I hate counting calories.
I don’t like keeping track of how much I’ve eaten, I don’t like obsessing over how many grams of a particular nutrient I’ve eaten, and I don’t like worrying that I ate too much/little and the end of the day. Not only do I hate counting calories, but I know that calories are really only half of the battle, as they’re not all created equal – 400 calories of Doritos do NOT affect your body in the same way as 400 calories of high-quality vegetables and chicken.
Fortunately, if you can expand your horizons and remove certain types of food from your diet, you can stop worrying about counting calories FOREVER (sorry, the Count – ah ah ah). About fifteen months ago, I stumbled across a particular type of eating that doesn’t require counting a single calorie AND allows you to eat as much as you want (I’m serious – I explain later). Oh, and it will help you lose weight, build muscle, and get in the best shape of your life.
I know, that sounds like an ad for some really shady supplement or diet book that you’d see on TV at 4 AM.
Putting aside the marketing mumbo-jumbo, it’s a diet – it’s actually a lifestyle, but we’ll stick with diet for now – that actually works. How do I know? Because it has caused jaw-dropping transformations in many people, including Saint and Staci.
I’m talking about the Paleo Diet.
Cue the Baltimora!
(warning: this is the LONGEST post I’ve ever written on Nerd Fitness at over 4,000 words).
Oh lord, another “diet.” I know, it sounds like a fad/marketing ploy, but it’s actually quite legit. You see, tens of thousands of years ago, before Nike, Cap’n Crunch, pasta, and Heathy Choice meals, our ancient ancestors survived and thrived as hunter-gatherers. Although it’s been a really long time, our genetics haven’t changed that much since then.
The average Homo Sapien back then: was tall, muscular, agile, athletic, and incredible versatile.
Today’s “average” Homo Sapien: overweight, out of shape, dying from a myriad of preventable diseases, stressed out, unhappy, and sleep deprived.
So what the hell happened? Agriculture! A few thousand years ago humans discovered farming, the agricultural revolution took off, and we changed from hunter-gathers into farmers. We settled down, formed societies, and the human race progressed into what we are today.
The problem is, our bodies never adjusted properly to eat all of the grains that we were now farming. Robb Wolf (who I’ll talk about shortly) has a great analogy on why we haven’t adapted. Think of a 100-yard football field. The first 99.5 yards are how long Homo-Sapiens spent as hunter-gathers – they became REALLY good at it during that time, and over thousands of generations our bodies adapted to that lifestyle. That last half-yard represents our species after the agricultural revolution, where our diet has shifted (but our genetics haven’t).
So, instead of loading up on lean meats, vegetables and seasonal fruits, we’ve become a species “dependent” upon grains – bread, pasta, rice, corn, and so on. Our government continues to recommend 6-11 servings of grains a day, and the people of our country continue to get fatter and fatter by the day.
66% of us are overweight, 33% are considered obese, and those numbers are onlygetting worse.
Clearly something’s not right. The Paleo Diet is an effort to go back to eating how we’re biologically designed to eat, before the agricultural revolution, allowing us to tap into our genetic potential and start living healthier immediately.
Note: I am not a doctor, registered dietitian, or a food scientist. The words below are a summary of what I’ve read from half a dozen books and hundreds of websites, studies, and articles on the subject, put into my own words to simplify things as much as possible. The articles and books I’ve read have hundreds of scientific sources that they use, so I’ll leave those sources to them.
Back in the day, grains weren’t part of our diet. We ate what we could hunt or find – meats, fish, nuts, leafy greens, regional veggies, some tubers and roots, occasional berries or seasonal fruits, and seeds that other animals hadn’t decimated. Grains came around extremely late in our development cycle and have been causing problems ever since.
As Mark from Mark’s Daily Apple (a website that I visit daily and whole-heartedly recommend) points out in his “definitive guide to grains” article, grains cause kind of a funky response in our system. Grains are composed of carbohydrates, and those carbs are turned into glucose (a type of sugar) in our system to be used for energy and various other tasks to help our body function – any glucose that isn’t used as energy is stored as fat.
Rather than me explain that part with thousands of words, just watch this three-minute video which I’ve referenced many times – “Why You Got Fat“
Next, most grains contain gluten and lectins. What are they and what’s wrong with them? I’m so glad you asked:
- Gluten is an protein found in things like rye, wheat, and barley (and possibly millet?). It’s now being said that a large portion of our population is gluten-intolerant (hence all the new “gluten-free!” items popping up everywhere). Over time, those who are gluten intolerant can develop a dismal array of medical conditions from consuming gluten: dermatitis, joint pain, reproductive problems, acid reflux,other digestive conditions and auto-immune disorders. Most people who are gluten-intolerant go undiagnosed.
