If you haven’t heard of eating “paleo” yet, one might ask where an earth have you been? Living in a hole? Perhaps living in a hole would be an apt description for a paleo eater seeing as paleo can literally mean to “eat natural”. If someone was living in a hole they would likely eat to their surroundings, game meat, small poultry, eggs, fish, veggies, some fruits in summer, nuts and other seasonal fare. Although none of us are living in holes nowadays, hopefully, we can indeed learn a lot from what we consider to be a paleolithic diet without the staples of the modern world for enhancing our health, weight loss and athletic performance (1-3).
Definition of a paleolithic diet: a nutritional plan based on the presumed ancient diet of wild plants and animals that various human species habitually consumed during the Paleolithic era—a period of about 2.5 million years duration that ended around 10,000 years ago with the development of agriculture (the wider spread introduction of flours such as wheat). In common usage, such terms as the “Paleolithic diet” also refer to the actual or proposed ancestral human diet of our forefathers (1-6).
Many old school researchers have spent their days assessing what is believed to be the natural human diet, and what has caused the increase in obesity and disease onset now our food choices in the supermarket are literally limitless. The prime purveyor of such research has been Weston A price (2), a dentist who travelled the world analysing peoples diets for signs of tooth decay and the reasons for its sharp rise is his practice. He found that populations such as the inuits, masai and many others who based their diets in varying proportions animal proteins, fats, fruits and vegetables showed no signs of dental abnormalities, facial defects or a genetic predisposition to disease. Yet saw a sharp rise in such populations that were starting to adopt a diet of westernised foods containing processed flours, sugar and hydrogenated fats. Such issues interestingly disappeared when locals reverted back to their natural eating habits of non-westernised foods.
Let us take an extreme view and look at what the proposed paleo diet removes from the diet:
1. Flour and grains (such as bread, pasta, rice, cereals)
2. Sugar (processed goods, fruit juices, sauces, canned drinks)
3. Dairy (milk, cheese).
4. For some this also includes pulses such as beans and chick peas (1).
This is an extreme view, taking a lighter view we need to assess what might be the “problem” or unnecessary foods and remove them, yet with other staples use them for their strengths and advantages (such as dairy if handled well). After all no food is inherently bad, but its application must be considered and understood.
But the above list of foods are what we might consider the staple of everyone’s diet right? Bread and milk anyone? Surely it’s the right approach as the government even recommends that we consume at least a third of our dietary intake from “whole grains” such as bread, cereals and pasta with the addition of dairy for protein and calcium benefits (7). Porridge for breakfast, chicken sandwich with a fruit salad for lunch, and a homemade lamb curry with brown rice for dinner. A third of your dietary intake right there in that basic daily meal plan (one that a government nutritionist would put two thumbs up to). Well I’ve never liked many government nutritionists and you shouldn’t either.
The short answer is that all these foods are new to the human body. If you got out a tape measure and highlighted the period of time that such agriculturally derived foods have been in our diet, it will be a fraction of the time humans have existed. Many will lead you to believe that our bodies have evolved to accept these new foods, but this is simply anecdotally wrong information (for the most part, don’t shoot me yet, keep reading). The human genome takes roughly 10,000 years to change 0.01% and the widespread use of agriculturally derived flour products have been around for roughly 10,000 years (1-3).
The problem with grains is this: many contain gluten, which from my experience 80-90% of people feel better and lose more weight without. Grains are also poor in their nutritional density compared to other carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables and starchy root vegetables (3), and cause the most problems with energy levels, blood sugar regulation, brain neurotransmitter delivery, gut inflammation, immune system health and an overall feeling of well-being. Grains are the 1st food I test every client for, through simple elimination. Take them out 100% for 2 weeks, have a sandwich and then let me know how you feel.
Reading this I assume your health and fitness is important to you? Well removing any food that is an issue (as common with gluten in grains, lactose in dairy, and lectins in pulses) for starters will improve your hormone profile (testosterone, growth hormone and cortisol ). Such optimization equates to better weight loss and maximises gains in the gym.
We take our hormones for granted, but abuse them too much and the road to recovery is long once you have exhausted their capacity to work optimally. When your body is adverse to a substance such as gluten and dairy, an exposure once a month is enough to create an internal state of inflammation leading to greater weight gain and health problems (1). This means you have an inflamed intestinal lining as a result, which can lead to mal-absorption of nutrition. You want to absorb and utilise all that food and supplements you are taking right?
