What's So Wrong With CrossFit: Part 3 - Paleo

In part one, you learned what I love about CrossFit. The community, the compound exercises and the whole food diet approach. In part two, you learned what I don’t like about CrossFit. This included poor exercise programming for certain individuals and an examination of seven different claims of why the Paleo diet is so great.

In part three I want to further examine the Paleo diet, but now, take a look at what you shouldn't be eating and if the claims have merit.

Below is a screenshot from The Paleo Diet .com (run by Loren Cordain)

Restriction #1. No cereal grains

This one restriction alone cuts out a huge portion of most individuals diets. “Cereal grains” is quite a large team to attack and can range from rice, wheat, rye, oats, quinoa (shout out to Kyle Brubaker) and more! Don’t want to waste too much time speculating why gains are suppose to kill us, but here is a review by Cordain himself [1] Instead, I’ll talk about why grains probably won’t kill us.

If you’ve been following me by now I hope you understand the limitation of calling any single food healthy or unhealthy without first examining the individual, goals, other foods consumed, how much of that food is being consumed, how often, exercise volume, etc.

Whole-grain foods have long been thought of as healthy by the lay public and rightfully so. Research by Katcher and others  [2], consulted individuals to consume all grains from whole-grains and another group to avoid whole-grains for 12 weeks. Energy expenditure was matched between diets with a 500 calorie deficit. They found that both diets led to similar weight loss (which could be expected if the caloric deficit was similar), but that the group consulted to consume whole-grains vs refined grains had greater decreases in c-reactive protein (inflammation marker) and abdominal body fat. *I’ll add that DEXA was used to measure body fat levels, which is one of the most accurate measurements.

The implications are obvious here.

First of all, even the group consuming refined grains (this would include the worst food all time…white bread) saw a decrease in weight, which would automatically decrease their risk for chronic diseases. Considering this study was conducted on obese men and women (which sadly is becoming the norm in America) this is important.

This further supports that energy balance (calories in vs. calories out) is the most important aspect of any diet.

The group consuming whole-grains had an even more favorable outcome. The big mistake here made my Paleo enthusiasts is lumping all grains together. Rice is not the same as wheat. Oats are not the same as barley.

How can all of these be bad? Even if consumed in moderation? Even if in a hypocaloric diet?

Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence and I don’t see it.

Want irony? Paleo enthusiasts avoid whole grains, claiming phyates and oxalates reduce the bioavailability of other minerals such as zinc, iron and calcium. What other foods are high in phyates and oxalates?

Almonds and spinach. Two very Paleo friendly foods.

What about grains and inflammation? Well first, understand that inflammation is not inherently bad and is actually a necessary physiological response. Know that inflammation is only one player in the game and it is likely that chronic inflammation is a symptom of many chronic diseases, not the cause.

Note that the earlier study mentioned found a decrease level of c-reactive protein in the whole-grain group. This fly’s in the face of the “grains lead to higher inflammation” claim.  Other research has shown grains to be neutral or actually decrease inflammation [3], [4].

RESTRICTION #2. LEGUMES AND PEANUTS

I’m not sure I want to live in a world without peanut butter. Peanuts are a great source of monounsaturated fats, which are a critical component of the Mediterranean diet that has been touted for it’s heart healthy habits.

Although not the greatest source, peanuts also contain as many antioxidants as some fruits. [5]

And outside of any research on heart health and antioxidants, peanut butter is simply one of the best foods ever created and I trust no one who doesn’t like it.

Other legumes such as beans and peas are great sources of fiber and protein, especially for those who don’t consume a lot of meat.

Outside of your significant other complaining about the smell in your house I see no reason to avoid beans.

RESTRICTION #3. DAIRY

Recently, many have jumped on the “milk” is bad bandwagon. In similar vein to the contradiction of phyates and oxalates in whole-grains, it’s not hard to find milk haters eating pounds of beef every week.

Wait, what?

To quote Alan Aragon For some reason it’s okay to stick a fork in the cow’s quadriceps, but for heaven’s sake leave the poor milk for the calves.” 

Or maybe you’ve heard that humans are the only animals that consume other animals milk. I’ve been thinking about launching a breast milk supplement. I know it’d be a hit (semi-serious).

Further quoting Mr. Aragon “According to the latter logic, humans should only be eating adult humans.”

Enough of the funnies. What does diary have to offer? Obviously, a great source of calcium and protein, both have been shown to build and maintain bone health. [6][7].

Milk protein (casein and whey) have long been used by the fitness community with success. In a great review by McGregor and Poppitt [8] they noted.“As well as through direct mechanisms, dairy protein may indirectly improve metabolic health by aiding loss of body weight and fat mass through enhanced satiety, whilst promoting skeletal muscle growth and function through anabolic effects of dairy protein-derived branch chain amino acids (BCAAs). BCAAs enhance muscle protein synthesis, lean body mass and skeletal muscle metabolic function.”

Whey is a great source of protein, high in BCAA’s and promoting protein synthesis (building muscle.)

Casein, although lower in BCAA’s has a strong anti-catabolic effect (preventing muscle breakdown.)

Whey + Casein = perfect muscle building couple

Overall, there is little reason (other than unjustified moral beliefs or intolerance) to avoid diary.

Many Paleo premises are at worst neutral, but I’d argue NOT consuming any diary would be actually be detrimental to your gainz and general health.

RESTRICTION #4 REFINED SUGAR & PROCESSED FOODS

My bone to pick here is the attitude towards these foods. Notice on the Paleo website it says “don’t eat” which implies that these foods are bad all the time, in every context, which can’t be taken seriously.

