Ray Audette amuses his Far North Dallas neighbors. They laugh when they see Audette, a diet book author, tramp across the manicured lawns lugging fresh roadkill, usually squirrels. They know their neighbor is toting the furry accident victims back to his yard to feed his young redtailed hawk.
The hawk, as well as Audette's pedigreed Saluki, a dog bred to hunt with birds of prey, are part of this rail-thin, 43-year-old, self-styled dietitian's reincarnation as a modern-day hunter-gatherer.
It's a lifestyle through which Audette swears he has shed 25 pounds, transformed a flabby body into a tight mass of sinew, and, perhaps most impressively, cured his own serious medical maladies: rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes. Audette's guiding principle is simple: Do what the cavemen did. If Stone Age man couldn't have speared whatever culinary delight you're about to pop into your mouth, or if the Neanderthal couldn't have plucked it off a bush, Audette argues you should avoid it, too.
In grocery list terms, that means Yes to a T-bone steak, a Cornish hen, and bag of fresh spinach, but No to a frozen pre-cooked pot pie, a can of corn, and even a box of pasta: the staple of low-fat diets "A natural diet is what is edible when you are naked with a sharp stick," Audette says. "When you have no technology."
This spring, Audette paid to have published a slim volume that he and co-author Troy Gilchrist wrote titled Neander-Thin: A Cave Man's Guide to Nutrition. The book extols the really old-fashioned virtues of eating like folks did in the Stone Age, offering menus and recipes and theories about why they lived healthier lives back then.
So far, Audette, who has gotten kicked out of Borders Books & Music for promoting his book a little too enthusiastically, has sold only 600 copies of his dietary treatise. But the transplanted New Yorker and former computer salesman cannot be dismissed as a kook.
Audette's neighbors and the management at Borders might be surprised to hear that his ideas on the benefits of a hunter-gatherer diet are supported to a large degree by dietary researchers' recent findings. A new medical consensus is building that threatens to turn upside down the long-held notion that fat-free diets are the solution to obesity, heart disease, and other maladies. Researchers say that many of us might benefit from more red meat and less of those previously lauded grains. As The New York Times put it in a headline over a story quoting weight control experts: "So It May Be True After All: Eating Pasta Makes You Fat." In other words, bye-bye bran flakes.
The father of much of this thinking is S. Boyd Eaton, a doctor who has published an article on the virtues of Paleolithic nutrition in the respected New England Journal of Medicine. In 1988, Eaton wrote a book about the healthy diet and lifestyles of cavemen. That year, Eaton and his co-authors of The Paleolithic Prescription: A program of Diet & Exercise and A Design for Living, noted in their preface that their theories made them the butt of media humor. The Washington Post ran an editorial cartoon that depicted a suburban man heading out for work dressed in skins, carrying a club and sending neighborhood squirrels for cover; syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman wrote a witty piece on the study called "Make Mine Mammoth." While the public laughed, the medical profession didn't. Eaton's research spawned years of further study and discussion on the issue. (Since his book's publication, Eaton has continued his research in Paleolithic nutrition at Emory University and is a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic Games Poly Clinic, which will treat international athletes when they gather in Atlanta.)
Eaton, who has been forced to develop a sense of humor about his work, nevertheless resents his ideas -- shared by Audette -- being characterized as just a blip on the screen of diet vogue. "If it's a fad, then it's a 2-million-year-old fad," Eaton says. "Paleolithic nutrition is based on a given set of circumstances that existed when our genetic constitution was formed millions of years ago. It does not change."
Now, seven years since Eaton published his book, his ideas have inspired a slew of theories. As noted in the recent Times story, several like-minded diet books have begun to hit the stores, all penned by doctors. Dr. Stephen Gullo, director of the Institute for Health and Weight Sciences in Manhattan, has offered Thin Tastes Better: Control Your Trigger Foods and Lose Weight Without Feeling Deprived. Dr. Richard Heller, professor of pathology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and his wife, Dr. Rachel Heller, wrote Healthy For Life. Dr. Barry Sears, a medical researcher who has helped Stanford University varsity swimmers win college championships by prescribing more meat and less pasta, will publish his regime this month in The Zone, a book whose title refers to the term used to describe peak athletic performance.
