Paleo Disillusioned

by Christopher Lewis

“Only 4.5 grams!” exclaims my wife, Kristen, upon reading the amount of fat on the wrapper of a birthday cake flavored Pop Tart.  The thin foil wrapping crinkles as its opened. She breaks off a piece of the kaleidoscope colored pastry and inspects it before stuffing it into her mouth.   Her eyes widen in excitement.  “I found another treat,” she mumbles as she chews.

I shake my head, unable to reply with even a sarcastic quip.

“You know you want one,” she says to me with a grin.  I stare at her blankly.  “I don’t know why everyone doesn’t eat this way,” she says.

Kristen follows Flexible Dieting.  Popular among bodybuilders for some time, the dietary program has made inroads in the CrossFit community for over a year now.  Flexible Dieting focuses on tracking macronutrients throughout the day to achieve a body composition goal.   Instead of counting calories, you measure your food to attain certain levels of protein, carbs and fat.

Kristen is also a devout follower of The Outlaw Way, an intense program designed for competitive crossfitters and weightlifters, Kristen will regularly train one-and-a-half to two hours a day.  Many athletes within this community were finding success with the flexible dieting concept, and it caught Kristen’s attention.  At first, she tried two other diets that focused on counting macros and didn’t restrict any foods: If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) and Eat to Perform. IIFYM intrigued her at first because it’s marketed with the idea as long as you hit your target macros, it doesn’t matter what you eat.  A meal from McDonalds is the same as tuna with brown rice as long as the numbers match. But this was also one of the problems, she felt.  The other problem was that the online calculator spit out, what Kristen considered, an unrealistic amount of calories she would have to consume every day.   She just didn’t feel IIFYM was sustainable for her.  She then looked into Eat to Perform but felt it was too generic and not tailored to someone who works out as much as she does.  She also did not have a good experience with carb cycling, which is what Eat to Perform recommends.  Carb cycling would mean Kristen would drastically reduce carbs on her rest days.

Eventually, she came across a blog by CrossFit regionals competitor, Nicole Capurso, titled “How Donuts Gave me Abs & an 80kg Snatch.” Nicole wrote of her struggles following a Paleo diet; her lack of energy at times; her weekend binges on cheat days; and hitting a plateau performance-wise. She also felt she was too ‘soft and fluffy’ for someone who trains as much as she did. After her coach suggested she drop down a weight class for the upcoming weightlifting nationals, Nicole stumbled across Flexible Dieting.  The result: She dropped weight, her lifts went up, and she got a six-pack.

It caught Kristen’s attention.  Kristen read the e-book, Flexible Dieting 2.0, by Krissy Mae Cagney, and the light flicked on.  Cagney believes in a more balanced approach and argues you are much better off consuming nutritionally dense food to reach your macro targets than by eating junk food all day.  But Cagney believes you can’t live your whole life restricting yourself to eating certain foods.  Her approach is to try to find a balance between eating the foods you love and keeping the body you want.  If you want to eat a Pop Tart now and then, then by all means do so if it keeps you from binging all night on junk food later. In other words, bye-bye guilt and hello sustainability.

The FD worksheet contained in the e-book provided the following macronutrient requirements based on her activity level and goals:

            125g of Protein

            62g of Fat

            234g of Carbohydrates

Kristen showed me her recommendations and explained the diet, and I thought the whole thing was crazy talk.  “Low fat, high carb?”  “What is this?” I asked, “The 90’s?”

Flexible Dieting, in many ways, advocates the exact opposite of the Paleo diet, which recommends you not pay attention to calories as long as you restrict your diet to approved foods.

Measuring out your food is not a new idea.  The Zone Diet, the diet officially sanctioned by CrossFit HQ, also requires you weigh your food, and that diet has been around over 20 years. And when the Paleo diet unofficially supplanted the Zone Diet within the CrossFit community, everyone seemed please to rid themselves of their food scale and measuring cups.  But as Stephen King once wrote, “Sooner or later, everything old is new again.”

I’ve always felt one of the problems of a paleo diet for competitive athletes was the lack of carbs, but this approach seemed extreme to me.  “Eat whatever foods you want?” I asked.  “Blasphemy!”

