Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Principles of Paleo (and whether I agree with each one)

I've been promising this post for a while, and I've been deliberately procrastinating. Some of that has to do with the fact that my level of agreement (or disagreement) with the various principles is constantly changing. But it's more that I have a huge gob of notes scribbled in Evernote and I was not looking forward to making it cohesive...and I was frankly dreading having to cite all my references. But then I realized this isn't a research paper and I'm not in college anymore.

So, just know that in addition to all the time I've spent looking at blogs and internet info, I've read two books on the subject. Three if you count The Four Hour Body, which is an interesting and educational tome of info by Tim Ferriss. This makes me more of an expert than a lot of bloggers in cyberspace and the bro-science virtuosos at your gym. You're in good hands. Most of the information I discuss below comes from either The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf or The Paleo Answer by Loren Cordain, both of which I strongly recommend.

FYI #1. This is a long one. A manifesto, if you will. You may need to read it in two sittings. If you're a regular reader, you know by now that my posts aren't geared to the twitter tweeter. 

FYI #2. I talk about some unpalatable gastrointestinal stuff in this one. I preface these sections with a TMI ALERT (too much information). 

Let's get going. 

1. Cut out all sugary, processed and refined foods. 
The Claims: This isn't a particularly paleo point; the research is well-established that these junk foods are making us fat, sick and ugly.

How much I agree: Completely. Feel free to cheat once in a while, but removing these foods is the surest step you can take towards better health and well-being.

2. Avoid dairy.  

The Claims: Dairy is meant for baby cows. It contains lots of enzymes and hormones, including the Bovine Growth Hormone, that are not meant to be digested by humans. Although dairy products have decent glycemic indices on the surface, milk actually wreaks havoc on your insulin levels. Dairy can cause acne, cateracts, Parkinson's Disease, heart disease, ulcers, and cancer. It messes with your mucus levels, and hurts mineral and nutrient absorption. Compared to lean meat and veggies, milk actually has very low nutritional value per calorie. Many people have dairy allergies (lactose intolerance).

What about the calcium? Well, there's lots of evidence that I don't really understand, which shows that overall calcium intake is not as important as the amount of calcium that actually gets into your bones. (I know this explanation sucks, I'm sorry). Also, bone health is actually not about calcium, but calcium-to-magnesium ratio. If anything, we need more magnesium.

How much I agree: I have completely cut out dairy, to great effect. I used to have to take Mucinex often to deal with the large amount of mucus in my throat, and that problem has disappeared. TMI ALERT: My bowel movements are much more regular and I have fewer instances of diarrhea. While this might be attributed to the increase in fiber from vegetables, I definitely experience stomach pains and / or diarrhea when I consume dairy.

That said, some people have adapted to digest dairy. This is especially true for people of white, Northern European descent. If you can handle dairy, and especially if you're looking to increase your strength and size, milk provides an inexpensive source of carbs, fat and protein in a favorable ratio. Fermented dairy products like yogurt and kefir have also been shown to be beneficial and easier on one's stomach than milk.

3. Avoid grains.

The Claims: Grains, like dairy, contain a lot of anti-nutrients that actually bind to vitamins and minerals, preventing uptake by your body. Ironically, whole grains are worse for you than refined grains in this regard because they contain more phytate or phytic acid, which prevents calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc absorption. Grains also counteract calcium and vitamin D metabolism. Calorie for calorie, grains are nutritional lightweights, comparing poorly to vegetables, fruits, and lean meats. Then, there is the whole gluten thing. While the gluten in wheat, rye and barley is the worst, all grains have similar dietary lectins that can lead to leaky gut syndrome and a host of diseases including autoimmune disorders. Lastly, grains are a very dense source of carbohydrates, which in large amounts can make us fat and screw up our metabolisms. "Pseudo-grains" like quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat have similar characteristics to grains, so they're only advised in small amounts.

How much I agree: I'm very mixed on this. On one hand, I don't want to screw up my gut and get all sorts of diseases when I'm older. On the other hand, grains support my athletic performance in the here and now. In other words, my fitness is potentially coming into conflict with my health and longevity.

I respond differently to different grains. For me, rice actually seems to cause the most bloating. Corn seems to be ok. Oats are also tolerable in moderate servings. I used to think a protruding belly was just the genetic hand I was dealt -- it stuck out no matter how defined my abs were. That's not the case at all. My bloating disappears with an elimination of some grains and a reduction in others.