Dr. Michael Eades, who founded the five-year-old Arkansas Center for Health and Weight Control in Little Rock, is also an amateur anthropologist and member of the Paleopathology Association, a national organization of medical professionals and researchers who study the diseases of ancient man. He expects to publish his diet book this fall.
And the roadkill-toting Audette's Neander-thin theories have won praise from professionals. Eades stumbled across Audette's Neander-Thin at a Dallas bookstore in March while visiting his son. He was so impressed with Audette's diet that he returned to Dallas for a book signing to meet the author. The diet, the doctor says, closely resembles one he has prescribed to more than 5,000 overweight patients in the past eight years.
"I kind of like it when people like Ray who are not part of the medical community stumble onto this theory on their own," says Eades.
Audette didn't exactly stumble upon his hunter-gatherer theories. He methodically tracked them down out of desperation. In 1985, at age 33, doctors diagnosed him with diabetes. For Audette, who already had suffered for twelve years with another immune system disorder, rheumatoid arthritis -- which forced him to walk with a cane -- the diabetes diagnosis was a crushing blow. He was lethargic and sick all the time, he says, suffering from chronic colds that lasted for months. "I was eating aspirins by the handful until my ears rang," he says. "When they stopped ringing I'd take more."
For both the diabetes and the arthritis, he says the doctors told him the same thing: There was no cure. At 165 pounds at his heaviest, Audette, unlike many diabetics, wasn't obese; therefore, weight loss was not expected to improve his condition. He was facing a lifetime of insulin shots.
Unable to accept the dismal prognosis, Audette says he decided to school himself. At the library, he read up on diabetes and learned that the disease was an immune system disorder. From Eaton's Paleolithic nutrition work in particular, he learned that the disorder first appeared in humans about the same time they discovered agriculture.
"A natural diet is what is edible when you are naked with a sharp stick."
Eaton has published studies on remains of Paleolithic man purporting to show that almost none of the immune system disorders that afflict modern man, including diabetes and arthritis, were present back then. Studies of modern-day hunter-gatherers living in the African bush, he says, show they have very low serum cholesterol levels and rarely suffer from heart disease. Paleolithic man -- if he didn't die from an infection or get eaten by a wild animal -- could expect to live a very long life, says Eaton, without many of the disorders that affect us today.
For Audette, who often called researchers to discuss the ideas further, the diet research led to a revelation. "I said to myself, I need to at least try and eat a more natural diet."
He cut out everything from his diet that research showed hunter-gatherers didn't eat, such as flour, grains, milk, butter, sugar and oils. Anything processed, such as luncheon meat, or anything fermented, like vinegar, wine, and beer, were off-limits. Research shows hunter-gatherers didn't eat starches like potatoes, corn, and most beans -- probably because they can't be digested raw -- so Audette cut those out, too.
Audette expected some positive results, but nothing like he got. Testing his blood at home with a kit from the pharmacy, Audette says that within a week of starting his diet his blood sugar levels were normal, indicating the diabetes had ceased. As he stayed with meats and off grains, Audette's blood levels stayed constant, no matter when he tested himself, he says. Within a month, the arthritis that had plagued him for 12 years was gone too, he claims.
Although he was never overweight, the six-foot Audette went from about 165 to 145 pounds. The fat seemed to dissolve from his body while muscle tone improved. "All of a sudden it seemed as if I was growing muscle," he says. His concentration and energy level improved; his hair, which had been rapidly thinning, stopped falling out.
"It was such a dramatic change," he says. "It wasn't just a change from what I had been a few months before, it was a change from what I had been my whole life."