In practice though, Kristen’s new way of eaten turned out to be far from extreme. Here is an example of what she eats on the days she trains:

Breakfast:  2 eggs with no-fat cheddar cheese, 2 low-fat turkey sausage links, a sweet potato pancake.

Lunch:  A protein shake and a protein bar.

Mid-afternoon snack:  1 Pop Tart.

Dinner: 4 oz. of roasted chicken breast, a cup of white rice, broccoli.

Late snack:  A bowl of low-fat, vanilla fudge yogurt.

Her diet is not horrible by any stretch.  On the contrary, it’s great compared to the standard American diet. On days where she wants to live a little, she’ll adjust what she eats during the day to fit in a treat.  The most important takeaway: Kristen is convinced she can eat this way her entire life because no foods are off the table.

But I was skeptical.  “All that sugar; how would it be possible to lean out?” I asked.  You must eat less than 150g of carbohydrates a day to lose body fat, I once read.

Flash forward six months:  She got leaner, her lifts went up, and she got a six-pack.

And so began my paleo disillusionment…  

Actually, my disillusionment began prior to Kristen’s experience.  Over the past year, I became steadily cynical of the many claims made by the paleo intelligentsia; the book authors, the podcasters, the message board moderators.  I found their claims to based on nothing more than dogma.  I was having a hard time recommending a Paleo diet in good conscious, because I began to question the diet’s premise and beliefs.

The latest research has described how the diet of Paleolithic man was much more diverse than previously thought, and that the human body is much more adaptable than originally given credit for.  It wasn’t always a diet consisting of meat and vegetables. Meat was a treat at times and not always a daily staple. Paleolithic man did eat grains in abundance depending on the region.  If they could get their hands on it, they ate it.

A common question among the paleoistas is “what would ancestral man do?” Well, I’m pretty sure they didn’t eat corned beef, paleo brownies or drink bulletproof coffee.

The intelligentsia are quick to point out there are many hunter-gatherer societies living today who thrive on a high-fat, animal-based diet like the Maasai in Africa or the Inuit of the Artic. Well this is true, they also fail to mention other societies who thrive on a diet consisting mostly of grains, such as the Okinawans and other Asian tribes.  And somehow, the success of the Mediterranean diet should be attributed to olive oil.  What fails to be mentioned is it’s a diet also high in grains and dairy, and meat is treated like a side dish (which consists mostly of fish).

I became irritated by hypocrisy of the intelligentsia. They are quick to point out how data was cherry-picked by T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study, or by any study espousing the dangers of eating red meat.

And yet, we are told to avoid grains and legumes based on (you guessed it) cherry-picked research.  We are told whole grains are the enemy because it causes inflammation and intestinal damage.  But as Dr. John Berardi of Precision Nutrition recently wrote in his blog, Settling the Grain Debate, not a single controlled trial has demonstrated grains cause inflammation.

The intelligentsia also claim intestinal damage is caused primarily by the food’s anti-nutrients – specifically, lectins, phytic acid, and protease inhibitors which interfere with your body’s ability to absorb nutrients.  But they’re basing these claims on research where anti-nutrients were isolated in a lab and fed to mice in copious amounts.  And in this case, yes, they can be harmful.  But last I checked, I don’t see too many people shooting up lectins into their veins in a dark alley.  When cooked and eaten in moderation, anti-nutrients are not harmful, and in fact, can provide many other health benefits by its antioxidant and anti-carcinogenic properties.

The only thing inflammatory is the term anti-nutrient itself.  All plants contain anti-nutrients, albeit some more than others.  Plants, like any other living organism, don’t want to be eaten.  Anti-nutrients are a plant’s defense mechanism. Humans are quite adaptable, and we learned over time what plants can be eaten and how they should be prepared.

Now understand I’m referring to whole grains such as rice, quinoa, oats, rye, buckwheat, barley and sometimes wheat.  I’m not referring to the “whole wheat” bread or Triscuits on the shelf of your neighborhood supermarket, which is processed and also includes enriched wheat flour.  There is no doubt processed wheat is problematic for a portion of the population, but it may not be why originally thought.

A friend of mine has a t-shirt I just love.  Printed on it is “Gluten, The New Al Qaeda.”  We are told you might as well drink paint thinner if you’re going to eat anything containing gluten.

