The Paleo Diet

Emily Henderson, CSCS

Over the past few years the popularity of the Paleo diet has increased, and a lot of questions have arisen as to whether this is a beneficial lifestyle to follow.

Part of the reason for the controversy is that each leading advocate of this diet offers a slight variation to the definition, so it has become hard to answer the question What is a Paleo diet? Is it low carb? Low fat? Does it include dairy? Grains?

Before we answer that, let’s back up to the theory behind the diet. The Paleo way of eating is based on the notion that for optimal health, modern humans should eat in a way that mimics how our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate, hence the term “Paleolithic.” The Paleo logic is that evolution takes a very long time, and modern digestive systems still aren’t adapted to handle the foods that were introduced into our diets post-agricultural revolution. By following Paleo principles, it is hoped that modern humans can reduce the emergence of conditions such as obesity, heart attacks and autoimmune diseases.

The dietary tenants that the Paleo community agrees upon are that humans should be eating whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods. A priority should be placed on eating animal proteins such as meat, eggs, fish and seafood, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats including olive oil, avocado, and coconut products. Starchy carbs such as sweet potatos or yams, as well as nuts and seeds are advised to eat in moderation. The followers of a Paleo diet are encouraged to avoid foods that harm us by causing systemic inflammation and disrupting our digestive enzymes. These anti-nutrient containing foods include all processed sugars and industrial seed oils, legumes, soy, and gluten-containing grains. Some followers of the Paleo diet also avoid alcohol and dairy.

Contrary to some misconceptions, eating Paleo doesn’t necessarily mean eating a low-carbohydrate diet (that would be called a ketogenic diet). Carbohydrate consumption should support the energy levels dictated by your lifestyle. Each person’s genetic makeup is so different such that some people thrive on a low-carbohydrate approach, whereas others, especially athletes, are encouraged to support their energy needs with sources of carbohydrate such as sweet potatoes and even rice.

For many dieters, the reasoning behind limiting carbohydrate intake is that consuming sugar stimulates insulin secretion, resulting in a subsequent reduction of blood sugar and the feeling of hunger. In addition to fewer hunger pangs, many low-carb dieters report losing weight very quickly in the early stages of their diet. This weight loss occurs because without ingesting carbohydrate, the body uses its existing carbohydrate stores (i.e. glucose and glycogen) for energy. The elimination of stored carbohydrate carries with it an elimination of water, hence the weight loss. Perhaps for a sedentary individual, a meal composed of meat, vegetables and nuts is appropriate.

However, for the athlete in particular, it is important to consider function when we try to improve health. For this very reason, the optimal diet is very dependent upon the individual. Let’s use a CrossFit athlete (a community known to promote the Paleo way of eating) as an example. The programming followed by CrossFit stresses the glycolytic and phospagenic energy systems, and aerobic adaptations occur on top of these. Glycolysis (how the body produces energy for efforts lasting 30 seconds to 2 minutes) can only be fueled by carbohydrate, the phosphagen energy system (less than 30 seconds) relies on high-phosphagen foods like meat, and the aerobic system (longer duration workouts) is unique in its ability to utilize fat as energy. Therefore, it is clear that for optimal performance, the CrossFit athlete needs to have a diet that provides a moderate amount of each macronutrient: carbohydrate, protein, and fat.

And just as the CrossFit athlete differs from the endurance runner, so too is each person encouraged to take an individual approach to eating, within the general guidelines of Paleo eating. The Paleo diet dictates that you eat real food, nourish your body, and avoid toxins. But don’t forget that a diet is not one-size fits-all. Consider your own lifestyle, experiment, and then observe. Perhaps after removing all processed foods, you see the disappearance of those nagging stomach or joint aches. Or maybe you feel more balanced following these dietary guidelines just 80% of the time. Whatever the case, you may find that the optimal diet for your health lies somewhere along the lines of the Paleo spectrum.

So to put this into practice, what would a day of Paleo eating look like for an athlete?

        Eggs scrambled in some coconut oil or olive oil with sautéed vegetables
        Some fruit (bananas, strawberries, etc.)
        Coffee (yes, it’s paleo)

Post-workout (whenever this falls during the day):
        Either a small meal or shake of carbs and protein

        Large mixed-green salad with vinaigrette dressing,
        Topped with grilled chicken, dried fruit, and walnuts

        Dried fruit, jerky, or nuts

        Salmon filet
        Roasted vegetables with olive oil
        Sweet potato or rice