04 Jun 2014
In a lot of science journalism, there is a lot of jumping to conclusions without really digging into the science. This week we saw headlines screaming about how diet soda can help you lose weight! So you should start drinking diet soda to beat those sugar cravings, right?
Not so fast my friend. There are a few things wrong with this study.
- The study only lasted 12 weeks, which is fairly short in terms of weight loss. Quite frankly, I don’t care how much weight you can lose in 3 months, I care how much weight you can lose in 3 years. Speaking of which,
- Several long term findings have contradicted this study, including the San Antonio Heart study, which found that every diet soda per day was linked to a 65% increase in the likelihood of overweight and a 41% chance of obesity over a 7-8 year period, and the Framingham Heart Study, which found that people who drank diet soda were still at risk for metabolic syndrome and high blood sugar.
- The study was funded by the soda industry. Now, not all studies funded by the man produce results that benefit the man, but most do.
Of course, correlation does not equal causation (unless you think the declining divorce rate in Maine caused the drop in margarine consumption nationwide), so associations between diet soda and weight gain don’t mean diet soda causes people to gain weight. But it means we should think about these associations, and what could be influencing them, before throwing a few 12 packs of diet coke in our carts. Because chemistry and biology aren’t the only things influencing weight gain, a lot of it is psychological and even economic (I addressed this a little bit in an earlier post on high fructose corn syrup). For example, some people swap regular soda for diet soda, and figure that justifies an extra cookie after dinner. Other people struggle with emotional eating, and swapping Pepsi for Pepsi One isn’t going to address that problem. On top of all that, diet soda is full of artificial sweeteners of questionable safety (especially in high doses). The point is, there’s a lot more that goes into health and weight loss than swapping one thing for another, and all of these things should be considered.
What are your thoughts on diet soda and the beverage industry’s contribution to the fight against the obesity crisis?*
*The second part of this question brought to you by the fact that I have started reading Salt Sugar Fat and am curious to hear others thoughts on the topic.
28 May 2014
Two weeks ago I wrote about how there are really no sugars that are healthier for you than other sugars. The gist basically is that added sugar (so, not the kind you get from fruit) isn’t all that great for you and should be included in minimal amounts in your diet. In the comments section, coach G2 made a good point about how sometimes during longer workouts, sugar can be a good thing. To build on that, I want to talk a little about when taking some nutrition during your workout is a good idea and some of the better sources.
When Do You Need A Sugar Fix Mid WOD?
For most class WODs, which consist of about 6-30 minutes of metabolic conditioning and 0-15 minutes of strength, you won’t need to eat carbohydrates during as long as you’ve eaten something beforehand. Generally you will need additional carbohydrates during your workout when it is longer than 60-90 minutes or very high in intensity. (I’m talking about a 7 mile run, 90 minutes of Olympic lifting, or following a 60 minute class with another 30-60 minutes of strength or gymnastics work, not 70 minutes cursing on the elliptical or bike).
Eating carbohydrates during a longer, more intense workout helps prevent drops in blood glucose and liver glycogen (stored form of carbohydrate), and may improve motor skills. What this means is, you will be able to continue exercising at greater intensity and with better coordination and accuracy over the longer term (like I said, over 90 minutes) when you eat carbohydrates during your workout than when you do not.
How Much And What To Eat
During a workout, the recommendation is to take in 30-60 grams of carbohydrates every hour, in small increments every 15-30 minutes, starting when you’re about 30 minutes in (Stellingwerff et al 2011). Carbohydrate during a workout should be taken in small amounts in 15-30 minute intervals to avoid any stomach issues.
Good food choices for the middle of a workout will be easy to digest and low in fat and fiber. Good examples include:
- Gatorade or sports drink
- Dried fruit
- 100% juice
- Flavored coconut water (the peach mango flavor is amazing)
- Energy/sport beans or candy (I’ll address the difference in a minute)
- Fruit (stick to lower fiber options or ones that you’re familiar with. Protip: if you don’t regularly eat bananas, don’t eat one while on a long run).