"I kind of became obsessed with the diet," he admits, extolling its benefits to anyone who would listen.
Nowadays, Ray Audette eats eggs and bacon for breakfast. He eats great slabs of red meat for lunch and dinner. He snacks on walnuts and berries. Audette is lean and muscular-he claims to have only 5.2 percent body fat-despite eating about a pound of meat and almost 3,000 calories a day.
Granted, fat and calorie consumption seem anathema to good health, but many scientists support the remarkable results Audette claims he saw with his own body.
"Ninety-nine percent of our time on earth humans have eaten an entirely different diet. We did not learn to grow grains or domesticate animals until 10,000 years ago -- not long enough to change our genetic program," says Artemis P. Simopoulos, M.D., former chairwoman of the nutritional coordinating committee of the National Institutes of Health and now president of the Center for Genetics Nutrition and Health in Washington.
Simopoulos and a growing number of nutrition researchers support Audette's claims, at least in theory, that many of the illnesses that plague modern-day man are in part caused by the foods we eat. (None, however, would touch Audette's claim of reversing hair loss with the diet.)
"Our ancestors had many health problems," says Eaton. "But they didn't have the 'diseases of civilization' that afflict modern man." Paleontologists know Stone Age man was much healthier, had thicker, stronger bones and was two to six inches taller than Bronze Age man, who appeared around 2000 B.C. and ate a grain-based diet, says Eaton.
We get fat, says Little Rock's Eades, because of the way our body is genetically programmed to react to eating anything other than what it was originally designed to eat. Eades says the body reacts to high carbohydrate foods such as pasta and potatoes by over-producing glucose, which in turn causes an overproduction of insulin, a hormone responsible for many metabolic functions including fat storage.
But you don't have to be a complete Neanderthal to reap benefits from a hunter-gather-inspired diet, says Eades, whose patients lose weight and achieve other benefits just by restricting milk, cheese, and grains. "People wouldn't stay on the diet if I cut everything out," he says. Eades stresses that the enemy in the weight-loss battle isn't small amounts of dairy and grains, but the low-fat diets themselves, which push people into filling up on carbohydrates. Although fat intake in this country has declined by 10 percent, Eades says, obesity has shot up 33 percent. "The low-fat diet has been a failure," he comments. The more dieters fill up on pasta, rice and baked potatoes, the higher their blood insulin levels go. The higher your blood insulin levels, he says, the more likely your body will turn food, even low-fat food, into fat.
Other immune system diseases can also be abated, some doctors now believe, with a meat-intensive diet low in carbohydrates and rich in leafy vegetables and fresh fruit.
In June, Dr. Artemis Simopoulos co-chaired a panel on insulin resistance and chronic disease at the National Institutes of Health. Among the issues discussed: obesity, hypertension, insulin-dependent diabetes and how diet plays a role in creating the insulin resistance that may cause the disorders. "We now think that in many cases insulin resistance precedes obesity," she told the Observer. "We also think it may precede other immune system diseases as well."
"The whole idea that insulin causes obesity and other disorders has been kicked around for a while," says Eades, but while most doctors and researchers focused their attention on low-fat diets, Eades began researching the connection between insulin and obesity eight years ago.
"There is a biological reason why you have so many men hunters in this country, and why women love to shop."
"We've been treating people from an insulin perspective longer than anybody." He says. It took 10-15 years for the studies to show low-fat diets weren't working, he says. "They are obviously not working -- researchers need to change their hypothesis. Some people look [at a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet] like a fad because they can't bring themselves to believe the low-fat way is not the way," he says.
Eades says he tests every patient who comes to his clinic for insulin levels. After eight years of testing, he estimates that 50-70 percent of patients tested are insulin resistant. At least 25 percent of the general population is thought to be insulin resistant, he says.
Doctors used to think the root cause of many medical problems, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, was obesity. Now, many researchers believe it may be the other way around: in many cases "insulin resistance," the overproduction of insulin after eating sugar and starches, causes obesity and other diseases, he says.
