NEW YORK CITY — Michele Knaub had a gut feeling the paleo diet was the right choice for her.
"You know when you read something and a million light bulbs go on," said Knaub, 42, a Carroll Gardens resident and software project manager, of the moment in 2010 when she first began to research the paleo diet, where dieters mimic the regimen of their prehistoric ancestors.
"I had heard a lot about it and when I read about it, it instinctively made sense," she said.
Now two and half years later, Knaub chomps on a diet that is mostly based on plants, meat and fish, and outlaws food made convenient by the agricultural revolution, such as wheat and dairy.
The payoff she claims is better sleep, a sharper focus and the energy to keep a regular exercise routine.
Despite New York City having absolutely no resemblance to a Neanderthal's world, health conscious city dwellers have embraced the caveman dietary trend, along with other crazes such as the raw food diet, gluten-free living or cutting out animal products altogether for a vegan lifestyle.
"I think we are going to see variations of all these diets in the coming years," said clinical nutritionist and food coach Dana James, speculating on which eating fads to expect in 2013.
James keeps to a mostly paleo diet (which is also a gluten-free affair) with a focus on raw foods, while sticking to a 90:10 rule — allowing herself to cheat 10 percent of the time, and adhere to the diet 90 percent of the time.
"If you were to follow these for the rest of your life you will be missing out," she said.
Sarma Melngailis, 40, who started Pure Food and Wine, a vegan raw food restaurant in Gramercy, nine years ago, eats mostly raw — a generally vegan regime where nothing is cooked, only heated to a maximum of 118 degrees.
With no cooking, the diet typically eliminates meat, dairy and wheat, although some people on the diet consume raw milk and certain uncooked meats.
Melngailis, who went from working on Wall Street to a culinary career, intended only to give the diet a trial after a friend convinced her.
"I thought it was a two week experience and half way through I realized I never wanted to go back," she said.
With whatever diet New Yorkers try for 2013, nutritionists advise that they be organized and educated so that each body gets all the different nutrients it needs.
“The benefit is you stay in touch with your food supply and you are more active in the decisions," said Lisa Cohn, the owner and founder of Park Avenue Nutrition, which overseas the diets of thousands of New Yorkers.
Knaub said after going paleo she simply did a cupboard sweep, eliminating anything in her house that didn't adhere to the diet.
Cohn also advises spending the time to buy groceries each week and eating more meals at home.
"You can't make up for breakfast at dinner and you can't make up for yesterday today," she said.
The Paleo Diet
If cavemen (or women) didn't eat it, then you don't either, is the basic philosophy of the paleo diet.
"It is based on eating the foods that have essentially been a part of the human diet for 3.5 million years," said Dr. Grant Macaulay, an Upper East Side doctor and an advocate of the paleo lifestyle.
Humans lack the right internal enzymes to process foods that were created during the agricultural revolution, Macaulay said.
However, this rules out many foods that have historically — but not prehistorically — been considered healthy like dairy, grains and legumes along with the usual suspects of refined sugar, salt and processed oils including vegetable oil.
"For me, I started eating a breakfast that was the same sort of meal as lunch and dinner — some sort of protein like steak, eggs or fish and mostly vegetables," said Macaulay, of his own switch to the caveman diet six years ago. Roots and nuts are other foods allowed by the paleo diet.
Despite its simplistic philosophy, nutritionist Dana James warns against skewing the nature of the paleo diet away from its plant-based origins and relying on meat.
"The paleo, if done right, is a plant-based diet with lean, gamey, grass-fed, wild meat, and fish," she said, identifying bison and venison as perfect paleo cuts.
The initial withdrawal from carbohydrates and sugars may be a shock for some.
"We get comfort from carbohydrate-based food — who doesn't want a bowl of pasta?" asked James.
For Knaub and her paleo diet, the occasional square of dark chocolate takes the edge off a yearning for sweets.
"The carb cravings were taken care of in 30 days… but I never truly got over the sugar cravings," she said.
The Raw Food Diet
More than just crunching on celery sticks, the mostly plant-based diet is consumed raw or heated to a temperature of less than about 118 degrees, according to nutritionists.
"It is a low-carb diet with loads of salad," said James, noting that keeping away from cooked foods eliminates dairy and grains. Both require heat — wheat is baked into bread and modern day milk is heated to prolong its life.
Melngailis said that some on the raw-food diet allow themselves to eat both raw meat and raw milk.
James and other nutritionists said that the theory behind eating raw keeps the food's original enzymes compatible with your body's digestive system.
"The natural enzymes enable you to digest your food more, plus on a vibrancy level they are more energizing," James said.
While raw food restaurants work hard to creatively serve tasty uncooked food, nutritionist and personal trainer Mary Jane Detroyer said many underestimate how much effort the diet takes.
"People who eat this way and stick with it are very dedicated," she said. "It is a very time-intensive way of eating."
Detroyer said would-be raw food dieters should expect to spend more time grocery shopping and more time preparing food at home.