If you suffer from celiac disease, then yes, gluten is the culprit.  That’s about 1-2% of the population.  It’s also estimated that 10-20% of the population suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), and this is where the problem lies.  It turns out, it may not be the gluten at all.  A recent study, conducted ironically by the researcher who originally proved the existence of NCGS, went so far to conclude NGCS is a figment of our imagination.  Other studies have concluded it may not be the gluten that causes irritability but FODMAPs, which are types of carbohydrates found in some grains, fruits, and vegetables.   In other words, unless you have been diagnosed with celiac disease, a lot of those gluten-free products now on the shelves of every supermarket may not be any better for you after all.

The paleo community went ballistic over these claims crying ‘blasphemy!’ of course.  The response was a tidal wave of blogs and podcasts that went along the lines of, “I’ll call your study and raise you two more.”

The bottom line:  We really don’t know why wheat is a problem for some.  For many, it may not be a problem at all.  If you believe wheat causes havoc with your body, then avoid it.  If it doesn’t, I wouldn’t make it a daily staple, but don’t feel guilty about indulging now and then.  And you may want to save your money (as well as your taste buds) and avoid a gluten-free replacement.

Following the tenets of a Paleo diet reminds me of Don Quixote tilting at windmills. By trying to avoid grains, legumes and dairy, we are just fighting imaginary enemies.

But I write this not to convince you to begin Flexible Dieting.  My point is to convince you there are many different ways to diet effectively, and the hard and fast rules of any diet may not apply to you.   Do I believe you should stop eating a Paleo diet and start eating the Flexible Dieting way?  Not necessarily.  Can you thrive under a Paleo diet?  Absolutely.  Do you need to eat a Paleo diet to thrive? Absolutely not.

The best diet is the one you’ll stay on.   

Over time, my views on diets has grown to mirror my views on religion: It plays an important role in people’s lives; there is a right way to do things in the broadest sense; and there are different paths to the same end.

The problem with diets, as well as with religion, is not with the diet itself but with its cheerleaders – The zealots and the self-righteous.  Some write books, appear on Dr. Oz, and sell bottles of a special magic elixir.  They are the ones who tell you certain foods are evil and that their way is the right way.  It’s their voice that’s in your head and make you feel guilty when you veer off the path.  They are the ones who lead you to believe if you follow their advice and don’t lose weight – well, it must be a problem with you.

They have also created legions of mini-zealots who bash you on message boards or at dinner parties for daring to question what they know is the truth.  They tell you that everyone must avoid gluten, grains, red meat, dairy, certain fruits, and alcohol at all costs.  They tell you when to eat, how often, and how much.  And once again, they know their way is the only way.

There are exceptions in the paleo diet community that don’t approach the diet with such fervor.  Chris Kresser is an example that comes to mind. But I can name a lot more who do preach with a high-level of zeal.

And what they’re preaching might be true or it might not be – it depends on the person.  Everyone is different, and the factors that affect health or weight loss are quite varied.  Lifestyle, activity level, sleep quality, stress management and gut microbiota all play an important role.  To proclaim there is only way is naïve at best.

What should you do?  I don’t think you can go wrong by keeping it simple. To this day, I still quote Michael Pollan: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” And by food, Pollan means whole, natural food.  The stuff that you buy on the periphery of the super market, that goes bad quickly, and isn’t wrapped in a shiny package.  We all know what we should eat and what we should not.  It’s the doing that’s the problem, which is why we constantly turn to the diet du jour.

We are funny creatures.  We’ll gladly declare our independence, but deep inside we really just want to be told what to do. I get it, our lives are complicated.  Anything that simplifies it is a blessing.  So simplify it.  Don’t fall victim to all the noise that’s blasted by all the experts.  Eat real food, but not too much of it.  Should you eat white potatoes or whole grains like quinoa?  If you like those foods, then by all means, do so.  If performance or weight loss are goals, then track what you eat.  Be cognizant of what you put into your body and adjust it as necessary.

What really matters is whether it works for you or not.  Pay attention to whether a certain way of eating is a chore or something you don’t give much thought to.  There are plenty of whole, natural foods out there to fit anyone’s palate. When out to dinner with friends, or at a family birthday party, or at a baseball game, just make the best choice you can and live with it.  It won’t be the end of the world if you stray off the path now and then.

So the next time I’m asked, “What’s the best diet?”  I’ll respond, “The one you’ll stay on.”

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