"For years doctors have been chipping off the tip," he says, treating diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol with medications, instead of treating the insulin problem at the base.
Two million years ago, the body overproduced insulin during plentiful times in order to stimulate the liver to convert glucose into fat that could be stored for lean times, says Eades. Trouble is, modern humans have more than enough to eat.
"The same thing that caused our ancestors to survive is killing us now," says Eades.
Most people on low-fat diets are low on protein, he says. Protein is usually the first thing to go in a diet. Too, they usually consume low-fat foods such as pasta, rice, and baked potatoes. "They're eating low fat, but their insulin levels are shooting through the roof," he says. "That's why low-fat diets have been so unsuccessful in bringing weight down." Eades encourages eating more protein and says the high meat content of diets like Audette's is okay. "Don't worry about the fat as long as you restrict the carbohydrates."
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of these Paleolithic diets is one that completely counters conventional medical wisdom regarding cholesterol. Some researchers say cholesterol, too, can be helped by eating more, not less meat, even meats previously considered too fatty to be healthful.
Eades says sometimes a patient's cholesterol level goes up few points on the diet, but the ratio of good cholesterol -- the one that counts, says Eades -- always goes up. "I've never had anyone with a ratio that got worse," he says. The reason, he says, is that only 20 percent of cholesterol comes from diet. The rest the body makes. "When you try to restrict it, if you cut it back, then the body ends up making more."
Based on his own clinical research, Eades believes "if you can reduce insulin, you can reduce cholesterol in a matter of weeks."
Putting patients on a diet high in red meat and eggs made Eades very nervous at first, and he initially put only low-risk young people on it. "When I first started to put patients on the diet I thought I was going to get burned at the stake," he says. The results of such a diet were so conclusive as to be hard to ignore. "I'll put anyone on it now," he says. "It has never failed."
Atlanta's Eaton cautions, however, that hunter-gatherers ate meat that was naturally very lean. Today's corn-fed beef is much fatter, he says. Eating fish and lean meats will put you closer to the true hunter-gatherer diet. "Many nutritionists don't know it, but studies show cholesterol levels go down if you keep the fat content stable and you increase protein and decrease carbohydrates." Eaton says studies of Africa's !Kung San bushmen -- modern-day hunter-gatherers -- show they eat much more meat and cholesterol than doctors today recommend. Even so, they have almost no heart disease and very low blood cholesterol, about 125.
Mainstream nutritionists like Dr. Abhimanyu Garg, associate professor of internal medicine and a researcher with the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, find Audette's nutritional theories eccentric if not downright dangerous. "If the major thrust of the diet is that of carnivores, then there is a big problem," Garg says. "Not only are you going to get a lot of saturated fats that would raise cholesterol, but the excess protein would be wasted. There is a concern, certainly, that eating like this would make you gain weight."
Garg says the current nutritional recommendations, based on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration food pyramid, provide a balanced diet. "The current recommendations are good," he says. "They've been tested."
Diet is not the only area in which scientists are learning from prehistoric man. A recent story in The Wall Street Journal discussed several new books on the subject, including the best-seller The Moral Animal by psychologist Richard Wright. It discusses Darwinian psychology: studying our ancient ancestors to explain why we act the way we do today. And, as part of a similar emerging trend in Darwinian medicine -- a concept that encourages health professionals to look at humans and their illnesses as products of a long evolutionary history -- Randy Ness and George C. Williams published Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine earlier this year.
Audette, too, has embraced not just a caveman diet, but an entire lifestyle that, he says, reflects a respect for pre-technological man.
