I wrote this up for a Twitter follower, galclimber, that asked my opinion on going Paleo. (That is, trying out the Paleo diet.) She mentions that her friends are telling her she needs to go paleo to increase her climbing performance, and also thinks her current diet is somehow attributing to recurring injuries. Is there any truth to that?
First off, let me warn you that I will be using the word diet interchangeably to mean similar but different things:
- Diet – As in, your general, daily eating habits: how, what, when, and why you eat the things you do.
- Diet – As in, a structured plan that allows some things, restricts others, and may even suggest the how and the when. These are usually temporary and used to lose weight quickly (though, this is not the intent of paleo).
What is the Paleo diet?
The Paleo Diet is a….diet….that is modeled after the….diet….of men and women living in the Paleolithic time period of earth. Theorists and evolutionary dieticians believe that our current digestive system has not yet had enough time to evolve; and therefore, we should only eat food that was present at the time when our stomachs matched our food source.
Simply put: we should only be eating food as it existed during the Paleolithic era because our stomachs haven’t evolved to digest foods in modern/Western diets. (Or so they say.)
Foods found in their raw state, as they would be in nature and unprocessed. This includes meats, eggs, fruits, vegetables, and nuts. (This is an extremely generalized, simplified list.)
Unfriendly Paleo Foods
Just because you may find a food source in its raw, unprocessed state, doesn’t mean it’s paleo. Raw foods that are off-limits: corn, potatoes, rice, and probably some more I can’t think of right now. In general, carbohydrates (other than fruits and veggies), grains, and seeds are THE DEVIL!!
Furthermore, if the contradictory food lists weren’t confusing enough, it’s near impossible to define what is actually considered paleo anymore. Paleo now has tons of spin-offs, similar to vegetarianism: ovo vegetarians, lacto vegetarians, and ovo-lacto vegetarians. There are people that follow a paleo diet but consider rice to be ok (and so on and so forth).
On top of that, white potatoes are bad but sweet potatoes are good; almond milk is ok because it’s just almond powder and water but yet, they still must be processed; dairy milk is usually considered bad, but sometimes it’s ok in moderation, under the right conditions (like raw milk); nuts are good but seeds are bad (aren’t nuts seeds? Aren’t green beans vegetables that contain seeds?). Paleo man may have been cannibalistic; should we as well?
When money gets involved, the term is used even more loosely. One of the original paleo creators/researchers even bent the knee when he saw how much money could be had! “Milk is bad; processed foods are bad; you’re guaranteed to get cancer; you’ll die early. Oh wait!! I can get rich slangin’ supplements to people that just want a magic pill?!?! I mean, ‘yeah, those things are ok; I guess you can have them.'” Primal Fuel
Shit, I’ve been watching the paleo craze since it started and even tried it for 6 months, and I don’t even know what the heck is or isn’t considered paleo. Most I can tell is that everyone is on the paleo diet; they just define it differently than anyone/everyone else, much like “eating clean”. Don’t even get me started on that one.
The Common Sense of Paleo
Hopefully by now, you can tell I’m not a fan of the paleo diet, or at least the way it’s touted, marketed, and idolized by its cult-like followers. But it does do a lot of things right!
If you are overweight and recognize that your eating habits are far from “good”, getting away from processed carbs, frozen meals, and junk food is probably a good idea. Eating more lean meats (that were not first battered and deep fried), fresh fruit, and fresh veggies is a wonderful idea! The thought of getting off the couch is even better!
If you’re a generally active person but still have some unwanted flub, perhaps you should try eating fewer carbs, or perhaps counterintuitive, more dietary fat.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with adding more, natural food to your diet.
But it’s not the ONLY way you ‘have’ to eat!
Is Paleo a True Performance Enhancing Diet?
