By: Angelo Poli
Every month my clients ask me about one of the new nutritional trends. Last month everyone wanted to know about the HCG diet, this month it’s Paleo. CrossFitters the world over swear by this diet yet most of the elite competitors by their own admission don’t follow it strictly. Does that mean it’s not right for you? Not necessarily. Having an understanding of what mechanics are involved in a nutritional model like The Paleo Diet is the key to knowing what’s best for you. For the purpose of this discussion we’ll review the steps needed to properly evaluate what your nutritional needs are. Then we’ll consider the mechanics behind a few popular diets and see how they stack up.
One of my hobbies as a sports nutritionist is to follow trends in the nutrition field and observe as the public opinions of specific foods, even entire food groups shift. It never ceases to amaze me how opinions thrash to and fro like waves in a storm being influenced by the media, advertising, and commercial stigmas. Remember when egg yolks were bad? Then the yolks were good. Now the American Heart Association has settled on “Yolks are ok, but just in case no more than one per day”. Really, that’s no big deal when you consider that we’re used to vilifying entire macronutrients. It seems to go by decades. In the 80’s your leg warmers and sweatbands were kicked to the curb if you weren’t low fat. In the 90’s we packed up the carbohydrates. Bread, grains, and cereals were marched out back and shot. Even if they were allowed in the house they were hidden in the cupboards where guests wouldn’t see so you didn’t have to explain yourself. On a related note, laxative sales saw a noted increase those years. Today it’s all about Gluten Free and Organic. Eat what you like so long as it comes naturally from mother earth and is sold at a co-op.
So are all trends bad? No. In fact, all of them have merit and benefits. The trouble is misapplication and extremes. Having a working understanding of the basic principles a diet is operating on can allow you to be a savvy dieter. With the mountain of opinions and an endless stream of new diets entering the market, it is definitely a “buyer beware” situation. My goal here isn’t to promote or discourage any one method of dieting. Rather, I want to arm you with the knowledge that will allow you to make better-informed decisions about your nutrition and health. Let me share with you my secret to making nutritional recommendations. Evaluation. Unless you evaluate your needs and goals you can only vaguely guess what nutrition plan is right for you. Here’s an example of a full evaluative process:
1. Determine your primary goal
Be a specialist, not a generalist! I know, I know. You want to burn fat, build muscle, lose weight, increase your strength, shrink your waist, and grow 2 inches taller. Who doesn’t? Your body responds best when focused attention is given to one primary goal at a time. Don’t get me wrong, people can achieve multiple goals at the same time via diet and exercise but unless you prioritize your goals and have a clearly defined focus, you’ll never be able to maximize your results.
2. Acknowledge your body type
Are you a petite frame with long arms and legs, prone to accumulating fat in your midsection more than legs? You’re an Ectomorph. Can you wrap your thumb and middle finger around your wrist and easily touch your fingertips together, even overlap? Say it real slow… Ecto-morph. Does going more than 4 hours without food cause you alter ego to rear its ugly head making your irritable, headachy, and ravenously craving carbs and sugar? Maybe you're a different body type… just kidding. You’re an Ectomorph.
– Did you have an athletic build in high school? Not too skinny or stocky, you know the Goldilocks zone. . just right. Mesomorph. You set some athletic records in high school, maybe even college, but now spend most of your time working late hours at the office crumpling pieces of paper to toss at the wastepaper basket. Deep down you still think of yourself as a warrior and athlete. Yeah, you’re a mesomorph. Food is good, but you’ll gladly skip a meal to build an appetite for your favorite dinner. Mesomorph.
– You were bigger and stronger than all the kids in grade school. By high school, you already began equating the word “metabolism” with various profanities. Endomorph. Gains in the weight room seem to come easily, as do gains at the buffet line. Everyone else seems almost delicate when compared to your sturdy bone structure and frame. You can wrap your thumb and middle finger around your wrist but most of you can barely touch. Endomorph.