- Lectins are natural toxins that exist within grains that exist to defend against consumption! Yup. Grains have evolved to keep themselves from being eaten by us. Suck. Because of that, these lectins are not a fan of our gastro-intestinal tract, and won’t let it repair itself from normal wear and tear, which can let all kinds of crap that doesn’t belong into parts of our body where they can do some damage.
As Mark so eloquently puts it in his article: grains are unhealthy at best, or flat-out dangerous at worst.
Considering our government has recommended tons of grain consumption daily for maximum health for decades and continues to subsidize corn farmers, it’s not too much of a stretch to see why government research into the health hazards of grains has been slow coming.
Another big part of the paleo diet is almost the complete eradication of sugar. Unless you’re getting your sugar from a fruit, forget it. Sugar causes an energy spike and crash in your system, turns to fat unless it’s used immediately, and wreaks all kind of havoc on our system.
So, no grains, no sugar, no processed foods. Many studies have shown that an incredible number of diseases and lifestyle issues can be reversed with these two simple changes. Here’s a time magazine article on cancer patients who switched to a zero-sugar diet and saw positive results.
So, if we’re not eating 300+ grams of carbs every day, where are we supposed to get our energy from?
Remember, our bodies are designed to operate on a lower amount of carbohydrates than what we’re used to eating, so less carbs isn’t an issue. When there is an absence of carbs (which is how we’re USED to operating), our body will take our stored fat and burn THAT for energy (in a process called ketogenesis). It’s even possible for our bodies to convert protein glucose for energy when necessary.
What I’m trying to tell you is that our bodies are pretty effin’ efficient.
So, less carbs = less glucose in your system, which means your body will have to start burning fat as your fuel source. Win!
Nope. Carbs still serve a decent purpose in our diets, but they’re not essential – (check out the Inuit Paradox for a great read on societies that exist without almost any carbohydrates). I prefer to get my carbs from vegetables, sweet potatoes, and fruit. Why is that? These foods are naturally occurring in the wild and don’t need to be processed in any way (unlike grains) in order to be consumed.
The other great thing about vegetables is that you can honestly eat as many of them as you like and you’ll never get fat. They’re incredibly nutrient dense and calorie light – six servings of broccoli (and who would eat 6 servings at once?) has 180 calories and only 36 grams of carbs. A single serving of pasta (and NOBODY eats just one serving of pasta) has 200 calories and 42 grams of carbs.
Dairy’s a tough one, as most paleo folks tend to stay away from it - a huge portion of the world is lactose intolerant, and those that aren’t usually have at least some type of an aversion to it. Why is that? Because no animal in the entire kingdom drinks milk beyond infancy. Hunter gathers didn’t lug cows around with them while traveling – milk was consumed as a baby, and that was it. As with grains, our bodies weren’t designed for massive dairy consumption.
Personally, I’m split on dairy, as I can drink whole milk without any sort of issue and I’m considering adding it back into my diet to get enough calories to bulk up.
Okay, so if we cut out the grains, almost all processed foods, and dairy, you’re left with only things that occur naturally:
- Meat – GRASS-FED, not grain-fed…which causes the same problem in animals as they do in humans
- Fowl - chicken, duck, hen, turkey…things with wings that (try to) fly.
- Fish – wild fish, not farmed fish, as mercury and other toxins can be an issue
- Eggs - look for Omega-3 enriched eggs
- Vegetables – as long as they’re not deep fried, eat as many as you want
- Oils – olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil – think natural
- Fruits – have natural sugar, and can be higher in calories, so limit if you’re trying to lose weight
- Nuts – high in calories, so they’re good for a snack, but don’t eat bags and bags of them
- Seeds - same as nuts, can be high in calories
- Tubers – sweet potatoes, yams. Higher in calories and carbs, so these are good for right after a workout to replenish your glycogen levels.
Steak with asparagus and sweet potato fries, grilled chicken salad, massive omelets that will fill you up for the whole morning, apples dipped in almond butter (my new favorite snack ever), and so on. Pick any of the things from that list, and eat as much as you want of them (with the noted exceptions), and you’ll feel better and most likely lose weight.