We are finally getting around to answering part of the original question. One claim the paleo diet makes is that it is guaranteed to increase your physical performance, regardless of your starting point. Sure, if you’re the guy in my previous example that sits on the couch after work and on the weekends and binges on expired Twinkies, absolutely your performance will increase. However, these claims get much, much, much more anecdotal as someon’e starting point of current physical performance increases (prior to switching to a paleo diet).
I know nothing of “galclimber” other than she looks fit and likely climbs a lot given her name and some mutual twitter friends. My guess is that her starting point is not the same as Blimpie the Couch Surfer. Her performance increases are not guaranteed just by switching.
Carbohydrates: Good or Evil?
(For the rest of this post, when I say ‘carbs’, I’m talking about starchy and/or processed carbs, not fruits and veggies.)
People that say they are evil will suggest things like unused carbohydrates will turn into fat (of which, there is no biological process that does this), grains will cause gut health issues, gluten is horrible for everyone for everything, starchy carbohydrates have no purpose in the human body, your hormonal system will fly off the handle, and that the glycemic index actually means something. (I’m over exagerating a little on some of these but only kinda sorta.)
I can agree that we, as a nation, eat too many starchy carbs, but they should not be villainized. One of my most favorite posts that I’ve written is: The Real Reason Carbohydrates Make You Fat. (Definitely read this.) Carbohydrates do have a place in our body, especially anaerobic athletes (such as climbers). Anaerobic athletes primarily rely on the glycotic energy system, utilized by the body for bouts of all-out exertion lasting between 30 sec. and up to 2 min. The fuel source for the glycotic engergy system is, you guessed it, blood glucose, aka sugar aka carbs!
Sure, the human body is the most adaptive organism on the planet, so there are ways of getting around on a keto-diet, but when we’re talking performance, doesn’t it make sense to give the body what it needs in order for it to perform more efficiently? Read: “better”. Depending on “galclimber’s” current performance deficiency, removing additional carbs may make matters even worse!
So, do we need the 400+ grams of sugar a lot of people eat daily? Probably not. But we do need some. And it probably doesn’t matter where it comes from as much as the glycemic index makes you think. The glycemic index was created in a lab, not the human body. The glycemic index was created using isolated carbohydrate sources in a lab, not in a human body where we eat varying amounts fats, proteins, vitamins, and mineral in conjuction with our carbohydrates during our meals. You see the difference?
Paleo Diet and Injury Prevention and/or Resolution
To my knowledge, people touting the paleo diet haven’t made any claims to this, at least not the large publications or popular promoters. In fact, I don’t know of any diets that claim this unless we’re talking about internal health disorders such as gluten and/or lactose intolerances, SCD, or GAPS.
“galclimber’s” original question mentioned specifically “loose scapula and weak wrists”. As far as I know, no diet will change that, but a healthy dose of educated weight training would.
Paleo Diet vs. “Natural Diet”
I don’t know if anyone bigger, smarter, and more popular than me has already coined the phrase “natural diet”, but that’s what I just came up with to describe how try to eat a majority of the time.
Like the paleo diet, I try steer clear from processed foods and excessive carbs as much as I can, but I don’t completely avoid them, demonize them, or even try to dissuade others from eating them. In fact, I rely on carbohydrates to fix my psychological state at times. At others, I can just sense when my body is telling me I need/it’s ok to eat 2 cups of white rice in one sitting.
A majority of my diet consists of meat dietary fat, and rice (one of the perks of dating an Asian chick). I try to eat at least 2-3 different fruits each day. I don’t rely on a lot of pre-mixed seasonings or box food and prefer natural herbs and spices. I rarely see the inner-isles of a grocery store, sticking mainly to the perimeter where real food lies.
Common sense, right?
All that being said, I’ve created a metabolically flexible system where I can [physiologically] afford to eat out 2-4 times per week or binge on an entire cake or eat a box of mac ‘n cheese (like I did yesterday) and not encounter any adverse effects. I do, do all of those things nearly every week.