About those energy beans vs. candy? They provide essentially the same thing in terms of sugar during your workout. The Energy Beans cost more than the same amount of regular jelly beans, but have fewer ingredients (although most are still sugar), no artificial flavors (at least not the flavors I looked up), come in a one serving bag, and make you feel all fit and healthy when you eat them.
How do you know when you’ll need a little added carbohydrate during a workout? My answer is usually if the workout is longer than 90 minutes and higher than moderate intensity (which would be walking or cruising on the bike) or if you feel depleted or drained during your workout. Start with familiar, easy to digest foods and expedient with what works for you.
My favorite mid workout snack, despite making fun of them, is the Energy Beans or Gu Chomps (same thing as the Cliff Energy Blocks) for long runs and dried fruit for weight training. What are your go-to mid workout snacks?
14 May 2014
This past Sunday, Mother’s Day, I was relaxing and watching the Today Show, when I saw something that made me do this:
Let me explain: they had a segment on cooking Mother’s Day brunch featuring Mary J. Blige’s personal chef. She was making a bunch of delicious looking stuff and making it healthy. One item was granola, using mostly nuts, dried fruit, and palm sugar. And as she’s describing the granola she keeps talking about palm sugar as “a better sugar” and a healthier sugar. Now you see why the face palm?
I see this on a lot of Paleo blogs too; they’ll use honey instead of sucrose, and almond or coconut meal instead of flour and proclaim it a healthy item. So now seems like a good time to tackle the “better sugar” question.
The Glycemic Index
Let’s start here with a quick review. The glycemic index is a measure of how a particular food or beverage affects your blood sugar compared to 50 grams of white bread. Low glycemic foods have a glycemic index (GI) below 55, and high glycemic foods are above 70. High glycemic foods cause a larger spike in your blood sugar, resulting in more insulin production and usually followed by a drop off. This cycle occurring over and over again can lead to insulin resistance, and ultimately diabetes. Lower glycemic foods tend to hit the blood sugar more slowly, resulting in less insulin release and a more stable curve. This graph illustrates it well (hint: you want to be closer to the blue line).
Now here is where a few common sugars fall on the glycemic index:
It would stand to reason that lower glycemic sugars like palm sugar and agave would be good for you compared to sucrose, right? Not so fast. Sugar its still sugar. All forms of sugar are calorically equivalent at 4 calories per gram, and are still a source of calories that provides zero nutritional quality (no fiber, no vitamins, no minerals, no other nutrients). Agave is highly processed, and coconut palm sugar production may well be unsustainable.
It’s kind of like what I said about high fructose corn syrup and sucrose: just because one thing might be similar or slightly better than another thing, doesn’t mean both are good for you. If you’re pursuing a healthy diet, finding the healthiest type of sugar is like finding the healthiest version of Frosted Corn Cereal – one may be better than another but neither are all that great for you. If you are making something that requires sugar, think about how you can cut back on the sweetness. Maybe add a banana instead of some of the butter in cookies or bread, which will maintain consistency and add more natural sweetness. Or check out Stevia. I haven’t done any research personally (meaning I haven’t used it a bunch yet), but I’ve heard great reviews.
What are your thoughts on sugar? Do you have a go-to type of sweetener?
07 May 2014
Colorful plates are in these days, and don’t just mean the cool red and mint ones you can get from Crate & Barrel (although those are awesome too). I mean the “eat the rainbow” slogan is starting to take hold in the healthy eating community, and we’re packing our plates full of green, red, blue, purple, orange, and red for maximal vitamins and nutrition. No white foods on our plates!
But wait, why no white foods? Well, probably because we’ve been so conditioned to view them as nutrient void, low quality foods. And many white and tan foods are just that – like fried chicken, french fries, white bread, rice, mayonnaise, etc. But some colorful foods are not so good for you either, like ketchup (in red, purple, and green) and green sprinkles from JP Licks.