Because these foods are so nutritious and filling, it’s almost impossible to overeat.To get the equal number of calories from a bag of Doritos or bread (which, as you know, you can eat all day long and never really feel full), you’d have to eat like 2-3 mactrucks full of broccoli and lettuce. Okay that’s clearly an over-exaggeration , but it’s absolutely true. A GIANT plate of vegetables and a reasonable portion of meat can keep you full for hours, while eating carb-heavy foods can result in you being hungry again just a few hours later.
Whenever I need to lose weight for vacation or something like that, I go 100% Paleo and I can drop a few body fat percentage points in a few weeks (while combining it with strength training and interval running).
I like success.
Okay then, don’t try the Paleo Diet! Simple as that.
If you’re happy with how you look, your energy levels are good all day, and you don’t see any room for improvement, then keep doing what you’re doing – I won’t force you to eat like this. However, if you’ve been struggling with weight loss, have no energy throughout the day, need eight cups of coffee, hate counting calories, and want to start turning your life around today, why not give it a shot for 30 days?
JUST TRY IT: if after 30 days you haven’t noticed a marked improvement in your quest for a better life, then go back to the donuts.
The FDA recommends a ratio somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-20% protein, 10-20% fats, and 50-60% carbs. Ugh. No wonder this country’s collective waistline is ballooning out of control. I’d say my current diet now is probably closer to 50% fats, 25% protein, and 25% carbs. I think Mark over at Mark’s Daily Apple might be up to 60% fats and down to 10% carbs.
Both of us have a body fat percentage down in the single digits.
Keep it simple: try to get a really good protein source with each meal (eggs, steak, chicken, fish, pork) with each meal along with some vegetables or fruit. That’s it. If you’re having trouble getting enough energy or calories daily, add some healthy fats into the equation: avocado, a handful of almonds or walnuts, almond butter, olive oil, and so on.
Now, fruit does have quite a bit of sugar in it, and nuts have quite a bit of calories…so if you are following the paleo diet but not losing weight, check your fruit and nut consumption and see if you are loading up on those at the expense of vegetables and healthy protein.
What I’m trying to say is this: fat should make up a big percentage of your diet.
Pooooooor fat. It has been rip to shreds over the past number of decades, so companies have been doing everything possible to make everything low fat and “healthy!” (while adding all sorts of preservatives, chemicals, and sugar). Yup…cut out the fat, increase the carbs….and look where THAT has gotten us.
Why has fat been vilified? Rather than get into the politics of it myself, I’ll let Gary Taubes, author of the incredibly-thorough and well-researched Good Calories, Bad Calories take over. Here’s an article he wrote for the New York Times a decade ago: What if its all Been a Big Fat Lie? Take the 15 minutes to read that article – it could radically redefine your thinking on fat and carbohydrates.
So, feel free to eat healthy fats, and stop buying ‘low fat’ garbage.
Nope. Eat when you’re hungry, don’t eat when you’re not. Going again back to our evolutionary history, we didn’t always have the luxury of going to a vending machine or drive-through window to pick up food. Sometimes we’d go all day long without finding any food, or even days at a time. Luckily, we’re designed to use our excess fat stores as energy in these situations.
Don’t worry about eating every three hours – our metabolisms aren’t that smart. Sometimes, it’s even okay to skip a meal or two, as long as you don’t go berserk and eat 7 pizzas because you’re so hungry afterward.
This type of eating is generally referred to as Intermittent Fasting.
The main criticism that I continue to come across for this diet is that it’s “fear mongering” and vilifying grains in the same way that fats have been vilified. Also, the Paleo Diet and guys like Mark Sisson and Gary Taubes are supporters of eating saturated fats in quantities that would scare most people, as they’ve discovered through their research and personal experiences is that saturated fat is both healthy and essential to our lives.
Personally, I’ve heard both sides of the story from both extremes on fats, saturated fats, grains,whole grains, and meat – it can be quite confusing and terrifying to go in either direction.
If you want to drive yourself mad, go spend 30 minutes reading the comments on Tim Ferriss and Robb Wolf’s highly entertaining article about the Paleo Diet - it’s a bunch of dietitians yelling back and forth at each other citing different studies and sources and then proclaiming that the other is a wackjob.
Another big issue associated with this type of diet is that it can get expensive. Mark and other Paleo advocates recommend eating mostly organic fruits and vegetables, only grass-fed beef, wild fish, and organic free-range chickens. I completely agree with them, but these types of foods are often quite a bit more expensive in conventional stores due to the processes needed to get them in there.
However, farmer’s markets often have well-priced meats, eggs, fruits, and vegetables that are locally grown and incredibly healthy. Even if you’re spending more money than before, when you factor in your overall health, spending a few extra bucks on healthier food now is a wiser investment than thousands later on costly medical procedures.