I'm fortunate that I can tolerate gluten, and I think the gluten-free frenzy is yet another marketing moneymaker for the specialty food and nutrition industry. I believe it's an allergy, no different than other allergies, and I think it's currently being over-diagnosed and blown of proportion.

At the same time, what I'm realizing in my intermittent fasting, post-workout carbo-loading experimentation, is that I feel crappy when I eat more than a small amount of any grain. So, if you need some starchy carbs in order to have enough gas in the tank, and you don't want to eat sweet potatoes every day for the rest of your life, you should mess around with different types and amounts of grains. I think there's a Goldilocks zone -- a "just right" amount of grains that allows me to go hard in the gym and on the bike, all while minimizing the belly bloat and feeling good.

4. Avoid Legumes.

The Claims: Just like the above, legumes have a ton of antinutrients. Although beans' dietary lectins (which are poisonous toxins) and protease inhibitors (which hurt our ability to break down amino acids) can be reduced with proper soaking and cooking, phytates in legumes still bind to nutrients and prevent absorption no matter what. Legumes also have other scary-sounding anti-nutrients, like saponins, tannins and isoflavones. Saponins are soap-like molecules that "punch holes in the membranes lining the exterior of every cell." (I'm not making this up. This is coming directly from Cordain.) All this is why vegans, whose diets are heavy in grains and legumes, are often deficient in vital nutrients -- even with supplements.

How much I agree: Not much. There is plenty of dispute in the field of nutrition on legumes. Tim Ferriss, for instance, makes beans an integral part of his slow-carb diet. Dr. John Berardi, the CEO of Precision Nutrition and author of an e-book on intermittent fasting, also touts the nutritional benefit of beans over the drawbacks. Mark Sisson's perspective is mixed.

There is a wide range between the best and the worst. Lentils and peas seem to have the lowest antinutrient content, while you should try to stay away from estrogen-loaded soy, and undercooked kidney beans can kill you.

I've never really made legumes a dietary staple (except peanut butter, which has been replaced by almond and cashew butter). However, for vegetarians looking at a paleo-style diet, legumes are essential. What's more, legumes are an abundant source of protein and carbs, both of which are especially hard to get enough of on strict paleo diets. I take a protein and carb shake before and after workouts, and would probably need to rely on legumes otherwise. TMI ALERT: I messed around with lentils to replace oatmeal as a daily carb source, and it made me extremely gassy.

5. Get enough sleep. 

The Claims: The benefits from adequate sleep are very significant, both for long term health as well as your physique. You should sleep in complete darkness (with blackout curtains and no lights from electronics). Sleep until you wake up; you should not need an alarm clock.

How much I agree: I don't think I feel much better when I sleep more than 7 or 8 hours. After 8 hours, the marginal cost starts to exceed the marginal benefit, i.e. my overall ability to get things done decreases because I have fewer waking hours. I'm not commensurately more productive from the extra sleep, and in fact I'm more anxious because I have less time. Plus, at my age, I'd prefer to have more time being awake and alive, rather than to live an extra couple years later on. So again, there's a Goldilocks zone. 

I have found in general that I sleep incredibly well on a paleo-style diet. I also have more focus when I'm awake. So the nutrition side of the diet certainly helps the sleep side.

6. Other loose ends:

The Claims: There are some otherwise caveman foods that are discouraged under the paleo diet. These include nightshades -- especially potatoes -- due to their antinutrients. Vegetable oils should be avoided due to high Omega-6 fatty acid content, but fats from olive oil, avocado oil, and canola oil are encouraged. (Saturated fats are generally regarded as ok, too, as long as they're from paleo sources and not dairy). Nuts and seeds are allowed with caution, due to some antinutrients and high Omega-6 content. Foods like bananas, agave and honey are discouraged simply because of the high sugar content, while all fruits are discouraged for overweight people.

How much I agree: I know what you're thinking. How hypocritical! What a double standard! I hear ya. The biggest contradiction I see is that other root vegetables besides potato, like sweet potatoes and carrots, are fine. So what's the difference? Well, one of the coaches at my gym explains the potato thing by saying that regular russet or yukon potatoes have been bred over time to be very starchy and low in nutrients, so they spike your insulin levels just like grains. This makes sense. My coach does, however, eat non-conventional varieties such as blue potatoes.