White vegetables are white because of flavenoids (a substance known to have antioxidant activity and thought to help prevent cardiovascular disease by decreasing inflammation and platelet aggregation (1)) called anthoxanthins. Some white fruits and vegetables like bananas and potatoes are also a good source of potassium, an important electrolyte in muscle and heart function.
Some white fruits and vegetables have even been given the impressive label of “super food”. Some of these include:
- Bananas – bananas are high in potassium and are a great pre or post workout snack due to their carbohydrate and potassium content.
- Garlic – garlic, as well as onions and leeks, is high in allium, which has been associated with protection against colorectal and gastric cancers (2).
- Ginger – often used as a flavoring, ginger has been associated with such benefits as reduced inflammation in the colon (a precursor to colon cancer), decreased muscle soreness after exercise, and nausea among others (3).
- Cauliflower – in addition to all the antioxidants, cauliflower is also a cruciferous vegetable high in fiber, and as a bonus it’s super versatile (you can even make rice and “mashed potatoes” out of it).
Also don’t forget about potatoes. They aren’t as bad as you might think (if prepped the right way).
30 Apr 2014
Over the past week I’ve had a few young, healthy people in my life discover they had high cholesterol. Which naturally leads to confusion/fear, considering a. they are young and healthy and b. high cholesterol = death by heart attack. But wait, is cholesterol really the defining factor for your risk of heart disease? I’m no cholesterol expert (there’s been a lot of research since I left clinical nutrition) so I decided to do some refresher research, and this is what I found.
Cholesterol Is More Than One Number
When you get your cholesterol numbers evaluated, you don’t just find out one big number. There are usually four numbers you get, and a few more you should think about. The ones you get are:
- Low Density Lipoprotein or LDL – LDL is one of five lipoproteins that transport fat molecules (including cholesterol) through extracellular fluid (the fluid in your body that is outside blood vessels). LDL has been nicknamed the “bad cholesterol” because it transports these fat molecules and deposits them in artery walls, which leads to atherosclerosis.
- High Density Lipoprotein or HDL – HDL is similar to LDL in makeup but is known as the “good cholesterol” because it tends to transport fat molecules away from the arteries (usually into the liver, adrenals, or ovaries or testes). Higher levels of HDL have been associated with a lower risk of heart disease.
- Total cholesterol – this is a measure of all the cholesterol in your blood, including HDL and LDL. This number is going to be higher than just a sum of LDL and HDL.
- Triglycerides – this is a measure of fat buildup in your bloodstream. When you eat, your body converts any excess calories to triglycerides, where they are stored in fat cells. Between meals these are released to provide energy, so regularly eating more calories than are needed can lead to high triglycerides.
Notice a pattern there? Neither HDL or LDL are cholesterol in the first place, they are just the transporters. And cholesterol isn’t necessarily bad for your body, in fact it’s needed to make steroid hormones like androgen hormones and estrogen.
In addition to these numbers, you should also pay attention to:
- Cholesterol Ratio – this is the ratio between your total cholesterol and HDL cholesterol. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends levels below 5, with an ideal ratio of 3.5 So, if your total cholesterol is 210 (high) but your HDL is 90, that puts you at a ratio of 2.2 (ideal)
- Pattern A vs. Pattern B – according to some newer research, there are different types of LDL. Small, dense LDL and large, buoyant LDL. The small dense LDL is what causes harm to the arteries, whereas the larger, buoyant LDL does little to no harm as it floats happily through your blood vessels. In Pattern A, the small, dense LDL is low while the larger, buoyant LDL and HDL are high. In Pattern B, the small, dense LDL is higher while the large, buoyant LDL and HDL are lower. Pattern B is associated with higher risk of heart disease, while Pattern A isn’t. According to this study, the high carb, low fat/saturated fat diet can turn Pattern A into Pattern B.
We often treat cholesterol like the end all be all risk factor for heart disease. And it is still an important indicator of heart health when interpreted correctly. But there are other factors that determine whether or not you’re having a heart attack. These include:
- Weight and anthropometric measures (like body fat)
- Physical activity levels
All of the above can impact a person’s risk for heart disease (which includes heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke, and heart failure). All of these factors should be considered when assessing someone’s risk for heart disease and suggesting prevention and treatment options.
