Here's why the Paleo diet is so damn healthy - and how it can be made even better.
"If it doesn't swim, run, or fly, or isn't green and grow in the ground, don't eat it."
T Nation readers are likely familiar with the above nutrition quote, popularized by coaches like Charles Poliquin, Christian Thibaudeau, and John Berardi, just to name a few.
Or maybe you've heard the late, great Jack Lalanne's simple dietary prescription: "If man made it, don't eat it." Cumulatively, that basically sums up the practical application side of "traditional" caveman eating.
My nutritional approach has been accurately described as a "Paleo-meets-sports nutrition" hybrid, so let's start by addressing the Paleo side first. The practical application strategy above is simple, but it's a worthy endeavor to dive a little deeper, and learn some of the details behind why the "eat what your ancestors ate" philosophy can be so effective.
Otherwise, after a day of exposure to internet health blurbs and the infinite amount of misinformation spread through various mainstream channels, you may come back asking, "But wait, aren't fruit juices, wheat breads, low-fat mayo, and cardboard, fiber-twig cereals good for you?"
Not unless you're Tony the Tiger and sponsored by Kellogg's.
Paleo in a Nutshell
Animal-based Diets are Superior to Grain or Vegetarian-based Diets
Animal proteins are considered of higher quality than grain or vegetable proteins because all the essential amino acids are present, they're present in higher qualities, and along with essential fatty acids, they're present in the proper proportions and ratios that mother-nature intended. That last point is key.
They're called essential fatty acids and essential amino acids for a reason. If we weren't meant to eat animals, these essential nutrients wouldn't be required for normal metabolic and hormonal functioning. They'd be optional, and instead we'd have essential cellulose and soy-paste requirements.
Just look at a 4 oz. piece of wild sockeye salmon:
- 24 g of protein, including all essential amino acids
- 2 g of saturated fat
- 5 g of monounsaturated fat
- 1500 mg of omega-3 fatty acids
- 425 mg of omega-6 fatty acids
Dude, you can't beat nature.
Now, a diet with a lot of vegetables is healthy – I'm not that far off my rocker – but that does NOT make vegetarian diets the healthiest. As vegetarians try to do the whole food-combining thing to make up for the essential nutrients they could just be getting from animal foods, they can end up with a diet that's a metabolic disaster: inadequate protein intake, incomplete amino acid profiles, essential fatty acid imbalances, too much sugar and refined flour, too many carbs combined with too much dietary fat, too many phytoestrogenic compounds from soy substitutes...I could go on.
And when the rubber hits the road, if "veggie-ism" is so damn awesome, why are such a large percentage of vegetarians overweight and/or sickly looking?
Granted, most T NATION readers aren't pining to eat a vegetarian diet, but now you have a logical argument for that crackpot relative who religiously swears vegetarian-based diets are the healthiest approach on the planet, and that eating meat will kill you.
Eliminate Sugar / Concentrated Sources of Fructose
Given the choice, I'd put the championship belt around concentrated sources of fructose as the worst compound in modern diets. If you did nothing other than cut out sugar and high fructose corn syrup from your diet, you'd likely end up with a decent physique. But that crap is everywhere, and in everything.
According to numerous studies, fructose is the main culprit in table sugar that causes insulin resistance – fructose y'all,not my poor glucose/starch compounds that get unfairly lumped into the same category by way of the "All Carbs Are Evil Campaign."
In an article from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the metabolism of fructose was further investigated. The report indicated that fructose, compared with glucose, is preferentially metabolized to fat in your liver. In animal models, fructose produced the following responses: insulin resistance, impaired glucose tolerance, high insulin levels, high triglycerides, and hypertension.
If fructose is the "Worst Modern Food Champ" then trans fats are the undisputed number one contender. These compounds are essentially vegetable oils that have had a hydrogen molecule added to their chemical structure through a process called hydrogenation. This makes them more solid in structure and extends shelf life – both great things if you're a processed snack food manufacturer.
However, this chemical alteration is what also makes them so problematic if you're a health-enthusiast. Because trans fats are basically unnatural, mutated fats, they raise total and bad cholesterol (LDL), elevate C-reactive protein, lower good cholesterol (HDL), and as such, are a major risk factor for coronary artery disease.
And for the "I just want to get shredded" crowd? Well, trans fats have been shown to inhibit glucose disposal, promote insulin resistance, and induce abdominal obesity.(1)
So if you see trans fats or hydrogenated oils, do as Iron Maiden said to do, "Run to the hills, run for your lives."