Even increasing the amount of uncooked grub into meals can be a plus, according to dietician Lisa Cohn.
Supermarkets are awash with products catering to this diet trend.
While gluten-free eating has been predominantly for those with allergies and intolerances, some nutritionists see a benefit for many in reducing gluten — a protein found in wheat products like bread, beer and pasta.
"It is very easy to cut out a whole group of food," said East Village nutritionist of 15 years Rochelle Sirota.
She noted that a gluten-free diet directs eaters away from the convenient pizza snack or a sweet wheat-laden bakery treat.
After 10 years in New York's nutrition business, James estimates that 50 percent of residents could have at least a gluten sensitivity, but snacking up on pseudo-wheat products just because they scream "gluten-free" isn't the answer.
"It is a step in the right direction if you put veggies into your mouth," James said.
Detroyer said most people who claim to be on the diet are still consuming products with hidden amounts of the protein — such as soy sauce.
"To be truly gluten-free you have to be really, really careful," she said.
The Vegan Diet
While bypassing animal products may be a political statement, nutritionists say it can also be a declaration for your health.
"I think this is very positive as long as someone knows what they are doing," said Detroyer, noting that any increase in fruits and vegetables is beneficial. Without meat as a source of protein, Detroyer suggested legumes and soy as vegan alternatives.
"Most animal flesh has saturated fat in it and it is not good for your heart," she said. Eating too much protein from animals can also create acidity in the body, which can cause bone problems, Detroyer said.
Like gluten-free products that imitate wheat snacks, Detroyer warned against delving into pretend meat such as veggie bacon or sausages.
"If people want to go vegan they need to eat whole [unprocessed] foods," she said.
WHERE TO DINE WHILE YOU'RE DIETING
The menu at this two-story establishment that opened in September 2012 caters to the paleo dieter by using unprocessed foods, putting a stronger focus on vegetables than meat and staying gluten and dairy-free. While entrées such as rotisserie chicken with an organic and coconut sugar and sea brine might appear tasty but normal, Hu Kitchen's trademarked "Mashbar" provides for a paleo alternative to the classic sundae dessert with banana, organic house made cashew cream, organic goji berry, organic grain-free nut & seed granola.
When ordered right, most restaurants in the city do provide a basic meal of protein and vegetables suitable for sticking with the paleo diet. With its grass-fed beef free from antibiotics or hormones, Korean BBQ joint Takashi can be an ideal candidate for the prehistoric dinner, according to Knaub, who has been on the diet for two and a half years. Knaub suggested ordering the fresh scallion salad and Kalbi (short rib), shio-tan (tongue), hatsu (heart) or kimo (liver).
Raw Food Diet
The founders of this entirely plant-based restaurant helped blaze a trail for the concept of raw-food dining in New York when it opened in 2004. With menu items such as zucchini and local heirloom tomato lasagna, Pure Food and Wine will leave you wondering how a tasty plate was prepared at less than 118 degrees. Pair this with something from its decadent and dairy-free smoothie menu (with coconut, almond or soy milk) for a filling meal.
The Toronto-based restaurant group was brought to New York in July by a city-based heart surgeon who was won over by the vegan and raw dishes such as sprouted buckwheat and flax seed crust pizza and fudge brownie sundae. All the preparation for the food, which is also sugar and gluten-free, is done at the open kitchen restaurant with seating for 60.
From the pizza to the beers to the bread sticks, Risotteria claims to be New York's only completely gluten-free dining experience, reducing the chance of cross contamination from gluten in its kitchen. The 20-seat restaurant was ahead of the gluten-free curve when it opened its doors in 2000 and now offers menu items such as Panini grilled sandwiches made from Risotteria's own bread and a selection of gluten-free baked goods for dessert.
5 Napkin Burger, Hell's Kitchen, Upper West Side, Union Square and Astoria, Queens.
With four locations around the city, the ever-expanding empire of 5 Napkin Burger is inclusive of the gluten intolerant. With a gluten-free bun, gluten-free beer and a separate fryer to minimize cross-contamination, this food joint is a surprising oasis in the bread-centric world of beef patties. Pick any type of burger, such as the Original 5 Napkin Burger with ground beef, caramelized onions, Gruyere cheese and rosemary aioli, and ask for the gluten-free bun or have it wrapped in lettuce.
After the initial Bliss Cafe opened a vegetarian restaurant on Bedford Avenue in 1998, the business was able to recently expand to a completely vegan Bedford location. The new spot offers up meals such as oyster mushroom ceviche with citrus, chilis and cilantro or a dessert of chocolate mouse made with cashew cream.
Angelica Kitchen, 300 E. 12th St., East Village
With New York's high turnover of restaurants, a vegan eatery sticking around since 1976 should give clout to its menu. Angelica Kitchen maintains direct relationships with local farmers and aims to serve its ingredients within 48 hours of harvest. Be sure to sample from its menu specials that change daily with offerings of entrées, salads, soups and dessert.