So if we take out all the grains, where will we get our carbs from you might ask? Well how many carbs do you need? Old body building folk lore might say that you need the complex carbs at breakfast from porridge, the brown rice with chicken at lunch, then the post workout carb load, otherwise you will not make gains and have enough energy to train. This is simply not the case, but can be the case for some. A mention of individuality is key here as some do well on starchy carbs, but from my experience with countless clients and athletes; this is not the case for many of us Brits. Yet a higher intake of protein and good fats are far more beneficial for health, performance and day long energy production. The ancestral British diet is proposed to come largely from game, small bird poultry, fish, vegetables, some fruits, nuts and seeds depending on location and season.
But with this point in mind, the high exerciser will need a greater amount of dense carbohydrates, but strategically placed. This is usually post workout in the recovery period to restore glycogen levels. But there is again another caveat with this, what type of exercise did you perform, to what volume and intensity, and for what duration, all of which will have an impact on the amount of carbohydrate re-loading required post workout.
For the classic gym trainer a heavy carb load is not necessary when largely training on a body part split. Indeed calories are important, but these can come from more beneficial calories like good fats, proteins, veggies, fruits, nuts and seeds, coconut, butter, fish, dark chocolate with the addition of some starchy carbs. Such starchy carbohydrates also don’t have to contain gluten, you can opt for rice, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, quinoa and parsnips and you can still acquire the carb load you desire but with more nutrition and less gut, immune and hormonal aggravation.
I will end on what I feel is a list of pro’s for a paleo style of eating (there is a reason there is not a list of cons):
1. More nutritional density per calorie
2. Better omega 3 to omega 6 fat ratio from fish and grass fed beef and less grain and seeds based oils
3. More soluble fibre
4. Mimics what is believed to be a more ideal human diet
5. Is less inflammatory to the gut, immune system and hormones
6. Provides more cholesterol and saturated fats leading to a greater increase in testosterone
7. More anti-oxidants, phyto-nutrients, vitamins and minerals
8. Less sugar
9. Minimise bad and processed fat intake
10. Naturally avoids artificial additives and preservatives
11. Naturally removes common problem substances such as gluten, wheat, dairy protein, lactose and lectins.
12. The brain runs better on a lower carb intake increasing mental focus and concentration
Indeed this is not a gospel hearing, many foods listed may not pose a problem to you if eaten, but knowing this you are now more aware of what the body really needs nutritionally and you can experiment with various food sources, but with a reason to do so.
Full fat dairy being a prime example. If you handle dairy well then it can be great for building muscle as it is full of growth factors. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for gluten containing grains, I have no justification for its benefit other than for variety if you can handle gluten. Experiment with doing a trial period without it, I think you will be pleasantly surprised with the outcome, especially if you have trouble staying or getting lean. I think we can agree that we are all after a lean, athletic and muscular physique, and that comes from the highest quality nutrition you can consume. Perhaps the “paleo” paradigm can show us a credible direction for the future of sports nutrition……
Ben Coomber is an Internationally Certified Sports Nutritionist (ISSN) and personal trainer working with athletes, sports enthusiasts and pursuers of optimal health, strength and leanness through his company Body Type Nutrition.
By Ben Coomber
1. Wolf, R. (2010). The Paleo Solution. (1st Ed). Victory Belt Publishing.
2. Price, W. A. (2010). Nutrition and physical degeneration. (7th Ed). California: Oxford City Press.
3. Cordain, L., Eaton, S. B., Sebastian, A., Mann, N., Lindeberg, S., Watkins, B. A., O’Keefe, J. H. & Brand-Miller, J. (2005). Origins and evolution of the western diet: Health implications for the 21st century. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 81(2):341-354.
4. Lindeberg, S. (2005). Palaeolithic diet (“stone age” diet). Scandinavian Journal of Food & Nutrition. 49(2):75–7.
5. Bryngelsson, S. & Asp, N. (2005). Popular diets, body weight and health: What is scientifically documented?. Scandinavian Journal of Food & Nutrition. 49(1) 15–20.
6. Eaton, S. B. (2000). Paleolithic vs. Modern diets – selected pathophysiological implications. European Journal of Nutrition. 39:67-70.
7. Food Standards Agency, 8 Tips for healthy Eating. (2009). Retrieved Feburary 21st, 2011 from: http://www.eatwell.gov.uk/healthydie…section/8tips/