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Paleo: The good, the bad and the ugly

Paleo: Das Gute, das Schlechte und das Hässliche

A brief summary:

1. those who are overweight and most inactive would benefit from a strict Paleo diet, which would help them with satiety and weight loss.
2. what is best for sedentary people is not necessarily what is best for strength athletes. Strict Paleo diets avoid foods that enable fit people to perform at their best and build muscle.
3. training nutrition supplements are not Paleo, but ignoring the modern science of supplements will limit your gains in strength and hypertrophy.

The origins of Paleo

It's not a diet - they say. It's the natural way of eating - the natural way of eating that humans have genetically adapted to. There is no end date - you never stop eating Paleo. You live this way of eating, you internalize it, and you eat bacon while watching your waistline shrink. The premise? Our genes have barely changed since the Paleolithic era. Therefore, for optimal health and body composition, we should follow a pre-agricultural diet - a diet free of grains, most dairy products, potatoes, sugar and, of course, the modern abominations that pass for food today. In short, you should eat like a caveman. There are dozens of variations of the Paleo diet today, most of which stem from the ideas of gastroenterologist Walter L. Voegtlin in the 1970s. Some variations of the Paleo diet are very strict and do not even allow nuts, quinoa, starchy foods and non-organic meat.

Other variations are less strict and allow sweet potatoes and even grains like rice and quinoa, raw milk, some supplements and dark chocolate. If you consider yourself someone who eats a healthy diet, there's a good chance you're unintentionally following some variation of the Paleo diet. You avoid processed foods and fill up on meat, vegetables and the occasional fruit. Before Paleo, old school bodybuilders, wrestlers and martial artists who needed to lose weight referred to this as abstaining from starches.

Since 2009, I've done several variations of Paleo - rigid and loose versions - although I did this unofficially as a teen bodybuilder before it became a big thing. I've learned the pros and cons of a strict Paleo diet. And as a nutrition coach, I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly. Let's go into more detail here.

The good

There's no doubt about one thing - if North America followed even a loose form of Paleo, we wouldn't have an obesity problem. We would be a leaner and healthier society, less dependent on prescription drugs and Photoshop.

Paleo and its variations have taught us to challenge conventional wisdom coming from many doctors, nutritionists and official health experts. And even though conventional wisdom has told us to avoid dietary cholesterol and eat plenty of whole grain breads and heart-healthy grains, Paleo has taught overweight people that these behaviors are exactly what made them fat. From Paleo, we've learned that the best way to cure serious ailments like type 2 diabetes is to swap our pasta, bread and all our junk food for things that come straight from nature: Vegetables, meat, seeds, eggs, fruit and maybe some full-fat dairy.

The emphasis on whole foods has helped a large number of people give up the junk that has kept them trapped in the vicious cycle of self-sabotage. Paleo has raised the consciousness of the masses, given them a push towards their fitness goals and has given the government's dietary guidelines a much-needed kick in the pants. Paleo dietary protocols have also exposed a major flaw in low-fat and vegetarian diets: the need for saturated animal fats and dietary cholesterol. Paleo's emphasis on meat and animal products has taught many misinformed people that they will suffer in the absence of these foods.

Meat and animal fats help us produce the hormones that give us a robust sex drive, make us emotionally stable and happy, help us build muscle, and help fight disease and maintain an active metabolism. There are many testimonials on the internet from vegetarians who have turned to a Paleo diet. From their reports, we learn that a diet consisting of bread, fruit and soy will not only make you "skinny fat" (thin, but still flabby), but will also promote constipation, depression, impotence, lethargy and make it impossible to build significant amounts of muscle and strength.

No matter what form of Paleo the average overweight person adopts, it will almost certainly be an improvement over their previous diet. A nation of people following a Paleo diet would mean less disease, a longer lifespan and lower healthcare costs. I recommend a Paleo-like diet to my overweight clients. The goal of these clients, of course, is simply to no longer be overweight.

The bad

Eating a full Paleo diet is inadequate for one segment of the population: our segment - strength athletes and other athletes.

Here's why: our workouts and body development goals require more than what's allowed on Paleo - more carbohydrates, advanced training nutrition and fast-digesting protein. We don't just get away with eating processed foods - we thrive on them.

Paleo works so well for the average person because the average person's goal is to not be sick or fat. The average person doesn't go to the gym day after day to prepare to step on stage, compete in athletic events, set personal bests, or walk around with visible veins on their biceps. These are not the goals of the average person. These are our goals. We don't have average goals and we are not average people - so why would we follow a diet that is best suited for such people? If proven workout nutrition supplements are banned from your diet, then you either need to rethink your diet for the benefit of your sport or body development, or stick with that diet and realize you're going to lose. Your competition has a head start if they are using a targeted, non-Paleo training diet. They will recover faster, train harder, build more muscle and even lose fat faster than you. Can you train without a targeted training diet? Sure you can. But you won't achieve as much as you could with additional training nutrition. Going back in time is a handicap if you are an athlete. You will go back in time with your diet to stay within the boundaries of your ironclad dietary rules.

