This is a long article, but one I think could be important to you. It’s about something that has proven transformative in my life. It’s about the Paleo diet, and I hope you enjoy it.
I first heard of the Paleo diet in 2010, talking to a chiropractic assistant studying sports medicine, “I just can’t get behind the idea of the Paleo diet. I mean, it’s obvious we need carbs, right?” Having never had much interest in dieting, I just shrugged my shoulders.
At a weight of 76 kg (167 pounds), I’ve always competed well in the sport of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Over the years, though, I watched my weight creep up, and before each competition, I consequently found myself having to make larger and larger weight cuts. In 2010, facing a 6 kg (14 pound) cut, I decided to compete in the European Championships at 82 kg (181 pounds) — and got handily beat. So around mid-2010, for the first time in my life, I began trying to permanently lose some weight.
Having never studied it, my understanding of nutrition consisted of what I understood to be the basics: the American Medical Association’s “Food Pyramid”, the notion of eating a “balanced diet”, and above all, the golden rule of “calories out needs to exceed calories in”.
Unfortunately, though, when trying to systematically lose weight, these “basics” didn’t prove reliable at all. I found that I could lose weight by calorie restriction, but would then inexplicably gain it right back. Most surprising, it seemed I could gain weight even when apparently burning more calories than I was consuming.
The second time I heard of the Paleo diet was during a trip to the US, while training BJJ at Paul Creighton’s academy. One of his students is a nutritionist working with the obese and the diabetic. He spoke of the Paleo diet as revolutionary.
As he explained it, the Paleo diet eliminates sugars — both simple (candy, coke, etc.) and complex (wheats, pastas, breads, potatoes), and focuses on meats, fats, vegetables, and nuts. My immediate question was how an athlete — who obviously needs lots of carbs — could possibly consider such a diet? His response was that my understanding of nutrition was based on a lot of myths, and recommended reading Mark Sisson’s book, “The Primal Blueprint.” (Mark is an accomplished marathon runner.)
Finally taking a serious look into the Paleo diet, I was amazed to learn that one of my heroes — endurance sport coach, Joel Friel — was a huge advocate. Joel is the real deal. Back in my competitive cycling days, it was his book on training — based on the latest in sports science — that proved absolutely revolutionary in my personal training. Following his methods, I reached levels of performance I never imagined possible. Seeing that Joel was into the Paleo diet, I knew it was something serious.
So I bought both Sisson’s “The Primal Blueprint”, and Friel’s, “The Paleo Diet for Athletes”, and dug in. Both books, in turn, referenced books by Gary Taubes — “Good Calories, Bad Calories”, and the more layman-accessible, “Why we get fat” — as the scientific underpinnings behind the diet. I bought both, but quickly focused on the latter.
The science, in a nutshell
The primary energy source of the body is fatty acids, which continually enter and exit our body’s cells. (This was a surprise to me, as I’d always thought that glucose was the primary energy; but it’s not. Although the body will process glucose first, fatty acid is our preferred energy source.)
When we eat carbohydrates, the glucose level in our bloodstream increases. The insulin system responds, ordering our body’s cells to absorb the excess glucose, in order to reduce the glucose in the bloodstream. Fat cells will store some of the glucose as triglyceride (fat), muscle cells will replenish any depleted glycogen, after which they will store it as fat, and liver cells will store some as glycogen and some as fat. After the blood sugar level has been lowered, the stored fat will begin to be released from the fat tissue, and used again as fatty acid as the energy our bodies need.
When we eat too much sugar, the insulin regulation system can, over time, actually get off-track, resulting in situation in which our insulin system behaves as if there were more glucose in our bloodsteam than there actually is. This results in vicious cycle actually involving both a drive to consume more sugars and the continual accumulation of fat — and is how people become obese.
As a consequence, he makes two observations:
- Insulin is the principle regulator of fat metabolism. Therefore, it’s not the number of calories we eat that’s critical to fat accumulation; it’s the source!
- We don’t get fat because we over-eat; we over-eat because we’re getting fat. (That’s worth repeating, and serious consideration!)