It’s tough to eat paleo in today’s society! A normal breakfast in the US consists of bagels, muffins, toast, cereal, and/or donuts. NONE of those things have any nutritional value, they’re loaded with tons of carbs and calories, and are composed of processed grains that can jack up your stomach. Eating out at restaurants can get tough as well, as “paleo-approved” is not something you’ll usually find on a menu. Eating in this manner requires careful planning and tons of willpower, but it can be done if you’re dedicated.
“But cavemen had short lifespans! We live way longer now” - I agree with you here, but only because you don’t have to deal with the dangers of living back then. If you break your leg now, you simply get in a cast, lie on the couch, and watch reruns of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. A broken leg 100,000 years ago probably meant you were going to be eaten by a bear. Give those hunter-gathers access to modern technology and medicine and I bet their lifespan would easily surpass ours.
Lastly, there are those that claim that all of this “we’re not designed to eat grains” is garbage – that plenty of societies around the world consume grains and aren’t fat and unhealthy like us. Personally, I can’t dispute those claims, and I don’t have a time machine (yet) to go back to the caveman days to see what they really ate 100,000 years ago. A lot of people cite The China Study when criticizing the Paleo Diet – here are some essays, reviews, and a debate between the author of the Paleo Diet and the author of the China Study that might make you change your mid.
But this is just a meat diet, and eating all of that meat is bad! I’ve read that everywhere on the news lately, including that red meat will kill you! First of all, consider your sources and do your research before jumping to the conclusions that everybody in mainstream media did. Next, this is not an all meat diet or zero carb diet like Atkins. The biggest component of the paleo diet? Vegetables! Every meal in a true paleo diet has a moderate amount of healthy (properly raised chicken, grass-fed beef, hormone free, etc.) meat combined with nutritious veggies or a moderate amount of fruit. The point is to eat real food and avoid the processed stuff. If meat isn’t your thing, there are still plenty of principles that can apply to you here.
The human body is so incredibly complex that I doubt will ever have a definitive answer on the best possible diet. This one might sound like a fad to you, or that it’s too restrictive, complicated, etc.
All I ask is that you try it for 30 days before passing judgment.
I spent the first two and a half weeks of September 2010 on the Paleo Diet: and I slept better, woke up with more energy, and continued to get stronger in the gym (despite losing weight). Then I had 14 friends come into town this past weekend – I ate all kinds of grains and carbs because it was easier and I figured I’d give myself two days off. I don’t know if my stomach had actually adjusted to the new lifestyle that quickly, but I spent most of Sunday night, all of Monday, and Tuesday dealing with a stomach that absolutely HATED me.
I could cite sources about how the Paleo Diet has changed people’s lives (read the first few paragraphs of Robb’s article for lots of anecdotal stories), or even saved this Doctor’s life(must watch!), and I could reference some other sites that explain why the changes occur, but instead I just ask you to try it and then judge for yourself.
Take 30 days and give it a shot - cut out the grains and dairy, start eating more vegetables and fruits, eat more humanely raised and non-grain fed meat, cut out the liquid calories and sugar, and see how you feel after the month is up. Obviously, check with your doctor before making any drastic changes, but go ahead and get your blood work done at the beginning and end of the month if you’re analytical and want numbers to use in your final verdict.
Take a picture of yourself now, and then another 30 days from now. I bet you’ll be surprised.
I’m a fan of the Paleo Diet because it makes logical sense to me. I know we existed as a species 150,000 years ago, I know the agricultural revolution didn’t happen until 10,000 years ago, which means we had 140,000 years to deal without grains. In that time we learned to thrive as a species (or else we wouldn’t be here). I feel like if we were going to evolve, it would have happened in the first 140,000 years – since grains coming along we might have changed slightly, but not much.
The other reason I’m a fan is because you can eat what you want (provided it’s paleo), when you want, and eat however much of it you like. Eat a huge breakfast, skip lunch, and a big dinner. Eat a small breakfast, two snacks, and then dinner. Do whatever makes you happy and fits in your schedule. I like this kind of stress-free eating.
Regardless of whether or not grains should be vilified, I love this diet because I know it WORKS. I know people that have lost incredible amounts of weight and changed their lives within a matter of months. The diet portion of my e-book, The Rebel Fitness Guide, is designed around the Paleo Diet (allowing people to ease into it) because I know it works. The diet portions of the Rebel Strength Guide and the Rebel Running Guide are also grounded in paleo principles because that’s how strongly I believe in it.