If you find you have higher than “normal” cholesterol lab values, don’t freak out. Talk to your doctor (or friendly CrossFit Dietitian), who can help you look at your lifestyle and other risk factors that may be in play. And don’t jump on the statin bandwagon before you’ve looked at other things. When should you be worried? I’d be worried if your triglycerides were high, as this indicates a pattern of overeating, if HDL was very low, or if any of these numbers were exorbitantly high.
23 Apr 2014
Picture it, any CrossFit gym, 2014. A well educated adult starts CrossFit at their local affiliate and gets super excited about their health and fitness. After about a month, he hears about the Paleo diet and gives it a shot. He doesn’t really have much guidance, so he buys a book on Amazon and looks at some blogs. Over the next month or so he’s doing pretty well. Eating Paleo about 80% of the time. He makes Paleo muffins or pancakes for breakfasts, some meat and vegetable dishes like Paleo spaghetti or chili. He eats lots of meat (mmmm PROTEIN) and a few veggies on the side. Plenty of dried fruit and nuts throughout the day, and maybe a Paleo cookie or two for dessert. He still drinks some beer on the weekends. After two months, he’s lost a little weight and feels a little better, but isn’t quite seeing the results he wants. After doing some online research, he decides he may need to try intermittent fasting, Zone, or even ketosis to see results. So he comes on in and asks his coach and some other gym members what they think.
Sound familiar? As I’ve read blogs and spent time around CrossFitters over the past few years, I’ve noticed this happening a fair amount (not calling out anyone in particular, just a general observation). Sometimes we get so caught up in pursuing results via the next big idea, we forget to really think about what we’re doing. This approach can hurt us for a few reasons.
1. The Foundation isn’t there. The foundation of CrossFit is nutrition. And in my humble opinion, the foundation of nutrition is a clean, pretty much Paleo diet. I’m talking about a diet mostly fruits and vegetables, with a little meat, some nuts and seeds, healthy fats, and maybe some dried fruit or dark chocolate here and there. While not the ideal diet for everyone, this is where the experiment starts. If you’re not seeing the results you want on a diet like this, there are lots of things to look at (how much are you eating, when are you eating it, what are your goals, how are stress levels, etc). If a diet like this is too strict for you, then your goal should be working to get as close to it as is sustainable for you.
2. It plays into the American Diet System (which sucks). You know this system. Weight Watchers. Atkins. South Beach. Nutrisystem. Jenny Craig. Alli (or what I like to call the lose lose weight by pooping your pants pill). Anything you’ve ever seen advertised on TV with a tagline like “eat all your favorite foods and still lose weight!”. In America we like to follow diet rules, deprive ourselves, etc. We’ve been so conditioned to adhere to a diet and self shame when we don’t. So while the Zone diet is a WAY better option than Jenny Craig, if you are a person who has jumped from diet to diet, figuring out a sustainable, clean diet that moves you towards your goals is going to be way more successful then bringing food scales and time restrictions into the equation.
3. More stress. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t stand the Zone diet. Weighing all my food makes me feel obsessive and stressed out, negatively impacting my quality of life. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have Camille’s abs this July, but given my experience with this diet, no matter how good it is on paper, it isn’t going to help me. Not when I could do a better job of cutting out alcohol and grains first. On top of that, stress negatively impacts weight and health, raising cortisol levels (a hormone released in response to stress that raises blood sugar levels, boosts the metabolism of macronutrients, and suppresses the immune system) and increasing inflammation in the body. Unless you are a very high level athlete (I’m talking the kind who makes a living from their sport), in all likelihood a complicated diet like ketosis is not worth your time and energy when you could achieve a pretty good level of fitness and body composition just by eating clean most of the time.