Taubes goes on to recommend a high-fat, high-protein diet, similar in content to that eaten by our nomadic ancestors of the Paleolithic period — eating meats, fast, vegetables, nuts, fruits, and whatever else could be hunted or gathered.
He explains that it shouldn’t be too surprising to find that to be our healthiest, our diet should be that on which humans evolved over 2.5 million years, and that it also shouldn’t be too surprising to find that we suffer from a variety of contemporary problems (including cancer, heart disease and diabetes) when eating an agricultural-based diet for which our bodies simply haven’t had the evolutionary time to adapt.
What about high cholesterol? What about the glucose needs of the brain? How can I know someone lean who eats a lot of pasta? What about exercise? Isn’t too much protein toxic?
All that and more is also addressed in the book. (You’ll also learn that about the worst thing you can put in your body is a particular combination of glucose and corn-based fructose — precisely the makeup of “High Fructose Corn Syrup”, which seems to be found nowadays in nearly all processed foods in the United States. This is suspected now to be a key factor in the American obesity crisis.)
It’s not really about the weight
What I began to realize, through studying Taubes’s books, as well as reading the blog articles that began popping up on my radar is that losing weight is really only a side effect of the Paleo diet; the real benefit are the health benefits. (I found this article by Dan Benjamin — one of the well-known personalities of the design community — to be particularly interesting.)
Apparently, as discussed by Taubes, those nomadic civilizations that we can still find today, that eat a hunter/gatherer diet, are largely free of the contemporary diseases prevalent today — such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Around mid-2010, I finally committed to the Paleo diet, and things began to happen predictably.
I started to lose weight at a stable rate, and as predicted by the science, it didn’t seem to matter at all how many calories I ate. I didn’t exercise any more than normal; if anything, I was exercising less. My weight loss plateaued and stabilized at around 75 kg, which I presume is my “natural” weight.
Some people report a short period of adaptation after going Paleo, during which time they felt a little tired. Although this is normal, I didn’t experience it at all.
An attractive consequence, is that I no longer notice peaks of hunger throughout the day, and don’t find myself feeling the desire to snack. (I understand part of this has to do with starting the day with a high fat breakfast.)
More than a year after having started, I’ve never felt better in my life. I’m leaner, more muscular than ever, have lots of energy, and just feel great.
In late 2010, I read Tim Ferris’s interesting book, “The Four Hour Body”, which has a few chapters on diet. He recommends a “slow-carb” diet, which is essentially Paleo, with the addition of slow-digesting legumes (lentils, chickpeas, etc.). I ended up adopting this diet, along with his pragmatic recommendation to master the preparation of a small set of core meals.
Through reading the “Primal Blueprint”, I adopted the habit of trying to consume about two grams of protein per day, for each gram of body weight (i.e. for a total of about 150 grams.)
Here’s what my typical day looks like:
- Breakfast. I have three scrambled eggs, sausage and bacon, with a protein and water drink (30 grams).
- Lunch. Here in Spain it’s easy to eat Paleo. I usually have a salad starter (sometimes a avocado salad), and some kind of meat or fish accompanied with vegetables. Here’s some photos I’ve taken of lunch.
- Afternoon Snack. Around 5PM, I usually have a snack at the same restaurant where I have lunch. The owner makes whatever’s available — sometimes a salad, sometimes grilled fish, sometimes some steak. It varies every day.
- Dinner. A big salad with walnuts, tomatoes, goat cheese, olive oil and a bit of vinegar. I’ve replaced two beers with two glasses of red wine. (Beer was the hardest thing for me to give up!)
As you can see from these photos, the Paleo diet doesn’t have to be boring! Although a piece of fruit here and there is fine, you need to avoid liquid carbs — i.e beer, fruit juices, etc.
The cheat day
I also adopted Ferris’s once-per-week “cheat day”, on which you can literally eat anything you want. This isn’t based on science; rather empirical evidence that a cheat day doesn’t affect weight. I start that day with churros con chocolate, perhaps pizza for lunch (with dessert), ice cream in the afternoon, and hamburgers and French fries for dinner (with a beer or three, of course).