Don’t like your body type? Well, you’ll have to take that up with your parents. Sorry, can’t help you there. All I can do is give you a rough roadmap of how your body type “generally” responds to various nutritional activities. Each body type has their pre-disposed strengths and weaknesses, simply acknowledging them is a vital key in evaluating your nutritional needs. As for me, I’m an ectomorph. I live in perpetual irritation that my wife still has more developed calves than me. I comfort myself with the knowledge that I can drown my sorrows in a few extra carbs at night without paying too much penalty. Now, these are generalizations. Often people can have traits from more than one body type, however, most people will quickly identify with one of the above body types.
So what does your body type mean for you?
Ectomorph– Typically lower in body fat and often struggling to gain muscle. No matter how “clean” or “healthy” your diet, most ectomorphs will need more calories to make substantial muscle gains. Generally, add in this order – assure that adequate (and possibly a little more) protein needs are met. Then begin liberally adding complex carbohydrates and a little healthy fat. If you still are not seeing gains, consider adding more fats as you will be too full to muscle down more and more carbohydrates. Fats will give you more caloric bang for your buck and as such remains the “end game” diet strategy for hard gainers by default.
Mesomorph – Change it up. Your body will respond to changes. Wanna build muscle? Fine. Do it for a while then switch it up. Get your body used to extra calories and carbs for recovery and then start scaling back and watch the body fat strip off. Or if you want to do it in reverse, cut back on your carbs or calories until you stop seeing changes in your body and then gradually increase both your food intake and training intensity and let your body build some muscle.
Endomorph – Your body doesn’t play by the rules. Everyone tells you to eat this or take that to fuel your muscle and aid your recovery. Fuel the muscle starve the fat… right? Who cares about muscle. That’s right you heard me. You’ve been building muscle since you were four years old! Once all you fitness professionals finish gasping at the notion that I just suggested it’s ok to allow your body to lose some precious muscle, consider this: Unless you plan on being a competitive powerlifter (even then strength is mostly neuromuscular) I can think of very few endomorphs that wouldn’t sacrifice 10 pounds of muscle if it meant losing 25 pounds of fat. Even with restricted food intake, hitting the weights still seems to trigger muscular development. Use that to your advantage, but tune your nutrition more in favor of weight loss. You will likely have to be more diligent about monitoring your intake than the other body types, eating fewer calories and carbs than someone of similar height/weight but of a different body type. Be consistent and take full advantage of the benefits of aerobics.
3. Evaluate your current diet
The only way to know where we’re going is to know where we came from right? Keep a food log. I know, you’re fed up and ready to start your new diet now. Don’t. Most of you will ignore me because you have a friend who went on the ABC diet and got XYZ results so you think it’s going to work the same for you. Wrong. The only way to know what diet approach will work best for you is to evaluate what your body is currently used to. If you aren’t particularly savvy about nutrition and macronutrients use an online calculator. Over a few days of typical eating note your approximate calories and ratios of carbs, protein, and fat. Based on that determine if you have the most room to adjust calories, carbohydrates, or a combination of both. Then make your choice what style of dieting best suits your needs. Don’t forget to factor in your body type.
So what diet options are out there? Basically, there are 3 categories of diets. By decade popularity they are:
1. Natural and gluten-free. The Paleo Diet is one of several that fit this genre. (current trend)
2. Carbohydrate restriction. The Atkins Diet is the popular grandfather too much of this genre. (Low carbohydrate diets have been popular from the late 90’s through today)
3. Calorie restriction. Weight Watchers is still a leader pioneering this principle. (popular in the 80’s and now promoted differently, but the same basic science)
THE PALEO DIET
Restricts dairy and gluten. It allows liberal use of everything else provided it’s “clean” or “unprocessed”. Basically what we have here is a “Hippie’s guide to digestive treatment” …. and a pretty darn good one too. There are two failings. Difficult adherence and non-specific attributes (I’ll explain that shortly). We have a 20 – 20 – 60 scenario here. Twenty percent of the population is going to find this diet to be the holy grail of digestive relief leading to massive improvements in their quality of life. Twenty percent of the population is going to see no digestion change and quickly get fed up with shopping from the one shelf in the grocery store that’s gluten-free. Sixty percent of the population will see some marginal improvements and could go either way. How do I know this? I evaluate people’s nutritional needs every day. For every 10 people who sit in my office roughly two of them will have obvious digestion issues, discomfort, and problems. Two of them will be those who eat a diet of rusty nails and drywall yet amazingly feel fine. (We all know people like that.. .. and yes we hate them) Six of them will land somewhere in the middle. Naturopaths who believe gluten and dairy to be the devil itself will think me crazy for not believing everyone has intolerances. Meanwhile, the bread and dairy industry will ask how entire civilizations have flourished on diets rich in milk and grains for millennia. I have no interest in getting in the middle of their feud. I just call it how I see it. 20 – 20 – 60.
Those of you die-hard fans who eat and breath paleo don’t need to send me mail defending why you feel paleo is nutritionally superior to other ways of eating. I’ve heard your arguments, acknowledge them, and am now attempting to provide clarity and perspective for the “average” consumer trying to select a diet. In fact, to be perfectly blunt, I’m not interested in recommending people follow the best diet (insert gasping sound here). What I’m interested in is helping people select the “best diet” that they can actually convert into a “lifestyle”, and those are two very different things. If I were to put pen to paper and be forced to recommend the “best” diet to save humanity, it would probably end up looking like some sort of fusion high protein vegan diet (nutritionists know why that’s funny). Rather my goal is to provide people with tools to identify the diet that will work best for their circumstance while considering all factors including goals and lifestyle.
Alright already let's get to the point, will Paleo make me lose weight? And the answer is (drum roll)… maybe. That’s where the non-specific attributes come in. The paleo diet really is dominantly a digestive health program. In an effort to eliminate processed foods, chemicals, and inflammatory properties, junk food has been eliminated. By default that is going to result in a drop in caloric intake for most people. That will equal weight loss. In an effort to restrict gluten, most of our favorite carbohydrate options have been removed.. pasta, bread, etc. Therefore it will likely result in a significant reduction in carbohydrates. For most that will mean weight loss. Then why do I say “maybe”? Because even though as a matter of happenstance it will somewhat accidentally result in lower carbs and calories, there are still several foods allowed on the diet that is excellent for gaining weight. For example banana’s, sweet potatoes, and nuts are perfect examples of high glycemic carbs, low glycemic carbs, and fats ideal for packing on pounds. So losing weight on Paleo depends on how you do the Paleo diet. Lots of people dance when they hear salsa music, but that doesn’t mean they all know how to salsa. The moral of the story is if you don’t know how to dance, get off the floor. My recommendation, if you want to try Paleo, more power to you, but use a qualified nutritionist to help you structure your Paleo plan to meet your needs.
Paleo is more for athletes anyway right? Consider your body type! It depends on your needs. For example, a Paleo diet structured to emphasize meats and veggies with moderate low inclusion of low glycemic carbohydrates and very low inclusion of high glycemic carbohydrates (banana’s, raisins etc), canbe quite well suited for an endomorphic body type looking to lose weight. On the other hand an ectomorphic competitive athlete attempting to limit themselves to the recovery that fruits and veggie can provide alone will leave them falling short of their athletic potential every time. Unless they’ve developed romantic feelings about pounding buckets of mashed sweet potatoes with every meal, they’re simply not going to recover optimally. But I’ll live off fats. I love nuts. No. You won’t. Sporting a high-fat diet, low in carbs defies every scientific study done on sports nutrition and performance in the last 60 years. If you want to perform your best in the glycolytic pathway (looking at you CrossFitters) you’ll need carbs. That is why elite CrossFitters are rarely “strict” Paleo by their own admission. While only theoretical, I’d bet that if a poll was taken of truly elite CrossFit athletes who follow some variation of the Paleo diet what we’d find is that those who are Endomorphic break their diet and “carb up” less often then those who are Ectomorphic needing ample carbs at that level of performance. Ironically, Rich Froning Jr. and Annie Thorisdottir, the 2011and 2012 Reebok CrossFit Games Champions are both classic Mesomorphs – smack dab in the middle. Neither follow Paleo. Let the debates continue.
THE ATKINS DIET
Like some of us, sports nutritionist call it “The Tyrannical Eradication of Carbohydrates from the Planet”. So will I lose weight on it? Yup. So you see the battle us nutritionists have when convincing dieters to be moderate in their eating habits. It’s a tricky one. People want instant gratification and if they see the scale dropping it’s hard to convince them to do anything else. Carbohydrate restriction, especially when fairly severe, causes the body to metabolize a greater amount of lipids (among other energetic substrates) in the synthesis of ATP. Extremely low carb diets and exercise aren’t good bedfellows. They’re at each other’s throats. Low carbs want to take a nap while Exercise wants to hit the gym but needs a ride and Low carb isn’t moving. Exercise keeps yelling “you’ll never be healthy or fit without me!” Low carb just smirks”yeah but I can just lay around and still lose weight so why bother”.
Ultimately most people will gain the weight back after following an extremely low carb diet. Here’s why:
Cutting all carbs does indeed make achieving any level of intensity while exercising difficult, therefore as a lifestyle change you’re missing half the battle. Usually, I spend my days managing people who think they can “just” exercise and get results… yeah, let me know how that works out. With the “low carbers” I find myself trying to convince them that a strict diet without exercise is just as bad. It’s like they’re all on a giant boat, “low carbers” on one side, “Exercisers” on the other. The low carbers are laughing because there’s a hole on the Exercisers side of the boat. Kind of short-sighted.
Difficult adherence, nearly impossible long term. Sure, I could spend a week or two living off bacon, cheese, and burgers wrapped in lettuce. Double-double protein style at In-N-Out here I come. Course I’ll need to buy stock in Metamucil and Exlax. Eventually, I’ll just need a bite of something loaded with carbs, and when I do…
I’ll wake up the next morning looking like I fell out of the “Fat Tree” and hit every branch on the way down. Good morning puffy face! You see several biological elements converge at the point of cheating on a low carb diet to make us instantaneously fat and filled with self-loathing. After weeks of “low carbing it” your body is in full-on glycogen depletion mode. Athletes will purposely restrict a small number of carbs just prior to carb loading. You have now achieved all the elements necessary to qualify for carb loading by having just one meal. The morning after… You wake feeling puffy taking notice that your rings are now stuck on your fat swollen fingers as you stagger to the scale. Looking down at your new number brings up a feeling of guilt and remorse as you replay in your mind how it all happened. You walk away thoroughly depressed and console yourself with ….you guessed it. Carbs.
Notice that my reference is too extreme carbohydrate restriction. Moderate restriction is a completely different animal and can be applied to great benefit in many circumstances.
It’s good old calorie restriction turned into a game with points. Significantly less structure than some recent diets. High emphasis on quick and easy identification of the lower calorie options across multiple venues via a “point” system. It may seem overly simple, but that’s why it’s been successful for many people for years. It’s not overly cumbersome. In times past there hasn’t been enough emphasis placed on making the right or healthiest choices with food. This diet has favored pure and simple identification of the lowest calorie option. From a nutritionists perspective that can be fraught with problems as selecting foods only based on calorie content can lead to a highly processed and nutritionally depleted diet. Individualization, adaptivity to unique needs, or athletic structuring is nearly absent. In recent times they have shifted to a more educational model promoting more balance and healthier selections. That is good, but a large percentage of their patrons are only exposed to a limited amount of the educational process, those who stay involved will likely do best.
The key lies in evaluating what your body’s needs are based on your body type and previous nutritional history. Keep a food log, it will be enlightening. Research more about your body type and carefully consider your goal. Make sure the diet you’re considering is compatible with your goal. If all else fails or you reach a plateau that you’re unable to navigate, get help from a qualified nutritionist.