Now, I’m by no means telling you NOT to try something new with your diet. It is, after all, YOUR diet. If you’re not having results you should always be trying something new. When it comes to nutrition, dietitians and experts can provide guidance, but ultimately you are your own laboratory. You need to figure out what works for you through trial and error. I am simply pointing out that before you try something complex like carb cycling, you should be eating clean, have cut out processed junk (yes, that includes Paleo baked goods), and achieved a balanced diet that generally makes you feel and perform well. If you want to level up your performance or body composition from there, by all means jump right in. But for most people, keeping it simple will work out best in the long run. Remember, a lot of us have 30-50 or more years to maintain health and fitness. Who wants to be on a crazy, complex diet for 50 years?
Have you ever tried a complex diet? How did it go?
16 Apr 2014
In case you haven’t seen the epic pie order in When Harry Met Sally, watch now for context. While I don’t advise ordering complicated desserts as a great way to stick to a clean diet, I’ve got a point to make.
When I say “it’s OK to be Sally”, I mean that it’s OK to be a huge, pain in the butt when you order at a restaurant. Go ahead, be all “Can you please cook my vegetables in olive oil or steamed instead of in butter, unless the butter happens to be grass-fed” and all “Do you have any BBQ sauce made with just molasses and honey, with no cane sugar or corn syrup?”, and “can you grill that instead of frying it, please?”. It’s OK to complain when you ask for a side of vegetables instead of some other processed carbohydrate and receive a quarter cup of sad looking veggies smothered in butter/oil.
It’s OK for you to ask the Butcher or Fish Peddler to cut your meat to just the right amount. It’s OK to ask for grass fed beef or bison, and if they don’t have it ask them to go check or maybe even order some. It’s OK to ask for wild caught salmon and decide to go elsewhere if they don’t have it.
It’s OK to be honest with your friends and coworkers about what you eat. If someone is grilling Bubba Burgers, it’s OK for you to ask them to throw on a piece of chicken or bison for you. Hell, vegetarians do it all the time with their Kween-o burgers (see this ad if you don’t get the joke). It’s OK to ask that your coworkers don’t get you cupcakes on your birthday because you’re trying to avoid sugar. It’s OK to ask for the gluten free option at catered work lunches (although be advised, this isn’t always healthier per se).
I know this is a fine line. It is obviously not OK to go to your friends house for dinner and look upon the white rice, rolls, or cheese platter and condescendingly inform them “I don’t eat that”. But I feel like we have spent too much time waiting on old fashioned economics of supply and demand to produce heather products, and the movement has been slow. ‘Cause the food industry is way behind. Remember how we thought egg yolks were bad for us from like the mid 1980’s until the end of the 1990’s? Want to guess when McDonalds came out with an egg white option? THIS YEAR. While we appreciate your effort guys, it’s not the yolk we have a problem with, and we haven’t for over fifteen years. Other companies are better at picking up on trends, but not necessarily to our benefit. I mean, thanks for the gluten free wanter, peanuts, and yogurt I guess… And shout out to Dunkin Donuts for the turkey sausage and turkey bacon offerings, which are really not any healthier for you than regular bacon and taste way worse.
So my point is this: If you want a healthier, better food product, ask for it. Loudly and often. Because right now the food industry is making lots of money based on the assumption (and their efforts to keep it so) that everyone just can’t get enough soda, snacks, and processed convenience dinners. That we don’t care what’s in the food as long as it sounds “healthy” or is low calorie/low carb/low fat, etc. If we want better food, we have to demand it. And nothing speaks louder with food industry than your wallet.
What do you think about this?
** A little context on the Flickr donut: when I searched “demanding” on flickr for a nice illustrative image, I stumbled upon a protest demanding Flickr give out free donuts. I think this makes asking for better food sound a little less ridiculous. I was also greatly amused, thus explaining the inclusion of this image.
02 Apr 2014
No, this is not a belated April Fool’s, although I am now kicking myself for not asking to blog a day early. I could have had a lot of fun with that one.
There’s been a lot of hate going around in the media for high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and fructose. Some “nutritionists” may even tell you to cut back on fruit because fructose is so dangerous. But is this all true?