As for the nightshade thing, some people -- myself included -- have issues with the high level of saponins. The nightshade classification, which includes potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers, should be eaten with caution. TMI ALERT: In my experimentation, I've been surprised to find that nightshades make me SUPER gassy. Especially cherry tomatoes and bell peppers. I couldn't believe the difference it made when I cut these two ingredients out of my lunch salad.

The nuts and seeds deal makes sense when you consider optimal foraging theory, which indicates the preferences of cavemen based on the calories you get for the effort. According to Cordain, cavemen favored food in this order: 1. Large animals, 2. Medium-size animals, 3. Small animals, birds, and fish, 4. Roots and tubers, 5. Fruit, 6. Honey, 7. Nuts and seeds, 8. Grass seeds (cereals). As you can see, nuts and seeds are low on the list, and weren't a big part of our ancestors' diets. Yet, anyone who  has eaten a handful of almonds, then another, then another, knows it's easy to consume 1,000 calories without even stopping to think. I love my almonds, pistachios and cashew butter, but I do my best to limit these foods to a few handfuls per day because they do have some problems. For this reason, Robb Wolf recommends they be used more as a condiment. I like this analogy.

To sum it up.
There are a few important conclusions I'm swishing around in my brain right now. All will probably change as I continue to experiment.

First, I find there is a fundamental logical flaw in the Paleo diet, exemplified in this must-read debate between Cordain and T. Colin Campbell, the China Study guy. Although Cordain rips Campbell apart by referencing a huge amount of valid sources and experimental evidence, and Campbell's lackluster rebuttal lacks documentation, Campbell does make one compelling point: Humans may have evolved by eating certain foods that maximized their chances of reproduction, not longevity. A vegetarian diet, while perhaps not optimal if you want to spread your seed, might still be best for overall health. To put it even more simply: Just because some foods haven't been part of our diets for very long, doesn't mean these foods are inherently bad for us. Campbell bases his point on insights from his anthropologist colleagues. I'm not an anthropologist, so I'm not sure how correct this point is. All I can do is listen to my own body and stay aware of how various foods make me feel.

Second, in general, it seems to me a lot of the studies referenced by the paleo experts involve subjects that are in pretty bad shape. Diabetics, cardiovascular disease patients, and autoimmune disease patients are often the test group. The positive benefits of the paleo diet on these populations are astonishing. However, I haven't seen many (or any?) scientific studies on how average, healthy gym-goers do when they switch to paleo. I've only seen anecdotes. 

Third, on a related note, the whole "give paleo a try for 30 days" thing can be misleading. I don't disagree that unhealthy and / or obese people feel great when they switch to paleo; with the emphasis on natural, whole, unprocessed foods, rapid positive shifts in well-being can be expected. But reasonably healthy people, especially athletes, are likely to feel like mud...and that feeling may not go away within 30 days, or ever. I'm still open-minded to my metabolism switching over to efficient fat burning. But for now, I need starchy carbs. Maybe, if I were around in the stone age, I would have quickly died off, and my carb-loving temperament would be removed from the gene pool forever. I guess I'm lucky I live in the 21st century.

Finally, I think paleo is more about what you put into your diet than what you take out. Yes, I do better when avoiding dairy. And yes, everyone will benefit from cutting out the refined, processed, sugary stuff. But my body seems to tolerate gluten just fine. Legumes also, to an extent. On the other hand, I've added in huge amounts of spinach, kale, lettuce, carrots, beets, and other veggies, as well as more eggs, salmon and other lean meats, all with noticeable benefits. Even if the antinutrients in grains and legumes are capturing some of the vitamins and minerals my body would otherwise absorb, I'm still getting plenty from the sheer amount of nutrient-dense foods I now eat. So it's a net positive. 

As I've said before, it comes down to doing what works for you. Just experiment!


  1. Great post! You mention that we need more magnesium, can you please share some suggestions. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for the comment! I take Natural Calm, which is a magnesium supplement. It's relaxing to take before bed. I'm planning on doing a whole post about paleo supplements like fish oil, Vitamin D and probiotics soon.