In general, with only one major gripe I have, (ok, maybe two), I think the paleo diet offers some valid points and valuable insights about what we should be eating for fat loss and for good health.
In fact, if you’re going to choose one of the lower carb diets, paleo is arguably one of the better choices.
The premise of paleolithic eating is that “since our genetic code has changed less than 0.02 percent in 40,000 years, this means that our bodies are still expecting to get the same foods and nutrition they were getting 40,000 years ago.
Forty thousand years ago, you had to eat nature-made food. There was no food in cans, boxes or packages was there? The packaging was a peel, a skin or a shell!
There were no TV dinners. There was no drive in fast food. There were no convenience stores.
There was no corn syrup. There was no white sugar. There were no hydrogenated oils. No chemicals. No preservatives. No artificial anything.
There was only what could be hunted and gathered: Meat, fish, nuts, seeds, plants, vegetables, fruits.
By eating what our “stone age” ancestors ate, says the paleo philosophy, we will be eating our proper evolutionary diet and we will rid ourselves of the health and obesity problems that have only recently begun to plague us as a result of modern lifestyle and processed manmade foods.
Sounds pretty good so far, right? so….
What’s the Paleo Flaw?
By all means, we should be eating more unprocessed foods, similar to the way our ancestors ate. Frankly I don’t think we have to dive into anthropological theory or research to draw the conclusion that hunter-gatherer diets are healthier than twinkies and Coke – that’s common sense isnt it?
My only major constructive criticism is that some of these paleo programs not only recommend removal of all kinds of grains and starches (and even dairy, which is a SUPERB source of high quality muscle-building proteins), they outright condemn them as inherently bad, in an absolutist fashion.
Why? well, they claim that agriculture arrived on the scene only 10,000 or so years ago, so any foods produced as a result of the modern agricultural system should also be on the “banned” list because our bodies aren’t genetically engineered to consume them.
The truth is, there are some starchy carbohydrates and grains which are very minimally processed or completely unprocessed.
Furthermore, some people can metabolically handle starches and grains just fine, while others cannot (many obese sedentary individuals are likey to have metabolic syndrome and not handle concentrated carbs very well, even natural ones).
To condemn natural foods like brown rice (a staple food for centuries in the Asian cultures, well known for being among the healthiest and longest-lived), 100% whole grains, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, legumes and so on for healthy carb-tolerant people, especially those who are highly active and already reasonably lean, doesn’t make a whit of sense to me.
For one thing, I’m not sure if anyone knows EXACTLY how our ancestors ate, but I’m pretty certain that it depended a lot on the culture, climate and geography. Therefore, the amount of carbs eaten could have varied quite a bit, so I don’t think there is just ONE type of paleo diet.
What all paleolithic diets would have had in common is the absence of processed and refined foods. The foods were natural; whether they were proteins, fats OR carbs.
Of course, the carb intake wouldn’t be very high, since there would be no refined sugar or processed carbs. But even according to Loren Cordain, author of The Paleo Diet, a “paleo” diet could be as high as 40% in carbs, a far cry from many of the low carb diets today (which condemn all carbs to the point of even putting restrictions on fruits and veggies to meet some arbitrary carbohydrate gram limit).
Should all grains and starches be completely avoided?
There is a HUGE difference between natural starches and grains and refined starches and grains.
For example, look at white flour cereal grains versus old fashioned rolled or steel-cut unsweetened oatmeal – a body- building STAPLE. How can someone lump those together into the same category?
They are no where near the same, yet there are Paleo (and low carb) advocates who dogmatically cling to the notion that NO ONE should EVER be eating grains or natural carbs like oatmeal and brown rice.
Almost every bodybuilder I know eats oatmeal for breakfast plus lots of rice, sweet potatoes and other natural carbs. They are the leanest muscular athletes on earth, and the ones who do it naturally, like I do, are among the healthiest as well. If there’s some kind of cause-effect relationship between all starches and grains and obesity, independent of calories and activity/training level, how do you explain that?
Certainly, many people need to avoid gluten and lactose, but not everyone is intolerant.
Furthermore, what about biochemical individuality? Is there really one perfect diet suited to every human being or do we vary depending on:
1. your metabolic/body type
2. your current body composition (fat or lean)
3. your genetic predispositions
4. your current state of health
5. your goals; fat loss, muscle growth, athletic performance
In particular, for endurance athletes with a high energy expenditures, eating the concentrated starchy carbs and grains is not only beneficial, it’s often crucial to sustaining energy and performance.
Even bodybuilders and strength athletes can benefit from fairly generous starchy carb intakes when increasing muscle mass is the goal.
Aside from that minor quibble I have with some of these paleo programs being too strict with their no grains/starches dictum, I do think that most of the intentions behind the “paleolithic” eating concept are in the right place.
I do believe that the modern Western diet is giving many people an overdose of refined carbs and sugar (contributing to the energy imbalance that causes obesity) and that moderating intake of concentrated carbs almost always helps with fat loss, even if that’s simply because you are reducing caloric density.
But I don’t believe that agriculture, cooking or the modern food system and everything that came with it is inherently “evil.”
Despite all the crap fast food that is manufactured today, (which we can easily avoid by choice with just a little bit of education and awareness), modern technology is a boon to society and I think today is the greatest time to be alive in all of human history.
If you really want to be 100% like a cave man, why not ditch your car and your computer too, because that will certainly get you off your butt more won’t it? Heck, ditch your electricity and your refrigerator while you’re at it because that would be on the same level of thinking as universally condemining all natural carbs for the sake of being more “paleo.”
Nutritional dogma doesn’t help anyone; it only confuses and restricts you. Flexibiliy and the ability to customize nutrition for the individual, on the other hand, gives you power and freedom.
That’s why in my programs I never prescribe only one list of foods or one ratio of protein, carbs and fats for everyone – the macronutrient ratios can vary widely based on a person’s needs. But what ALL my nutrition programs have in common is they are high in protein, high in fibrous carbs/vegetables, and they are based on 90% or more natural, unprocessed foods – that’s also what the “bodybuilding diet” has in common with the paleo diet.
For more information go to www.burnthefat.com
About the Author:
Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural bodybuilder, personal trainer, gym owner, freelance writer and author of
Burn the Fat, Feed The Muscle: Fat Burning Secrets of the World’s Best Bodybuilders and Fitness Models. Tom has written
over 140 articles and has been featured in Iron Man Magazine, Natural Bodybuilding, Muscular Development,
Muscle-Zine, Exercise for Men and Men’s Exercise. Tom is the Fat Loss Expert for Global-Fitness.com and the nutrition editor for Femalemuscle.com and his articles are featured regularly on literally dozens of other websites.