What We Know
We know in studies of mice, feeding them diets upwards of 40-50% of their diet from HFCS leads to development of cancer, obesity, and other side effects. We can also see a graph (right) of obesity rising significantly in the 30+ years after HFCS was introduced to the food supply in the 1970’s. Meanwhile other studies are finding there are no significant negative effects attributed to HFCS.
Now, it’s become a fierce debate. One camp blasting the many ways HFCS will kill you and the other defending it’s honor, proclaiming that HFCS is perfectly safe.
The line industry and the FDA has settled on is “HFCS is no more harmful to your health than sucrose (table sugar)”.
The thing is, I agree with this. But that doesn’t mean HFCS is OK. It means the FDA and industry are missing the forest for the trees, and hoping you will too. To say HFCS is no more harmful to your health than table sugar is like saying gin is no more harmful to your health than bourbon. Would you really argue that drinking gin is fine but bourbon is not or vice versa? Of course not. You recognize that both in moderation can be enjoyed, but in excess BOTH will produce harm (in this example, in the form of liver cirrhosis and alcoholism).
I will however, agree that HFCS can cause obesity, although not directly on it’s own. After all, HFCS isn’t even that “high” in fructose – only about 5% higher than sucrose. What happened was, HFCS made sugar SO CHEAP that the industry could put it in everything, even things that never had sugar before. They could manipulate sweetness to further addict you to foods, to produce larger serving sizes for basically nothing. HFCS doesn’t chemically cause obesity, but it set the stage for the environment that would.
- Don’t eat a lot of HFCS. Anything it’s in is usually cheaply made. Personally, I prefer the taste of barbecue sauce made with molasses and honey over HFCS, but if you treat your self to something that has it every now and then you will not give yourself cancer immediately.
- Don’t fool yourself – a cookie with HFCS is just as bad for your waistline and health as a cookie made with “organic evaporated cane juice” (which is just fancy speak for sucrose).
- Keep your intake of added sugar -a ALL sugars – to a minimum. Get your carbs from complex carbs and satisfy your sweet tooth with fruit.
- Don’t avoid fruit – drinking straight fructose may be a bad idea, but eating fructose in the presence of fiber and other vitamins and minerals is the way nature intended. I mean, don’t eat 10 bananas in a day, but if you’re stressing about eating a second piece of fruit because you’re afraid it will harm your health and impact your weight loss, just stop it right now.
*There are some people for which avoiding fructose (and most other carbohydrates) at all or some parts of the day will be appropriate, including body builders on a cutting diet or women with Gestational Diabetes.
25 Mar 2014
Growing up I learned that fat was bad. Butter, beef, nuts, avocado – all “fattening” (seriously, we never had guacamole in my house growing up for this very reason). Lean meat lean beef lean lean lean has been drilled into us for the past thirty or so years. Even the American Heart Association – trusted resource for all things heart disease – recommends limiting saturated fat to just 5% of daily intake If you eat a 2,000 calorie diet, that leaves you with about 11 grams or less than a tablespoon of coconut oil per day. (Although as a side note I somewhat question AHA’s wisdom after learning they endorsed Subway as a healthy meal option. But I digress.) Heck, I even learned it in college, and told I don’t know how many patients while I was working in the hospital to “choose lean meats and avoid foods high in saturated fat”. There has been questioning of this saturated fat-heart disease link recently, with a lot of it coming from the Paleo camp (Robb Wolf, etc).
Now, a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has cleared saturated fat of its charges. The review looked at 21 studies of over 347,000 people with follow up anywhere from 5-23 years. The results found no association between saturated fat intake and coronary heart disease, stroke, and cardiovascular disease. Basically, there is no evidence to conclude that saturated fat is the devil incarnate.
What Does This Mean?