He has become a falconer, licensed by Texas Parks and Wildlife and by the U.S Department of Fish and Wildlife. Occasionally Audette uses his hawk, Arrow, and his dog, Sheika, to hunt in the fields near his home or makes a trip to East Texas during hunting season. Sheika flushes cottontails and jackrabbits from the brush, then Arrow swoops down and seizes the prey with his powerful talons. Sometimes Sheika, a long, slender creature with silky white fur, will flush a pheasant or quail. If Arrow has fed enough that day, Audette takes the game home to roast on a backyard grill for himself. But Audette doesn't expect to subsistence hunt until he fine-tunes his skills with a falcon instead of the slower hawk.
Until then, Audette and his wife of 10 years, Renee Solinger, do their hunting and gathering at the Piano Whole Foods Market. Audette converted his wife to the hunter-gatherer diet shortly after they met -- appropriately -- at the Greenville Avenue Whole Foods Market cafe. She was eating low-fat yogurt and he, of course, lectured her on nutrition.
Most women love shopping, Audette says, because of their biological imperative to do so. "Shopping is gathering," he says. "Neanderthal men hunted and the women gathered. There is a biological reason why you have so many men hunters in this country, and why women love to shop, regardless of what feminists tell you."
Solinger, a tall slender woman in her 30s, is a self-employed CPA who is busy during the early spring tax season, but can slack off during slower months. She says this arrangement perfectly suits the hunting and gathering lifestyle.
Solinger says the hunter-gatherer diet simplifies shopping. "I go shopping every day and I buy meat and vegetables," she says. "I always pay cash and go through the express lane. It's so quick."
It's easy to cook, Audette adds. "We just broil the meat long enough to singe the salmonella off the outside, chop a few vegetables and we're ready to eat."
The furniture in the airy, sunny house he shares with Renee and their son, two month-old Grayson Haak, "Gray-hawk" for short, has been "gathered" from garage sales, he explains proudly. Along one wall, an extensive entertainment center playing music by a local bluegrass band cost Audette about $75 secondhand. He and Renee rarely buy anything new, he says, a byproduct of becoming hunter-gatherers.
Audette has given up his job as a computer salesman to devote time to promoting his book and to writing a second edition, which will be out in July and will incorporate suggestions from readers, such as what to buy at the grocery store if you have no choices but processed foods.
Audette says all the elements of his life seemed to fall into place when he became a hunter-gatherer. "Other things that had nothing to do with nutrition seemed to come around -- that's a hard thing to explain to people -- I attribute a lot of what people call luck to being a hunter-gatherer."
His almost religious belief in the benefits of his diet has made Audette a one-man diet militia. He says the Food and Drug Administration's venerable food pyramid, taught to every schoolchild, is nothing more than propaganda cobbled together by food lobbyist groups. "Most of what passes for nutrition in this country is more politics than nutrition."
On a warm weekday afternoon, Arrow, Ray Audette's juvenile red-tailed hawk, with feathers just beginning to turn the color of rust, cocks his head and eyes a white mouse wiggling wildly as Audette plucks him by his pink tail from a swarm of 100 other jittery white mice inhabiting a large wire cage on Audette's patio.
Arrow grabs the mouse with his beak and clutches it in a talon. In an instant, Arrow slits the throat with his beak and a slender red necklace oozes from the white fur. The mouse continues to wiggle. It's an unappealing sight, but Audette watches it without flinching. Tiny vertebrae crack. The head is gone, leaving a bloody stump behind. Then, with a few efficient rips of flesh, Arrow devours the rest of the body.
"Humans, like hawks, are predators, like it or not," says Audette: everything about man is designed for consuming meat.
Understandably, Neander-Thin has caused a stir among some vegetarians who haunt some of the same natural food hangouts Audette does. The author's book signing at Cosmic Cup, Oak Lawn's popular vegetarian enclave, triggered a debate that stopped "just short of fisticuffs," says an amused Dipak Pollana, Cosmic Cup's owner.
Pollana says Audette has been known to walk up to people at Cosmic Cup and warn them about the sins of eating rice. "He tries to convert people like he's on a mission," says Pollana. "He's just as bad as a preacher."
"We just broil the meat long enough to singe the salmonella off the outside and we're ready to eat."
