herbs for garnish; cilantro, parsley, basil or thyme are good choices
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Slice squash lengthwise in half. Remove seeds with a spoon and discard.
Place the squash halves, cut side down, on a coconut oil-greased baking sheet and place in the oven for 45 minutes. Check at 10-minute intervals after 35 minutes of baking to determine if flesh is fork-tender. Once flesh is ready, remove the squash from the oven and cool on a rack until you can handle it comfortably.
Using a spoon, scoop flesh from the skin, and into a food processor. Add 3/4 of the coconut milk and process until smooth. If you don't have a food processor, use a hand mixer or potato masher in a large bowl.
Add more coconut milk as needed to thin the soup. Place in a saucepan and season with sea salt and ground black pepper as desired.
Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with herbs. For a more dramatic presentation, pour a tablespoon of coconut milk over the top of soup and create a swirl in the soup using a spoon and then garnish with fresh or dried herbs before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 2.
4 wild salmon fillets, or your favorite wild-caught fish
4 tablespoons coconut oil
4 teaspoon chopped fresh dill, or 1-½ tablespoon dried dill
16 stalks of fresh asparagus (thawed frozen asparagus works, too)
4 medium red beets, cut in cubes
Sea salt and black pepper, to taste
Heat oven to 500 degrees.
Tear off four pieces of heavy-duty baking foil, each large enough to wrap one fish fillet. Make a bed of beet cubes in the middle of each piece of foil and roast for 15 minutes. Remove beets from the oven and allow to cool slightly.
Top each bed of beets with 4 stalks of asparagus and place a fillet atop the asparagus. Add 1 tablespoon of coconut oil and 1 teaspoon of dill (or sprinkle dried dill evenly) on top of each fillet and close the foil to form a foil packet, seam side up so the juices do not leak.
Place the foil packs in the oven for 10 minutes per inch of thickness of the fish.
Check the fish 7 minutes into cooking to make sure it does not get overcooked and dry. Fish is done when it flakes easily with a fork.
Open foil packs carefully so the steam doesn't burn your hand. Remove contents from the pack and plate. You can also serve the foil pouches directly on each plate. Sprinkle more fresh dill or your favorite herb atop the fish. Serve warm. Serves 4.
4 ounces dairy-free chocolate
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon coconut flour
2 teaspoon cacao powder
2 large eggs
4 tablespoons coconut oil
Coconut oil for greasing muffin tins
Coconut flour for flouring muffin tins
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Grease and flour 6 standard muffin tins with coconut oil and coconut flour.
In a double boiler, melt chocolate and coconut oil together until smooth, stirring occasionally. You can also use the microwave to melt the chocolate and oil, stirring every 30 seconds.
In a small bowl, beat eggs, vanilla, salt and sugar with a hand mixer until light and frothy, about 5 minutes.
Pour egg mixture over chocolate. Sift cacao and coconut flour over the top, then gently fold all the ingredients together with a plastic or silicone spatula.
Pour batter into prepared muffin tins until they are about halfway full. Place muffin pan in the oven and bake for 11-12 minutes.
Remove from oven and serve immediately. Makes 4 individual cakes.
• Chef's Note: To prepare these cakes in advance, chill the unbaked cakes in the tins in the refrigerator until 45 minutes before baking. Remove from refrigerator and bring to room temperature. Place room temperature cakes in preheated oven and bake as instructed. Four ounce ceramic ramekins may be used in place of muffin tins.
Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at cphillips@times freepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.