My general rule about saturated fat remains unchanged (and is essentially supported) by this study. Don’t be afraid of sat fat – there are a lot of food containing saturated fat that provide nutrients we need. Beef for example, is a good source of iron (which is needed to produce hemoglobin, a part of red cells that shuttles oxygen through the body. Not getting enough iron can result in anemia) and zinc (important for wound healing and immune health). But, most if not all of your saturated fat should still come from healthy, whole food sources – meat, milk, eggs, butter, etc and not from fried/processed foods or high sugar foods (like ice cream). Just as with carbohydrates, it’s not about the nutrient itself, it’s about where it comes from and the quality of that source.
The Bottom Line
Don’t be afraid of saturated fat. Just get it from the right place.
12 Mar 2014
Sorry for the late blog post! I’ve seen lots of new faces in the gym over the past few months, so I am reposting my go-to article on the good and bad aspects of the paleo diet, and some recommendations for using it to improve your diet for anyone who’s heard of the paleo diet during their intro sessions but still wants more information (or for anyone who wants a refresher). Also, I’m a little short on time as I’m in California for work (you feel so sorry for me, right?).
The Paleo diet – also known as the “caveman diet” – is a way of eating inspired by the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors, the men and women who lived 2.5 million years ago, before the agricultural revolution began about 10,000 years ago and provided mankind with a steady supply of grains, corn, dairy, and domestic meat. The theory behind Paleo eating is that our bodies are genetically programmed to eat certain foods, and that many modern health problems like obesity result from the introduction of grains, dairy, and other processed foods, which wreak havoc on our metabolic systems. The diet, and it’s “allowed” and “restricted” foods, are based on anthropological research providing insight into what pre-agricultural humans ate.
Foods allowed on a strict Paleolithic diet include lean meats and seafood, eggs, fruits and non-starchy vegetables, nuts (except peanuts), seeds, and plant-based oils such as olive, coconut, avocado, walnut, or grapeseed. Restricted foods include processed meats (like salami), dairy, grains such as rice, pasta, wheat, and corn, starchy vegetables like potatoes, soy products, legumes like beans and peanuts, alcohol, and refined sugar. Following a Paleo diet does not require minding of portion sizes or food measurement. The recommendation is to eat Paleo approved foods when you are hungry and stop when you are full. The idea is that it’s fairly hard to eat too many calories when they are coming from protein sources and high fiber, filling sides like vegetables, fruits, or healthy fats. The Paleo diet can be followed strictly or modified to meet your individual needs. For instance, some follow an “80/20” rule, eating Paleo about 80% of the time and allowing room for leniency with other foods or cheat days. Others follow a strict Paleo diet but include dairy, butter, or both.
The Research on the Paleo diet, while promising, is fairly limited. Several small studies have shown a Paleolithic diet may help improve markers of health in both healthy people and those with chronic disease. For example, one study showed that a Paleolithic diet resulted in lower mean glycated hemoglobin (a measure of blood sugar control over time) values, diastolic blood pressure, and waist circumference, and higher HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) when compared to a standard diabetes diet. Among healthy adults, a small metabolically controlled study (meaning what participants ate was strictly controlled) found improvements in blood pressure, glucose tolerance, insulin sensitivity, and cholesterol without weight loss over a 10-day period.
In addition, while the evidence for the Paleo diet specifically, especially in athletes, is not prolific, research has shown high-protein, low-carbohydrate type diets to be effective for fat loss in a number of studies. Recently, a study appearing in Nutrition & Metabolismfound that Paleo dieters not only felt more satisfied in terms of appetite, but also had lower levels of circulating leptin, a hormone that regulates appetite, food consumption, and body fat storage.
Why Eating Paleo is Awesome…
- It eliminates the crap – eating whole foods and avoiding food products with refined sugars, preservatives, harmful additives, high levels of sodium, and added fats has numerous benefits in terms of weight management, health, and athletic performance.
- More vitamins and minerals – because you eat more fruits and veggies on a Paleo diet, you are getting much more fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants than on a typical Western Diet. Vitamins can help, but 90% of the nutrients in a typical multivitamin tablet are not absorbed but are excreted (meaning you pee them out). Studies have shown that eating more fruits and vegetables reduces cancer risk, but when researchers attempted to isolate and supplement specific vitamins common in produce, the effect wasn’t replicated.