Saying that we should eat the same as our ancestors is the same as saying that we should deprive ourselves of thousands of years of scientific progress. Certainly not all dietary advances have been good for us. Nachos aren't going to help us earn a Pro Card, but other advances have been pretty darn good. If we were to forgo those, then we would be missing out. A training session with weights fueled by kale smoothies and coconut oil isn't going to help you train harder. Training in a fasted state, as recommended by many Paleo followers, will not give you an edge.

If you follow the Paleo guidelines, you will not recover as quickly as if you use a training diet specifically designed for the training period. Can unprocessed plant and animal foods meet all our needs as athletes? Not if we want to achieve optimal muscle gains, perform at our best and take our bodies from "not fat" to "absolutely phenomenal".

And training nutrition isn't the only thing that's off limits. If you're a strict Paleo follower, then legumes, potatoes and grains (even wheat-free grains) are also off limits. If you put beans and oatmeal in the same category as chocolate bars, then you should relax and take a deep breath. Where do many Paleo diets get their carbohydrates from? Primarily from fruit, honey and starchy vegetables such as parsnips and pumpkin. But since no one has the time to prepare a squash and take it with them for after a workout, fruit and honey become a commonly used carbohydrate component. But neither are optimal for post-workout recovery.

Fruit and honey are not inherently bad, but even staunch Paleo advocates recommend minimizing consumption of these foods because fructose is difficult for much of the population to digest.

Swapping all your starches for high-fructose foods can bring nasty side effects like bloating, a bloated feeling, cramping, constipation, diarrhea, weight gain and even a non-alcoholic fatty liver. These are the side effects of excessive fructose consumption and yet rice is strictly forbidden? And if your nutrition guru insists that bee vomit is food but protein powder is not, then maybe you need a new guide.

Do you think eating an apple on leg day will help you speed up your recovery and build muscle tissue? Do you think yam has any of the anabolic effects of di- and tripeptides and specialized carbohydrates? Do you think that all this will help you to complete your next training session at an even higher intensity?

Maybe you really think so, but maybe you're just not training as hard as you think. Unless you have amazing genetics, most of your transformation workouts will require more than meat, fruit and vegetables.

The ugly

We like boundaries and structure. We want to hear someone tell us "Don't eat that." Because then we have security. Clear guidelines give us a sense of control because then we know what to eat and what to avoid. But if a fit person feels guilty about giving in to bean temptation, then there's a problem here - and the problem isn't the beans. Rather, it's about becoming hyper-restrictive and taking a sometimes useful strategy too far. Paleo can get ugly with its limits - especially when those limits cause you to freak out about things that have never caused problems. If you eliminate something from your diet for an extended period of time and don't notice any benefits and then add it back into your diet and don't notice any problems, then you don't need to worry about that food. Especially if you are already fit.

I place legumes in this category because I remember once buying a bag of Lima beans and feeling guilty about it. I had suppressed my cravings for these beans because a voice in my head had told me "Will the lectins in these beans prevent you from burning fat?"

At the time, I was on an ironclad Paleo diet, consuming no processed foods, no exercise nutrition, no potatoes, no rice and no beans. In addition to this, I couldn't exercise at high intensity in the gym. Did Paleo help me look or feel better? No, but it has made me good at eating according to the Paleo rules. Can you see where this is going? Sacrificing athleticism to maintain a diet that only maintains your ego, but not your muscle mass.

Paleo has also popularized intermittent fasting, which in itself is not a bad thing for certain people - especially if it's not used consistently. But for those who follow Paleo rigidly, chronic fasting often becomes a way to fight cravings for foods that aren't allowed on Paleo. Being so obsessed with the purity of your food that you regret dietary sins borders on an eating disorder. This can be a tricky situation for those who already have issues with disordered eating. The ugly side of Paleo comes out when instinctive common sense is replaced by fanaticism. This fanaticism is where Paleo becomes a fad diet or quasi-religious dogma.

If you are fat, then Paleo will improve your health, but if your goals include building muscle mass, then Paleo is not the way to go. Since breaking away from Paleo, I've traded a fanaticism about whole foods for common sense, bigger biceps and, ironically, a leaner body. People who train hard several days a week need simple, easily digestible carbohydrates (and not just at training time) combined with scientifically designed supplements.

Potatoes, beans, rice and workout nutrition drinks didn't make America fat. These are not foods to eat in uncontrolled quantities. And if they improve your performance, give you more energy and satisfy you at mealtime, then they're not just permissible foods you can eat without harm, they're essential foods.

Kick a caveman's butt

Paleo undoubtedly works for junk food-addicted, overweight, sedentary people. But these people didn't get fat by eating oatmeal and beans either. A Paleo plan would help these people, but so would simply giving up all the tasty junk food and fast food. If these people need the initial strictness, then a Paleo diet can lay the foundation for never eating such nutritional junk again.

For those with bodybuilding or weight training goals, Paleo often throws out the cave baby with the cave bathwater. Too few carbohydrates from sources like rice, oatmeal, buckwheat, potatoes and legumes will hinder your hypertrophy and performance goals. Neglecting training nutrition and other beneficial supplements is tantamount to not making optimal gains because your great-great-great-grandfather didn't have access to these supplements.

Yes, eat your meat, veggies and whole eggs. Yes, avoid the junk carbohydrates and wannabe foods that you find on the supermarket shelves today. But don't ignore the foods and supplements that will help you build muscle and perform better than any caveman.

By Dani Shugart

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