Still, Pollana, a vegetarian who eats fish, appreciates Audette's zeal and likes to have the meat-eater around. But Pollana thinks cutting out grains and potatoes and beefing up on meat is misguided. "I think his theories are ridiculous."
Though Audette's book is welcome at the Garland and Greenville Whole Foods stores, it's been banned at the Richardson store. "It's too extreme," says Suzanne Zetola, book buyer at Richardson Whole Foods Market. In March, she told Audette to retrieve copies of Neander-Thin after the store had carried the book on consignment for a week. Zetola, a vegetarian, says Audette's taste for meat doesn't offend her, but "to say that nobody should eat any grains is pretty weird."
"People seem to think there is something noble about being a vegetarian," Audette counters. "But vegetarians don't understand what the role of predators is: to prevent disease. Once they understand how the environment works, they would understand they are not saving animals by not eating them. They are causing more animals to die" through agriculture, which sterilizes the land and kills off wildlife, he says.
It was Audette's missionary zeal that got him into trouble with Borders Books & Music in the Preston Royal Shopping Center. He sold 12 copies of the book between March and April before consignment book buyer Cecelia Williams told Audette to remove them. Williams says she spotted Audette preaching to browsers about the virtues of hunting and gathering and warned him to stop. On another occasion, Williams says, Audette and his carnivorous converts gathered in the store's cafe to loudly discuss Audette theories. "We tried to nip it in the bud before customers started complaining," Williams says. "It's too bad; we've had several people come in and ask for it."
If Stone Age man had to track game miles on foot to kill with stone-tipped spears to feed himself and endure the privations of the Ice Age, pickings may be even slimmer for the modern-day Neanderthal.
"When you go to the store as a hunter/gatherer, there are whole aisles that have nothing you can eat on them," Audette says.
On a lunchtime trip to Luby's Cafeteria near his home in Garland, Audette passes up a carrot and raisin dish because it has mayonnaise in it. And the pears and strawberries are soaked in sugar-laden syrup, he points out. Finally, he orders a dry tossed salad and recommends draining the cucumber salad of its vinegar.
He scans a whole steam table full of appetizing vegetables-corn, baked potatoes, parsley potatoes, mashed potatoes, rice, green beans, green peas-all off limits. "The only thing here we can eat is the spinach and carrots," he says without a hint of remorse.
Upon reaching the meat section, Audette scans the selection for permissible meats-there are three: broiled fish, hamburger patty, and roast beef-and orders a hamburger patty and a plate of broiled fish. A woman in a hairnet behind the steam table eyes Audette warily as she serves him the fish and hamburger patty. "When you eat like I do, people always notice you," Audette says.
Then inexplicably, he scoops up three deviled eggs, which contain the dreaded mayonnaise, a processed food with such no-no's in it as soybean oil, corn syrup, modified food starches and vinegar. When the Neanderthal faux pas is pointed out, Audette is happily oblivious: "Oh, do they have mayonnaise in them?" The caveman finally admits to cheating. But he can afford to, he says; after 10 years on the diet, he knows what his body will tolerate and what it reacts violently to. The refined flour and cheese in pizza, for instance, zaps him of all his energy, he says, but "a little mayonnaise won't hurt you."
At the table, Audette waxes philosophical -- loudly -- about the virtues of hunting and gathering and points out that corn and peanuts, according to Science, a journal on scientific issues, are two of the most carcinogenic foods you can eat.
A businessman at a nearby table looks up at Audette from his plate of corn and mashed potatoes. A few minutes later, the man picks up his tray and moves his lunch to a table on the far side of the room. Audette chatters on, happily oblivious.
When the conversation turns to Haagen-dazs ice cream, Audette's eyes light up. Haagen-dazs. He seems to be savoring the words slowly in his brain. He smiles. It's obvious this is an area of struggle between Stone Age and suburban man -- one that the Neanderthal usually loses. Audette grins. "I'm only human."