- Less “bad” fat and more “good” fat – the Paleo diet typically consists of more omega-3 and unsaturated fats via increased intake of foods like almonds, walnuts, and avocados and reduction in saturated fats by eliminating high fat meats and processed foods like chips and desserts. Unsaturated fats may reduce inflammation, which is good for everyone, especially athletes.
- Health Benefits – although the research is limited, the Paleo diet has been associated with greater weight loss success, greater satiety, and improvements in markers of chronic disease. There are numerous anecdotes of people having found success eating this way.
Why it’s not so awesome...
- It takes more planning – it’s easy to get enough carbohydrates and calcium on a standard American diet. It’s also easy to grab lunch at the office if you forgot to pack it. So while it’s possible to meet all your nutritional needs on a Paleo diet while enjoying good food, it requires more planning and, often times, ahead of time meal preparation. If you’re not used to packing your lunch or cooking nearly all of your meals, it will take an adjustment.
- $$$ – I don’t subscribe to the belief that it is more expensive to eat a healthy diet, but following a strict Paleo diet will up your grocery bill, at least a little bit, due to increased purchasing of meat and vegetables. This increase will be greater if you switch completely to organic and grass-fed products. On the flip side, if you give up junk food and soda and eat out less, this will probably even out.
- Does it make sense? – Dr. Cordain argues that our bodies are genetically adapted to a Paleo diet, and the influence of grains and processed foods has led to our current health problems. But people started eating bread 10,000 years ago, and the epidemic of obesity and chronic disease is at best a 30 year old problem. So is bread and dairy the devil? Or is an increasingly sedentary lifestyle combined with more people eating out more often and ever growing portion sizes the real culprit?
- Carbohydrates – for most people the moderate carbohydrate levels in a Paleo diet are enough to support normal functioning and maintain glucose and glycogen stores. However, people with higher carbohydrate needs, like endurance athletes, or rowers doing multiple workouts per day, may have a hard time meeting them on a Paleo diet.The Paleo Diet for Athletes, written by Dr. Cordain and endurance coach Joe Friel, actually recommends following a Paleo diet for most of the time while supplementing other foods, such as sports drinks, around workouts to get adequate carbohydrates.
- Difficulty – A US News Report rated the Paleo diet one of the worst diets for 2011 and difficulty was a factor. For some people, eliminating 3 major food categories (grains, dairy, legumes) may just be too much to stick with over an extended period. Going on a drastic diet that you won’t be able to maintain could result in frustration, stress, and ultimately giving up and just “eating whatever” for a while, which will be a weight loss and/or goal setback and just leads to more stress.
So what should you do?
As far as I’m concerned, there is no “perfect diet” for all people. That being said, I think there is merit to the principles behind the Paleo diet and at the very least I would consider it a good framework for building a healthy, maintainable diet. Ideally, you do want to eliminate processed foods (like Spam, Cheetos, fast food, etc) and focus on more “Paleo foods” like meat, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, and oils. However having the occasional whole grain (that’s wheat bread, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, oatmeal etc), dairy product, or legume isn’t going to kill you (unless you have a food allergy).
Here are some good guidelines to follow:
- Load up on lean meats, veggies, and fruits first. They contain those essential nutrients like protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
- Eat a healthy diet that works for you and doesn’t drive you nuts. You want to follow a healthful nutrition plan, but you don’t want to set yourself up for failure either.
- Avoid processed crap. It’s that simple. If the ingredients list is longer than your entire grocery list and you find yourself trying to decide if it’s healthy, just put it back on the shelf. It’s probably not that great for you.
- Avoid added sugars and sodium. That includes canned stuff, “pre-made” meals, sugary beverages, junk snacks, and many breakfast cereals.
- Limit the booze. It’s empty calories and makes you feel not awesome the next day, which can increase cravings for less healthy foods and limit your desire and/or ability to work out.
- Disregard all of the above and have a cheat day every now and then. It can be good for you. Check out why here.