Improve Your Omega-6: Omega-3 Balance
The optimum omega-6 to omega-3 ratios for health generally ranges between 1:1 to 4:1. This is the ratio likely present before modern food processing, when the bulk of dietary fats came from wild animal meats and fish.
With the addition of highly processed vegetable oils as a dietary staple, the average American dietary profile has skyrocketed to a ratio of 10/15:1, with numbers as high as 40:1. This unnaturally high ratio can lead to whole body inflammation, aggravate autoimmune diseases, and increase risk for heart disease and certain forms of cancer.
At the same time that vegetable oils and processed foods have been increased, average omega-3 intake has decreased. Wild meats and fish are naturally high in omega-3's but have been replaced in most people's modern diets by domesticated, corn and grain-fed versions that are higher in omega-6.
Omega-3's have anti-inflammatory properties, improve insulin sensitivity, reduce blood triglycerides, dilate blood vessels, and reduce overall disease risk factors.
I realize this takes some faith, but it's not the natural saturated or monounsaturated fats in animal meats that are killing us, it's the abnormally high omega-6 fatty acids from vegetables oils (including the trans fat mutation varieties).
Think about it – natural fats that we evolved on versus modern fats that we process. If I'm in Vegas, I'm putting money down on the natural fats, even with the poor odds influenced by the dominant-yet-archaic, so-called health authorities.
Problem is, medical advice and modern nutrition curriculum are highly influenced by the food processing industries; thus what you normally hear is that saturated fats from animals are bad and polyunsaturated fats from vegetable oils are good. It's a joke, except the joke's on us. Eat animals not processed oils.
Eliminate Gluten-containing Foods, Cereal Grains, and Legumes
Most of the problems associated with cereal grains have nothing to do with the actual starch content of the grain. Glucose is one of our oldest evolutionary fuels; unless you've made yourself insulin resistant by being fat, eating too much fructose, eating too many omega 6's, not eating enough omega 3's, or not strength training on a consistent basis, your body can handle glucose polymers from starch. In a properly functioning active and athletic body, your body stores normal amounts of glucose as muscle glycogen.
The main problem with modern cereal grains is the compounds that come along with the actual starch. For example, gluten is not a carbohydrate – it's a protein found in cereal grains such as wheat, rye, and barley, and it's a highly problematic food for many people.
Now, we all might not have full-blown gluten allergies where we're toppled over with Celiac's disease, a debilitating condition linked to wheat/gluten consumption where the immune system attacks and destroys cells in the intestine, but many of us may have gluten sensitivity. One new study even questions whether it's safe for anyone to eat wheat.(2)
Unfortunately, gluten-free has now become a marketing tool associated with the holier-than-thou holistic crowds, but removing gluten can be a beneficial step for overall digestive health, physical performance (reduced symptoms of lethargy), and appearance (reduced abdominal bloating).
My suggestion is to cut out gluten for a few weeks and see how you respond. It may do wonders for you, it may do nothing, but you'll never know until you try.
Other detrimental compounds in modern cereal grains are what are collectively referred to in Paleo nutrition as "anti-nutrients."
Phytic acid is the storage form of phosphorous in plants, and is typically located in the bran or seeds. Humans can't digest phytic acid because we lack the necessary digestive enzyme phytase.
Strike one against phytase is that it can cause digestive abnormalities. Strike two is that it acts as a chelator of minerals, which impairs proper absorption of those minerals such as zinc and iron. Strike three is that the foods generally containing phytic acid have the consistency and taste of cardboard. As Loren Cordain said, "Cereal grains are literally best left for the birds."
Legumes and cereal grains also contain a compound called lectin. Lectins are sugar-binding proteins that plants have evolved to ward off insect predators – I'd say that's a good clue that they're not meant to be consumed in large quantities by humans.
What are some problems associated with lectins? How about irritation and damage to intestines, over-secretion of mucus in the intestines, reduced absorption of nutrients, diarrhea, nausea, and bloating?(3)
However, you might recall that rice – technically a cereal grain – is a mainstay in my dietary recommendations. Here's the deal, rice has always been gluten-free, and phytic acid and lectin are removed in the rice milling and cooking processes. What you're left with is a mixture of pure amylopectin and amylose starches – compounds your body can handle just fine if you're not insulin resistant.
Cut Dairy in Cutting Phases
Arnold said, "Milk is for babies."
