As a student dietician and lifelong sceptic of ill-defined and scientifically dubious ‘fad’ diets I was openly hostile to the proposition that we may not be evolutionarily prepared to cope with certain foods, particularly where these foods are the staples of our western diet.
Then, as I became more exposed to CrossFit and to the dietary programs employed by the top-flight athletes therein, I was compelled to read further. What was it about this diet that these exceptional athletes found to be so appealing when it clearly flew in the face of conventional sports nutrition?
At the time I started my research, CrossFit greats such as Mikko Salo and Matt Chan were setting a standard in the world of functional fitness and attributed part of their success to this odd dietary paradigm. Who was I to question their results? When I got to grips with the literature I found that the concept did have logical underpinnings and I was surprised by the dedication of the authors of relevant literature to both citing and referencing the studies from which they had drawn their conclusions – Robb Wolf’s book alone had over 300 references.
This was promising. However, queries about renal solute load, ketogenesis and above all: glycogen reserves, made me question the application of the diet to the development of athletic capacity. My understanding of sports nutrition and indeed, nutrition as a whole, was that the body relied on adequate reserves of glucose from carbohydrate in order to function optimally.
However, basic metabolic physiology tells us that we can use either fat or protein as respiratory substrates (materials for creating energy) through β-oxidation of fatty acids (burning fats) or via the transamination of amino acids (conversion of amino acids to smaller sub-units that can be used to create energy)- while these processes are typically (in modern dietary paradigms) found in pathological starvation states it is nonetheless apparent that humans as animals have not always enjoyed the plethora of starchy carbohydrate sources we now enjoy. It could be logically argued that, in the context of our evolution, these processes are quite normal. In a time where ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ foodstuffs are highly prized, is it time to evaluate what we should be eating rather than what we could be eating?
I remained unconvinced by the literature – whilst sound on a basic logical level, there was every possibility that it would not be applicable in practice and I wanted to see it for myself. Therefore I constructed a test for myself and a few others to trial the diet with the goal of maintaining a level of intense physical training without what I expected to be a concurrent drop in performance. My results were interesting to say the least:
Over a 90 day period I gained 3.5kg whilst concurrently shedding 4.7% body fat. The increase in lean mass alongside the decrease in fat-mass manifested as a series of performance gains across both strength and power domains – my CrossFit Total (combined totals of max weight back squat, strict press and deadlift) increased by 22.5kg from 350kg to 372.5kg and my time for the CrossFit workout ‘Fran‘ (21-15-9 Thrusters and Pull Ups) decreased by 4 minutes 1 second from 10.30 to 6.29.
Do I think the Palaeo diet has possible health benefits? Do I think that it has the capacity to improve athletic capacity? Yes, I absolutely do.
Do I think that it is without potential adverse effects in the long-term? Do I think that we should abandon years of mainstream nutritional advice? Should anyone with existing health problems engage in the diet without first consulting qualified medical and dietetic experts? No. I categorically do not – the beauty of evidence based medicine is that we do not have to make decisions based on ‘say so’ and small studies showing insignificant results.
However, I do feel that the therapeutic potential of the paradigm is relatively untapped: the results I have seen thus far have been profound and without complication, there is a large body of evidence already in place that logically supports many of the basic tenets of the diet and the dedication of the main figures in the research to providing real evidence is highly encouraging. The Palaeo diet may yet prove to be a viable and accepted alternative to the convention.
I don’t think anyone can say that the challenge is easy. Right from the start some days were harder than others, but once I got into the way of it, it was easy a lot of the time. I knew that I would only get good results if I stuck to it rigidly, and I figured 90 days was not a long time if it got me the results I wanted, so I might as well commit fully to the challenge to make it worthwhile. And in 90 days I achieved what I hadn’t been able to achieve over the previous 2 years – to lose 2 stone and get back down to my wedding day weight. And this time with less body fat and more muscle definition, which I hadn’t managed to achieve before.
It was a massive help to do it along with Iain and Gav and have their support, as I always knew someone else was going through the same thing I was, even if it was just to hear them say that they were missing stuff too! We’d agreed at the start that if anyone cheated or had some time off for a special occasion, we should be honest about it, so that it could be recorded in the results. So this kept me from cheating as there was no way I wanted to be the first to say I’d caved and broken the rules! I know for sure that I would have struggled more with being so strict if I was doing this on my own, and not having to tell the coaches if I’d cheated.
The weekends were hardest, but to be honest the results started showing so quickly that I was motivated to stay strict on the weekends too, to get the best results. I also had a few business trips away, where I had to contact hotels and arrange for special meals to be made for me. Most of them were pretty good, and it always gave us something to talk about as people asked about my special dietary requirements! And I managed to fit in a few bodyweight wods in my hotel room when I was away on training days. 100 burpees can be carried out pretty much anywhere!
However the free bar was often a challenge, free water just isn’t the same! I’d always have friends asking why I couldn’t just have one night off, but its never just one night, is it? There’s always going to be another social event next week, and someone else wanting to catch up for drinks or dinner. I just explained that it was only 90 days, and it was a monitored challenge, so I couldn’t have a night off or it would impact the results. Most people were so impressed with my willpower that it actually motivated me to stay strong. I did have a dream that I’d cracked and binged on alcohol (sad, I know!) and even the guilt in the dream was enough to make me know I would be too annoyed with myself if I did actually give in. And the lack of hangovers for 90 days was a big plus!
I also had plenty of social events. When going out for dinner, I just made sure I contributed to picking the restaurant so that I could check the menu and make sure I could get steak or fish with veg. I even found some where I could have prawns to start and fruit for dessert, so definitely didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything when I could have a 3 course meal.
I think the key is being prepared. I take tubs of food and snacks everywhere with me, as it can be harder if you get caught out and about with nothing palaeo to hand. But then you can generally find nuts or fruit somewhere to keep you going. I drove to parties so that people wouldn’t go on about me not drinking, and again I’d take nuts with me to snack on so that I wasn’t tempted with crisps etc. Although some buffets actually did have palaeo stuff in the form of pieces of chicken & salad.
Another key is variety so you don’t get bored. The diet plans provided were great and forced me to try to new things, and I actually found some great recipes that I would never have tried otherwise. There can be a lot of preparation involved, and initially I spent a lot of time in the kitchen, but you start to find ways to cut the time down, such as preparing food in bulk so it can do you later in the week.
And it’s great to speak to others and share information on what you’ve found. It made my day when Iain found cashew butter and almond butter at a local health food shop, it not only saved me time from making my own, their’s tasted so much better!
At the start I kept thinking ‘its only just started I can’t give in already’, and nearer the end I kept thinking ‘I’m so close, I can’t give in now’, and somewhere in the middle it just becomes a habit.
It’s only 90 days……….stay strong and the results are totally worth it!!