Metabolic Flexibility is the body’s ability to choose the correct, available fuel source given the metabolic stress on your system at any given time, i.e. burns fat while you’re sitting at your desk and burns glucose while exercising. For an extremely more in-depth look at metabolic flexibility you’ll have to take a look at leading researcher and mentor Mike T. Nelson’s website – Extreme Human Performance.
If you’re following a strict paleo approach in which you keep carb intake extremely low, you’re actually making your body inflexible. It will become extremely efficient at burning fat and utilizing what few grams of sugar it can suck out of your food, but if you were to ever fall off the bandwagon, it’s reasonable to believe you would blow up and look chunky for a day or two. You’d then use that experience as justification, proving to yourself and to the world (in your mind) that carbs are evile (said phonetically). Rather, your body is doing its job based on the adaptation YOU forced upon it.
You tell me, what sounds better: trying to adhere to an undefined, yet strict diet regimine that may or may not give you the results you want, or follow a common sense approach that allows you to eat smart when you can and have a lot of freedom to enjoy food you love?
Tips for Trying the Paleo Diet
Just as I, and millions of others, have proven that the paleo diet doesn’t always work on a case-by-case basis, millions more have proven that it does work on a case-by-case basis.
As I have said, the pursuit of a natural diet lifestyle or even a paleo lifestyle is a great thing for everyone, provided you find what works for you. And that’s the key: for you.
So if you want to make a change in your eating habits, I support you. I do not support you flipping a 180 overnight though. These steps must be taken logically and incremently. Otherwise, you’re just setting yourself up for failure.
Gradually reduce the number of carbs you eat during the week: Don’t change anything else. Don’t even try to change the “type” of carbs you eat during the week. Just try to eat less of them. See how you feel. See how you look. If you make a mistake one day, don’t dwell on it. Also, don’t try to make up for it by eating doubly less the next day. Just accept it, and move on with your original plan.
Gradually eat more fruits and veggies: Maybe you can do this one concurrently with the first step, but I still like to keep them separate for people needing to take baby-baby steps. Once you’ve gotten used to a lower intake of starchy carbs, start adding in fruits and veggies. I find a lot wrong with the food guide pyramid (or whatever the heck it is these days), but I do like their generous helping and fruits and veggies. Find the ones you like, prepared the way you like, and stick to ’em. It’ll make the next step much easier.
Gradually change your source of carbohydrates: Until now, I haven’t mentioned anything about giving up your favorite bagel joint or getting rid of your Wonder Bread sammiches. But by this time, you should be noticing some physical changes as well as reduced cravings and/or dependence on carbs anyways. This step is definitely more psychological than physiological. Don’t freak out because I want you to skip your Frosted Flakes in the morning and choose rolled oats and a banana instead. You won’t die if you have to choose rice over pasta once or twice a week. You’re still getting starchy carbs, just not in the same way you were before. And again, just remember, this step is easy because you’ve already mastered the previous two.
Gradually remove additional processed foods and going out when optional or simply because it’s convenient (The Natural Diet): This is the tricky part. This requires cooking ability and the common sense to look at whole meals, rather than just carbohydrates. This is getting rid of the rolled oats and having eggs and avocado for breakfast. This is making educated choices when you do need to go to a restaurant or choosing one that is friendly to your needs. Luckily for you, if you’ve made it this far, you’ve made tremendous strides already. You’re well on your way to making this your lifestyle. And when it’s your lifestyle, you’ll do what you need to figure it out. You’ll hit blogs *cough* mine *cough*, Google, social media, whatever to gain the knowledge you need to keep this going.
And then finally….
PALEO!!11!1!: Remove the rest of starchy carbs from your diet. Increase dietary fats. Increase protein. Increase fruit. Increase vegetables. See what everyone is going crazy over!!
And then when you realize there’s no difference in your appearance or your performance between “the natural diet” and the paleo diet, go back to The Natural. Your body will be more flexible. Your life will be more flexible. And I don’t have to read your stupid posts on social media about how much you want a french fry but you’re worried that it’s going to make you fat overnight.