Regardless of how you feel about grains, you have to concede that eating more natural foods and less processed foods is better for you.
If you’re looking to read more about the Paleo Diet, I have a few resources to recommend. The main links are free resources, the indented links are books available for sale on Amazon:
Mark’s Daily Apple - Easily the most comprehensive resource on the internet for the Paleo Diet – Mark writes an article every weekday about everything Paleo, and it usually blows me away. Some of the posts can get overwhelming, so I suggest starting with his Primal Blueprint 101.
The Primal Blueprint – if you want to read about this stuff in a book rather than on a computer screen, Mark’s book The Primal Blueprint is a fantastic place to get started on not only what to eat, but why you should be eating it. It’s educational, funny, real-world applicable, and teaches you how to primalize (just made that up) the rest of your life too.
Robb Wolf – Another great resource, and a guy I’ve already referenced in this article multiple times. Check out his site for a comprehensive FAQ on all things Paleo, a shopping list pdf(right-click and save), and plenty of humor.
The Paleo Solution – this article would have been finished 3 hours earlier, but I woke up early this morning and read ALL of Robb’s new book. It seriously had me laughing out loud at certain points – not bad for a book on diet! This book is a little less forgiving than Mark’s book above, but it’s still a great read.
Loren Cordain – Loren is considered the leading expert on the Paleo Diet – Robb is actually one of his students/deciples/padowans. Dr. Cordain is probably the foremost authority this type of eating, which is why I really enjoyed reading both of his books:
The Paleo Diet – While Mark and Robb discuss a Paleo lifestyle, Loren pretty much sticks to diet here, and goes into far greater detail than the other two. One note: Loren differs from Mark on the topic of saturated fats. Mark will tell you to eat a lot more, where as this book will tell you to limit them.
The Paleo Diet for Athletes – for you crazy cats who like to run marathons, do Ironman competitions, and so on. This is a book designed specifically for endurance athletes who are used to eating 500 grams of carbs a day to give them the energy to bike/run/swim for hours and hours.
The Rebel Fitness Guide – Yup, tooting my own horn here. I’m a fan of the Paleo Diet, but I know it can be intimidating, so I’ve created a diet philosophy that allows you to slowly ease into the paleo lifestyle. I still include resources for vegans and vegetarians if that’s your thing, but I did what I could to make this whole “diet” thing enjoyable and educational.
So you’re ready to eat Paleo, but you don’t know how to cook anything, huh? Have no fear, the Internet is a wonderful place:
- Mark’s Daily Apple – Although he sells the cookbook on Amazon, Mark also lists over 100 free primal recipes on his site. Pick something on the list, go buy the ingredients, and follow the instructions! So easy even a caveman can do it.
- Everyday Paleo – great pictures, easy to follow recipes, and pretty interesting combinations. Click on FOOD in the Nav bar, and the meals are broken down into breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
- Paleo Food Directory - a list of every single food, drink, and condiment that’s considered Paleo. A great reference if you’re not sure.
Maybe you’re ready to try out this Paleo lifestyle, but you can’t commit fully - there are certain foods you refuse to give up, or you can’t afford to buy grass-fed beef at the moment, or something along those lines. That’s okay! If you can even make a few small changes here and there (cut out liquid calories, switch out your rice for steamed vegetables, cut back on bread, etc.) you’ll start to see some changes. 20% healthier is better than 0% healthier – as you get more comfortable with the changes you can increase that percentage.
One method (the one I like) is the 80% method - eat really well during the week (all paleo), and then give yourself a day on the weekend to eat whatever you want – pizza, ice cream, cheeseburgers, bagels, etc. Get it out of your system on that one day, and then get back on track the next day. For some people this helps them stay on track, when for others it can be derailing. That will be up to you.
Get rid of the temptation – if you’re gonna go at this thing with a full head of steam, remove all the junk food from your house. It’s going to take a few weeks for your body to adjust to burning fat instead of glucose, and you might want to eat poorly here and there. If there’s no food in your house to tempt you, it will be much easier to stay on target.
Have you tried the Paleo Diet? What was your experience like? Have a criticism of the diet that I didn’t cover before? Do you have another paleo recipe resource? Let’s hear about it!
All I ask is that you keep the debate civil – let’s have a good clean discussion with facts, citations, sources, and personal experiences.
One more thing: this is meant to be a primer for discussion – before you rip me to shreds for a ridiculous concept, read a few of the books/sites I listed above and then make a decision based on your observances.