Is the Paleo Diet Right for You?

Oohhhhhhhhh boy. This post is going to be long. As Queen Gorgo said, “This will not be over quickly. You will not enjoy this.” Except that, I really hope you do; otherwise, this is just a lot of typing for no good reason.

So anyways, I’m writing 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. Let’s get this show on the road!

The Basics

First off, let me warn you that I will be using the word diet interchangeably to mean similar but different things:

  1. Diet – As in, your general, daily eating habits: how, what, when, and why you eat the things you do.
  2. 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.)

Paleo-Friendly Foods

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!!

Defining Paleo

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?

Metabolic Flexibility

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.

The end. 🙂

Don’t Miss Your Chance

I was stuck in Corporate America for 9 years. I was miserable.

Then I took control.

You can too, and it starts right here.

8 responses to “Is the Paleo Diet Right for You?

  1. Never heard of it. I like meat and potatoes. Red Meat, the redder the bettrer. And potatoes inundated with butter.

    Just kidding, I try to eat healthy too. Protein and carbs.

    Paleo seems so…Paleo


  2. Hi David,

    I’ve heard a few people getting around (especially in the work lunch room) making sure that everyone knows that they are on this diet. They are of course the over-weight and unfit crew. It seems to me to make pretty good sense but i am with you on the “Natural diet” comment as i think that we also need to be open to living our life.

    I also agree with your comments on rice. I lived in Japan for a year and a half where as you would know, it’s 80% rice, 20% lean meat/fish and vegetables or something close to that. Ever seen a fat Asian? Nope, only if they are living in a western country, consuming high amounts of western food or have trained their entire life in Sumo. I find it amusing when i got to Asian restaurants here in Australia and see people with a huge plate of meat and vegetables and a small bowl of rice. They push the vegetables aside, eat all the meat and put a small scoop of rice on the side and think they just had an Asian experience. Wrong! You just westernised/bastardised something that was already perfect.

    Anyway, I’m getting on too much of a rant so i had better move on. Haha.

    There is something else that i think is worth making a note of and I don’t know if the Paleo diet has taken this into consideration but with access these days to almost all fruits and vegetables, all year round we are putting our bodies in a situation where they do not get a natural break from these foods. I try to stick to a simple theory here: If it’s not in season, don’t eat it. That way, your body is getting time away from fruits and vegetables that are possibly grown in artificial situations or imported from other countries.

    Don’t get me wrong though, eat the damn fries every so often too. It’s all about common sense right?

    A well written read mate, thanks.


  3. @Rich
    Meat and taters never did me wrong….until I became lactose intolerant. And then I had to be careful with mashed potatoes. 🙁

    Great comment!

    In my experience, the paleo crowd is usually relatively fit; however, they’re usually the ones that are extremely awkward in social settings and announce, “oh, I can’t eat that, it’s not paleo,” with proud brovado. Meanwhile, I’ll go ahead and drink my beer and enjoy myself.

    To address our point of “common sense”, that’s not good enough for the hardcore folks. I actually had quite a heated twitter debate with Robb Wolf about Paleo and common sense. He asked, “if it’s so common sense, why are you poisoning yourself?” Poisoning! He actually said carbs and grains are poison! Oh, that’s rich.

    Anyways, thanks again!

  4. I remember years ago Dan John wrote about the “Meat, Leaves and Berries Diet.” That was about when I began to hear the first stirrings of what would become Paleo. It was a simple set of guidelines he found helpful toward meeting a specific goal not an overarching way of life or a dogmatic view of what all human beings should eat.

    Things have gotten out of hand since then in a lot of ways, in my opinion.

    For one thing I think it’s too simplistic to say that we “haven’t had a chance to evolve” since evolution is an ongoing process (and one we barely understand yet.” I DO think there is some merit in looking at ancestral eating patterns and cuisine to garner practices that may be useful. In his book Antifragile, Nassim Taleb talks extensively about the benefits of cultural traditions both prescriptive and proscriptive. For example “I never drink any liquid that hasn’t been consumed for at least 1000 years, so nothing but coffee, water and wine.” That sort of thing is potentially useful as a personal rule to encourage healthful behavior and discourage unhealthy behavior. Because it’s a personal rule though, you can break it whenever you want and not incur moral guilt OR leap to conclusions about what is best for everyone in the world.

    Demonizing specific macronutrients (to some extent even thinking of food primarily as “macronutrients”) strikes me as a novel approach to healthy eating when viewed against the weight of human history. A range of choices from bad, to good, good to better, better to best when it comes to macro-nutrients? That’s reasonable perhaps. Saying that protein, fat or carbs is “The Answer”? Too short sighted.

    I agree with you that one of the good things about Paleo is that it gets people to pay attention to the quality of the food they eat. On the other hand, there’s certainly a point at which one can pay TOO much attention to the quality of food they eat too. Staring at the pointing finger and missing the moon…

  5. If you wanted to actually help galclimber, you should have done a little research instead of spouting off ignorance. At the very least you could have admitted that you didn’t know enough about Paleo to help her, as most of the “information” you’ve presented isn’t even correct. The heart of Paleo (or Primal, or really even the Mid-Victorian era diet) is eliminating grain, soy, industrial seed oils, added sugars, chemicals and other such processed crap in favor of eating real, whole, nutrient dense foods. Dairy and legumes are optional depending on how an individuals body handles them, seeing as roughly 65% of the population is lactose intolerant, and humans don’t possess digestive enzymes for some of the compounds in legumes. As a side note, and only one reason to remove grain from the diet, gluten and other prolamines are associated with at least 55 medical conditions. Eating healthy can be low-carb or high-carb depending on the needs of your body and nothing says eating Paleo has to be low-carb, most people, however, don’t need the extra carbs. A poor diet can lead to inflammation, vitamin/mineral deficiencies, etc as well as slowing recovery time and encouraging bone/muscle loss which would all help contribute to an injury.

    1. @Edward
      You’ve not said anything I haven’t already read from Paleo Fanboys such as yourself. You’re entitled to your opinion, as I am to mine, and lucky for me this is my website so I get to say what I want. I’ve done research. I’ve educted myself. I’ve read both sides of the argument from PhD’s and well-known nutritionists. I’ve coached people. I’ve read case studies from many other trainers. I’ve experimented on myself. And what I wrote is all based on that information.

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