If someone if consistently getting enough fruits, vegetables, fiber and their target macronutrients for their goal, having some sugar or processed foods will do no harm physiologically and will improve their psychological health. It will also enhance diet adherence (it’s simply easier to stick to a diet with more options, especially when the more options taste good to you) and diet adherence should always be the number one goal. It doesn’t matter how awesome the diet protocol is if no one can stick to it longer than a few weeks. This among many other reasons is why I advocate Flexible Dieting.

What about when you’re out on a date? No ice cream? No cake? “Sorry, babe I’m eating Paleo.”

Attaching the “don’t eat” label to these foods only sets up the individuals for psychological damage if/when these foods are consumed. It makes them feel bad or like they cheated, when in all actuality it did nothing but provide some instant gratification to their poor taste buds. As everyone knows, the second we can’t have something, we want to 10x more. Talk to any physique competitor who has been extremely lean and restricted food for months, suddenly even food you don’t even like sounds delicious. (I had no idea how many times I told myself I was going to eat a huge Hardee’s burger after my show in 2012, but I’d never eaten at Hardee’s before in my life).

I’m not saying the majority of your diet should be comprised of sugar and other processed foods. What I am saying is that considering all of your other needs (namely energy balance) as long as these foods aren’t taking away from the micronutrient dense foods then go ahead!

While avoiding all processed food sounds good on paper (I try to limit it as much as possible myself) many of us live a fast paced lifestyle. Rising early to hit gym, eating meals in-between classes, it’s not as hard as many believe, but it’s no walk in the park.

What is the number one excuse for not eating healthy and exercising? TIME. So it makes sense to restrict peoples diets so much that they HAVE to spend hours and hours prepping “real food” for every meal of the week?  

A flexible approach is more manageable and one of my favorite sayings as a coach is “Your actions only need to be extreme as your goals” And for 99 percent of people (1 percent being pre-contest physique competitors on the tail end of their prep who are on low calories) there is no reason to ALWAYS avoid sugar and processed foods. Make sure your needs are covered and if you have room in your diet for some treats, dig in.

RESTRICTION #5 POTATOES

Say what? I’ll assume they’re talking about white potatoes here, but I also wouldn’t understand the avoidance of sweet potatoes as they are a great source of fiber and vitamin A.

White potatoes are often still thought of as “bad” do to the glycemic index. If you aren’t well versed in the uselessness of the GI, please visit here.

Other than not being bad, potatoes are actually quite good for you. Per serving, potatoes pack 750mg of potassium as well as 40mg of magnesium.

Rather unexpectedly, potatoes top the list of carbohydrate foods on the satiety index. This specific test looked at fullness 2 hours after equal consumption of each. Even beating out the cleanest of the clean, brown rice. 


Although anecdotal, I found white potatoes to be my favorite carb source during my contest prep diet in 2012. Other than sitting well, I found they kept me full longer than any other non-green veggie.

RESTRICTION #6 SALT & VEGETABLE OILS

In part two I discussed the scant data of low sodium diets and how it could potential harm performance.

I also discussed how it is more likely the increase of omega-3′s in the diet, rather than decreasing omega-6′s that lead to positive health outcomes.

WRAPPING UP PALEO

The overall premise of Paleo is great. Hammer away at the protein. Chow down on the green veggies.

But the difficulty of the diet cannot be ignored.

Always avoiding processed foods in unnecessary and will make your diet more difficult than it needs to be.

Avoiding diary and severely restricting sodium can lead to decreased performance.

A low-carb diet for athletes needing to perform at high-intensity levels has been shown to be INFERIOR to a higher-carb diet.

Not having the flexibility to enjoy a wider variety of foods will ultimately make the dieter harder to follow over a lifetime.

I eat a lot of meat and vegetables too. I just don’t call it Paleo.

So if you’re trying to eat better and kind of lost, instead of following Paleo to the bone (bad joke) use the premise as a template (high protein, lots of veggies) and then branch out as you wish. If you’re an athlete or even exercising more than 4x/week I’d highly recommend adding in higher carb choices. If you enjoy diary, add it in. Don’t limit salt and do indulge in some sugar and non-traditional diet foods from time to time.

Finally, as more of a societal rant. Get out of the mindset that you need to be on some popular “diet”. For too many, eating healthy is a binary process. They are either ON the diet or OFF the diet. Americans don’t really have an issue losing weight, it’s maintaining the weight loss that is difficult. That’s because most go on these diets and are ON, then once their goal weight is hit they are now OFF their diet. Instead of developing better habits, they simply followed a game plan and didn't ask questions.

Eating better and living a healthy lifestyle is just that, a lifestyle. It’s not about trying this diet or that new exercise infomercial. It’s about consciously making the decision each day to eat better and make exercise a habit. Don’t look for the quick fix. Develop the skills to set yourself up for lifelong success.

And that’s it ladies and gentleman. What was suppose to be a single article turned into my first series (this will probably happen a lot). As always, I hope you enjoyed and learned something. Being that this is my first series on my blog, comments and personal messages providing feedback (both good and bad) about my writing would be extremely helpful.

RESOURCES

1. http://www.direct-ms.org/pdf/EvolutionPaleolithic/Cereal%20Sword.pdf

2. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/87/1/79.long

3.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17513398

4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20685951

5. http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/R-D/High-antioxidant-the-future-of-peanuts

6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10759135?dopt=Abstract

7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11916747?dopt=Abstract

8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23822206