To be quite honest, dairy is such a controversial topic (among nutritional researchers, coaches, athletes, bodybuilders, and physique enthusiasts alike) and there are so many issues to discuss (acid-alkaline balance, insulin index, isolated milk proteins versus dairy foods, inclusion in bulking phases versus exclusion in cutting phases, etc.), it warrants a completely separate article. But I don't want to keep you hanging.
I'm a fat loss guy, and that's been 99% of my clientele over the last 10 years. Bulking may be a different story, but my short answer is that whole dairy foods (milk, cheese, cream, yogurt, etc.) should be eliminated during a cutting phase.
- Take that grass-fed cow, cut its frickin' head off, and eat it – and don't feel bad about it either. That's what we're meant to do. Our mouths have incisors for an evolutionary reason, which is to tear flesh from the bone, not to separate the marshmallows from the cereal bits in Lucky Charms. Nature is savage – we're savage creatures. The further we move away from that, and eat fake factory foods to try to compensate, the sicker and fatter we become.
- Eliminate almost all processed foods. Most processed foods are just a random combination of the following six ingredients: (1) Sugar (and/or high fructose corn syrup), (2) Trans-fats/hydrogenated oil, (3) High omega-6 vegetable oils, (4) wheat or flour-based starch, (5) refined salt, (6) artificial ingredients/sweeteners. None of which are good for you.
- Make lean animal protein the foundation of your diet. A range for strength training athletes is 0.8g-2.0g/lb of lean body mass, depending on the composition of the rest of the diet.
- Eliminate concentrated sources of fructose from the diet. Ditch the high fructose corn syrup, any processed food with fructose as a sweetener, sugar (which is 1 molecule of fructose + 1 molecule of glucose), fruit juice/smoothies, and dried fruit. I'm personally not a huge fan of fruit, but 1-2 pieces of whole, unaltered fruit a day shouldn't be problematic. Just don't start inhaling bananas by the bushel. At that point, fructose adds up.
- Eliminate transfats/hydrogenated oils.
- Reduce omega-6 consumption by eliminating vegetable oils.
- Increase omega-3 consumption through wild fish, grass-fed and finishd beef, and Flameout®.
- Eliminate gluten-containing grains such as wheat, rye, and barley.
- While you're at it, eliminate most other cereal grains, including those damn, overrated whole grain products (breads and cereals).
- Eliminate dairy foods while cutting (milk, cream, cheese, yogurt). Isolated milk proteins are cool.
Don't Just Call Me a Paleo Guy!
As you can see, I think there are many great principles a muscle-head, strength-seeker, or mirror-gazer can take from Paleo-style diets. But I don't want to leave you with the false impression that I'm a true "Paleo-guy." I definitely recommend applying certain Paleo principles, but my overall recommendations are drastically different.
Starches like rice and potatoes are certainly not Paleo foods, but along with lean protein they make up the foundation of my plan for athletes as anaerobic fuel and for creating anabolism.
You'll never convince me that a 300-pound, obese, insulin resistant, sedentary office worker who just wants to be able to see his wee-wee again should be eating the same thing as a 185-pound, ripped, insulin sensitive, athletic alpha male trying to reach peak athletic or physical conditioning, and can't even keep his wee-wee in his pants for more than five minutes.
Yet that's what you have to believe if you buy into the dogmatic adherence to a one-size-fits-all "system." That may be fine for the programs geared towards the commercial masses, but T-dudes, because you're exposed to some of the greatest strength training minds on a daily basis – you're way more informed and smarter than that.
To me, the true value of a Paleo diet for an anaerobic athlete is more about what the diet removes from an average person's plan, rather than the overall structure or macronutrient ratios of the plan itself. Why? Because 100% Paleo eating just doesn't account for variances in activity levels, individual metabolic factors, and the differences between average and elite/extreme physique or performance goals.
Physician and nutrition researcher Kurt G. Harris refers to certain modern food compounds as the Neolithic agents of disease, which I think is a very accurate description. As discussed earlier, modern foods like concentrated fructose/sugar, high omega-6 vegetable oils, trans-fats, and gluten wreak havoc on our systems, body composition, and disease risk factors. Removing those agents is a valuable health step for everyone – overweight, lean, sedentary, athlete, office worker, iron warrior, nun, porn star, and everyone in between.
But, and I mean a big ol' beautiful Kardashian Butt...
To quote Kurt G. Harris again, "Glucose is a necessary internal fuel source and metabolite and it's also a food and the building block of foods that have the longest evolutionary history of any food that mammals use."