As an engineer, I like things that are predictable and verifiable. Through my own experience, I’ve validated much of what’s predicted by the science behind the Paleo diet, as well as some of the pragmatic recommendations from, “The Four Hour Body” book.
- I have confirmed that a high-fat diet does not cause me to gain any weight at all.
- Having added gazpacho to my daily diet, after being told it “only contains vegetables”, I noticed my weight creeping up over the period of three week. Googling, I learned that most gazpacho contains a small amount of bread. I asked the cook, and sure enough, his gazpacho contains bread. Cutting out the gazpacho, the weight went straight back down. (Interestingly, even veggie-only gazpacho caused my weight to increase — apparently because of the relatively high-sugar content of carrots, used as a bread replacement in bread-free gazpacho!)
- I’ve confirmed that having one sugar-intense cheat day per week does not affect my weight at all. (I’ve also noticed that I don’t really look forward to it any more as much as I did when starting the Paleo diet; apparently, you can start to lose interest in sugars.)
- I’ve confirmed through varying my exercise level, that — as predicted, and explained by Taubes — my weight seems to be largely independent of levels of exercise.
A lifestyle change
It seems people view diets the way the view fashion; something to try for a while, switch to something else, and then on to yet something else. That’s not what it’s about.
The Paleo diet represents a fundamental life change. It’s simply a return to eating the diet for which our bodies evolved over millions of years, and avoiding the relatively new agricultural foods to which our bodies haven’t had time to adapt.
For me, I researched the science, and it made sense. I gave it a try, and the results were consistent, predictable and reliable. Today, I’m leaner than ever before, and feeling great. I can honestly say that, for me, the Paleo diet has been transformative.
Update — Supplements
In the comments, Mike Rios asked about vitamins and supplements. Here’s what I do. This isn’t based on as solid science as the Paleo diet, but rather on recommendations of people I respect, like Joel Friel and Mark Sisson, mentioned in this article.
I think these work well for me, but would like to emphasize that in the grand scheme of things they are far less important to overall health than the base Paleo diet.
- I take supplemental vitamin C, B (complex), and E. I’ve read good things about all three. I live in a sunny climate; otherwise I would supplement some vitamin D as well.
- I have a protein powder (mixed with water) drink in the mornings (and I add 5G of creatine). This is simply in order to reach the two-grams-protein-per-kg of body weight daily target. I searched out and found a locally-manufactured protein power that doesn’t contain any sugars or artificial flavors. It doesn’t taste good, but I feel better about consuming so much of it, compared to products that contain artificial sweeteners.
- I supplement a few grams of fish oil each day, for Omega 3 and 6.
- I drink a recovery drink after hard exercise — always. This is a product sold by a German company I trust, containing two parts carbohydrates, one part protein, and one part BCAA (branch chain amino acids). A recovery drink has, in my experience, proven extremely effective, especially as I get older.
- I add 5G of Glutamine to my recovery drink, as I’ve been reading some very positive things about this amino acid in terms of its benefits to recovery.
Here’s a list of the books referenced in this article:
- Why we get fat, Gary Taubes. Important — Don’t get stuck in Part I of the book; the real meat of the matter is discussed in Part II.
- The Four-Hour Body, by Tim Ferris. The book covers far more than diet, reporting on the results of Ferris’s life-long self experimentations.
- The Primal Blueprint, Mark Sisson
- The Paleo Diet for Athletes, by Joel Friel. Carbohydrates are needed to a certain extent by endurance athletes. As explained by Friel, what’s critical is the timing.
- Good Calories, Bad Calories, by Gary Taubes
- The Primal Cookbook, by Mark Sisson]. Recipes, recipes, recipes.
Nearly three years into the Paleo diet, my wife recently had a full blood analysis done. The results came back so good that the doctors called her in to talk about it — specifically, they wanted to know about her diet. When she mentioned “Paleo”, the doctor smiled. She said that she and her husband (another doctor) were both Paleo, and that unfortunately the knowledge still isn’t widespread in Spain yet, but she was really happy to see another confirmation of results.
If you haven’t yet seen it, here’s an important article from the New York Times — It’s the sugar, folks.
Gary Taubes talk at Google: