WTF is Paleo? Do I have to be a CrossFitter to do it? Will 90% of my diet consist of bacon? Didn’t cavemen have access to peanuts?
There’s a lot of confusion surrounding one of the buzziest, most popular diets, so for answers to all of our questions, we turned to three experts: Sylvie Tetrault (nutritionist and strength and conditioning coach), Dain Wallis (Health Coach and co-founder of Move Daily), and Michelle Dukowski (partner, Director of Personal Training, and Nutrition Coach at CrossFit RedLeaf).
As with any diet, there are basic pros (like the fact that, as Wallis explains, the diet is “based on nutrient-rich whole food options, and the elimination of things like grains,”) and there are cons (he notes that “the rules are somewhat arbitrary and overall it will be too restrictive for some people”), but we wanted to go a little deeper.
For a full rundown of the good, the bad, and the “will it help me nail a barbell snatch,” read on.
First Things First: What is Paleo?
“The paleo diet is modeled around our Paleolithic ancestors,” explains Tetrault. “It is based on the concept of what a hunter/gatherer would have eaten…. The paleo diet focuses on high quality produce and meat (grass-fed, hormone free poultry and wild caught fish).”
“The goal of the Paleo diet is to eat, as much as possible, in a way that mimics what our genetic make-up would have naturally required for us,” adds Dukowski. “The diet is focused around foods that are nutrient-dense, minimally processed, and occur in nature as naturally as possible.”
What Can I Eat on Paleo?
Here are some of the go-to’s for the paleo set, per Tetrault:
- Quality lean meats (chicken, turkey, beef, bison, lamb, pork etc.)
- Fresh fruit
- Root vegetables like sweet potato, squash, turnip, parsnips, carrots, beets etc.
- Non-starchy vegetables (greens, asparagus, green beans, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts etc.)
- Nuts (almonds, walnuts, cashews, brazil nuts, pistachios etc.)
- Seeds (flax, hemp, chia, sunflower etc.)
- Oils (olive, avocado, coconut etc.)
… And What Can’t I Eat?
“The foods that do not fit on the list of the Paleo approved would be your processed foods, refined and simple sugars, alcohol, trans fats, and generally foods that cannot be found in their natural form somewhere in nature,” explains Dukowski.
Tetrault shared this list of banned items (though she notes “some of these are up for debate”):
- Legumes (beans, chickpeas, soy beans, peanuts etc.)
- Grains (wheat, corn, oats, barley, rice, quinoa, etc.)
- White potatoes
- Dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream etc.)
- Processed meats/poor quality meats (factory raised animals, hot dogs, salami, pepperoni etc.)
- Sugars (pop, honey, jam, syrup, candy, sports drinks etc.)
- Packaged foods (anything with an ingredient list: crackers, chips, pretzels etc.)
- Fried foods (French fries, donuts, baked goods etc.)
Settle a Debate: Are Butter & Ghee Paleo-Approved?
Our experts disagreed a bit on this one…
“According to Paleo rules, raw dairy should be allowed,” says Wallis. “So if you can get your milk straight from the teat of an animal, it technically fits the rules (but even then, what if that cow has been taken antibiotics or hormones? Now we’re not-so-Paleo again). Anything that has been processed using modern-day equipment or technology is off the table. So for the vast majority of people, no, butter and ghee are non-starters if you’re ‘true Paleo.’”
“Technically no, due to still being classified as dairy and being processed, it would not meet the Paleo standard diet protocol,” says Tetrault.
Dukowski, however, supports the addition of both into your Paleo diet: “End of debate, YES to both butter and ghee! Butter and Ghee from quality sources are excellent choices of much needed healthy saturated fats. They should both be a staple in the kitchen of the Paleo Dieter as they are important for digestive and gut health while at the same time are used as instant energy!”
Cavemen Presumably Had Access to Legumes – So Why Can’t You Have them on Paleo?
This rule of Paleo has always puzzled us, so we were eager to hear what our experts had to say about why Paleo rules out foods like chickpeas and peanuts. Turns out the banishment of legumes doesn’t have a whole lot to do with cavemen.
“Legumes are not a top choice on the Paleo diet because they contain things called lectins and phytic acid,” explains Dukowski. “Lectins are anti-nutrients and can damage the intestinal lining and can have a host of damaging effects on body, while phytic acid can bind to other minerals and inhibit their absorption.”
However, she adds, “much of the research is largely conducted with raw legumes so we shouldn’t be too quick to totally discount them.”
Tetrault echoes that qualifier. “The issue with totally vilifying legumes is that when cooked properly (soaked for a minimum of 12 hours), they can provide benefits (high in fiber and other nutrients, good source of protein- especially on a vegetarian/vegan diet).”
Why is the Paleo Diet so Popular with the CrossFit Community?
While the concept of Paleo may date back to the era of cavemen, we can thank two non cave-dwellers for bringing it into the modern age.
The person most widely credited with bringing Paleo to the mainstream (and giving the diet its name) is Dr. Loren Cordain, who published The Paleo Diet in 2002. But it was Robb Wolf, (who wrote his own book on the subject, The Paleo Solution, in 2010) who helped popularize the movement while working as a nutrition expert consulting with CrossFit gyms, Tetrault explained. (Incidentally, Wolf was “fired from the CrossFit Nutrition Certification” in 2009, but that’s a rabbit hole for another day. You can read his recap of the events here.).
“The idea was that the Paleo diet would help CrossFitters reduce inflammation by eliminating poor quality processed foods and increasing nutrient dense high-quality foods,” explains Tetrault. “Therefore, performance measurements of the CrossFit athletes would increase due to supporting recovery after these high intensity workouts.”
Dukowski adds that the diet grew in popularity with the community as part of the bigger picture of what CrossFit is about. “CrossFit, when coupled with nutrition, is designed to prepare you for a strong, functional and independent life, free of chronic disease and incapacity as we age. The Paleo diet’s focus on quality, nutrient dense foods falls directly in line with this! For many CrossFitters, training and nutrition are at the centre of their lifestyle, and the Paleo diet offered a way of eating that made sense to their understanding of how best to achieve a strong and healthy life.”
Is it Sustainable Long-Term?
The qualifiers of what makes a diet sustainable are of course subjective (a fiercely dedicated person could likely maintain any diet, provided it meets all their nutritional needs). But for the average dieter among us? We wanted to hear some expert input.
Wallis: “It can be. I know people who have been eating Paleo or mostly-Paleo for several years. It is, however, a big leap for anyone who is currently eating a standard North American Diet, and unless you’re eager to overhaul your shopping, food prep and restaurant habits, yes it can be very hard to sustain.”
Tetrault: “Many people who follow a paleo diet consider it to be a lifestyle. There are a lot of diets out there, but the Paleo focus is on quality whole foods, which is sustainable for people to follow long term. Although there is a ‘can’t have’ list, there is an even bigger ‘can have’ have list. Everyone is individual though and this approach might not work best for you to eliminate certain foods which make you feel good. “It is always best to follow the whole foods plan which makes you feel your best, even if it might not fit under a specific diet 100%.”
Dukowski: “The Paleo diet can absolutely be sustainable in the long run! If your version of Paleo simply means focusing on eating quality foods that are minimally processed and appear on your plate as they do in nature, most coaches will agree that one can sustain this plan indefinitely. In my experience, people tend to struggle sustaining this type of eating when they overly restrict certain food groups (usually carbs). Focusing on food quality, balancing out your food groups so they support your goals, and learning to listen to your body and what it needs will set you up for success in the long run regardless of how your label your nutrition!”
And Finally: Will Going Paleo Make Me Swole and Help me Finally Understand how to do a Barbell Snatch?
“Unfortunately not,” says Tetrault, crushing our dreams of going to Regionals by subsisting on bacon. “That comes with consistent hard work in the gym, proper coaching on technique and a huge focus on other recovery modalities (proper sleep, hydration, consistent healthy food choices and being smart with your training regime etc.)”
And while Dukowski says “you can absolutely get swole following a Paleo diet, especially if you prioritize protein and carbs while ensuring you consume enough healthy fats and total calories,” she also explains that mastering the snatch might involve more than cutting back on our gummy bear habit. “In terms of your lifting…its possible that following a Paleo diet will instantly make you 98% more likely to understand the barbell snatch (this is NOT at all backed by any science whatsoever), but you might still want to check in with your coach to make sure you are doing it right!”
Lead image courtesy of Pexels