(Confused yet? Stay with me. Remember, you're in good hands – I'm half-Japanese, so I'm all about efficiency.)
Glucose is one of the oldest evolutionary fuels and a healthy body knows how to process and use it, and an active athlete should be treated differently than a sick diabetic.
Due to a lack of nutrition and physiology knowledge, always rushing to extremes, a cultural tendencies to categorize and demonize (think back to the low-fat era where beneficial fish oils, EFA's, and natural monounsaturated fats were lumped into the same category as trans-fats and hydrogenated oils), and simple ignorance, but several valuable bodybuilding/physique enhancing foods – namely non-fructose, non-gluten containing starchy carbs – have been washed away in the Paleo maelstrom.
I don't recommend pure Paleo eating just like I'm not recommending pure sports nutrition eating – I'm recommending a well-researched and informed blend.
I want you to understand why I think glucose polymers can be beneficial whereas concentrated sources of fructose can be disastrous, why saturated fats from natural animal sources can be better than polyunsaturated fats from processed vegetable sources, why pure amylopectin starch is less problematic than starch containing gluten or lectins, and why a Y2K landing strip is better than a 70's Wolf Bush.
Typical Fat Guy Transformation
Lets examine a typical scenario why all carbs have been lumped into one category and demonized within our industry.
Fat guy is following a typical American diet, 50% sugar, tons of trans-fats, omega-6's, and gluten. When he does eat "healthy," it's usually a wheat bread sandwich with low fat mayo and cheese. Fat guy is tired of being fat, sick, and feeling like crap, and is finally motivated enough to make some changes. Somehow he comes across Paleo/caveman-style dietary recommendations.
Fat guy implements the plan to the letter, loses a ton of weight, gets healthier, etc., all-in-all he does a great job. Awesome. But now fat guy has a religious-like devotion to the "system." He can't see anything, even scientifically researched and anecdotally proven principles, outside of the system. All carbs, regardless of the source, are the enemy. Pure glucose polymers from rice or potatoes are no different from sugar, or gluten-containing wheat. After all, HE lost a ton of weight on a low-carb/Paleo diet.
What fat guy doesn't realize is that commercialized diet plans and "systems" can't go into the subtleties of why dietary recommendations for fat, sedentary guys should be different from active athletes because:
- Programs that are going to be a commercial success generally have to be a one-size-fits all plan. This works for everyone, everywhere system dramatically expands your potential market.
- The average reader doesn't want, or can't comprehend the detailed science necessary to individualize plans.
- Many lab rats and writers just don't know, don't show, or don't care what's going on in the REAL training hood, G.
But deep down, fat guy still knows he's not exactly where he wants to be. He's way better off than he was, but he's still soft, lacks shape/definition, maybe still has that layer of belly flab. He knows he wants to make improvements, but he's rigidly stuck in a system, a system that may very well be inhibiting his progress.
Never mind that he's in a completely different space now. He's no longer fat guy, he's active athletic guy, and targeted sports nutrition principles may actually be relevant and beneficial to him now. By losing weight and consistently strength training, he's dramatically improved his insulin sensitivity. A few carbs may help him build muscle, tighten up, boost metabolism, raise thyroid/leptin output, improve the free Testosterone/cortisol ratio, improve his body, and even LOSE body fat.
But he still has fat guy psychology. He has that fear, the "I don't want to go back to being a fat guy because of carbs" fear.
Hey, I've been there. Along with researching this stuff, I've followed the plans myself. I've followed the typical American diet, the strict Paleo diet, my current dietary recommendations, and everything in between. I've lived the practical side of it too, and the most important lesson is this – you can't get caught up in a formalized, one-size-fits-all system if you expect to find what works best for you, your current athletic state, and your current goals.
Next up – providing this first article meets with your approval – we're going to talk about the sports nutrition side of the Paleo-meets-sports nutrition coin. So until next time, may all your meals, both in the kitchen and in the bedroom, be pleasurable....
- Kavanagh et al, Trans fat diet induces abdominal obesity and changes in insulin sensitivity in monkeys. Obesity 2007 Jul;15(7):1675-84.
- Bernardo D et al, Is gliadin really safe for non-coeliac individuals? Production of interleukin 15 in biopsy culture from non-coeliac individuals challenged with gliadin peptides. Gut 56 (6): 889-90.
- Miyake K et al, Lectin-Based Food Poisoning: A New Mechanism of Protein Toxicity. PLoS ONE 2 (1): e687.