This is a guest post from my wife, Pam. Pam blogs about her life as an elite ultra-marathoner at The Turtlepath. After reading this, it will be obvious who the thinker in the family is. I didn’t change a word of what she wroteâ€”mostly because I value my life!
Mac has always been super supportive of my rather eccentric athletic and fitness goals–like wanting to train for and race in 100 mile ultra marathons. As the main cook in the house, he has accommodated my vegetarian preferences despite his carnivorous tastes.Â So when Mac said he was planning to go Paleo for a month, I had no objections.
In fact, his decision served as an impetus for me to examine my own dietary practices and belief–and to learn about new options. I was really excited to join Mac in his quest to cut processed carbs, particularly refined grains and refined sugars. Like many, I have a lot of bad habits, and bad reasoning, in my diet. I would justify a lot of the junk I was eating with thoughts like: “I ran ten miles today so I deserve extra caloriesâ€ or â€œI ate a lot of vegetables today, so it is okay to have dessert.â€ I still believe that a treat on special occasions is fine, but I was using these mental excuses a couple of times each day.
I was ready to change some of these behaviors both for general health purposes and to promote my goal of competing on a national level in ultra-running. Despite my readiness to change my diet, however, I just couldnâ€™t swallow the Paleo Kool-aid (made from freshly gathered citrus and honey, of course).
Here are my reasons for NOT going completely Paleo with Mac this month:
The Paleo diet is touted as preventing many so-called “Western diseases” such as Metabolic Syndrome. One problem: diet type has never been shown to contribute to this syndrome. In fact, the only two lifestyle factors that have been definitively correlated with Metabolic Syndrome are obesity and lack of exercise. Even obese people who exercise regularly can avoid many of the complications associated with Metabolic Syndrome. In fact most of the contestants on The Biggest Loserhave been taken off of their medications within the first 4-6 weeks of starting their weight loss journeys even though they still have 100+ pounds to lose. The exercising body is an amazing machine that can process almost anything very efficiently. ANY weight loss/exercise program (not just the paleo diet) will combat the symptoms of Metabolic Syndrome.Â
Lectins and Legumes
The Paleo diet makes a big deal about avoiding lectins, though I would guess the great majority paleo eaters don’t actually know what a lectin is. Lectins bind to glycoproteins and they can alter biological functioning. This is the major argument against beans, but also part of the grain argument. Lectins can be poisonous and cause illness in large amounts and they do probably increase inflammation. BUT:
- The Paleo diet endorses nuts and seeds even though they have large quantities of lectins.
- Almost all plants have some lectins.
- Lectins can be degraded/deactivated by cooking (and I like my beans cooked!)
- The Paleo diet disregards dosing in regards to toxins. For example many healthful substances become toxic when over consumed. Examples: fat soluble vitamins (A,D,E,K), salt, even water. A little bit may not be bad and in some cases, like vitamins, they may even be necessary.
- There are many types of toxins in plants, not just lectins, but the doses are very small and the good properties of veggies outweigh the risk of the toxins. Similarly, I think the beneficial properties of beans (eaten in moderation) outweigh the harmful effects of lectins.
- A small amount of inflammation may not be a bad thing. Inflammation is needed for tissue repair and to fight infection. And some lectins may help ward off infection. Example: Banana lectins have anti-viral properties against HIV.
The Paleo diet is anti-dairy. They say no other animal drinks milk past infancy. Well, No other animal cooks its food or wears clothes. No other animal eats off a plate. Humans have different behaviors than other creatures; to compare their eating styles is to compare apples to, well, cavemen.
Other arguments against dairy parallel the lectin argument. In some people, dairy causes excessive inflammation and may disrupt normal immune system function. The literature against milk and dairy is actually a lot stronger than the scientific case against eating lectins. Because of this, I have significantly reduced my dairy intake: I now substitute water for milk at most of my meals and have drastically reduced my cheese intake. Still, dairy products are one of the best sources of calcium (especially important in women) and are also good sources of lean protein (especially important for vegetarians). For those reasons, I am reluctant to give up dairy entirely, particularly yogurt, which may actually boost immune system function.Â
Ignoring Saturated Fat Intake
I have seen Paleo webs sites reference literature against Metabolic Syndrome, grains, lectins, etc. But there is plenty of literature showing the perils of meat consumption and high saturated fat intake. There are many different versions of the Paleo diet, and some stress lean proteins, but other versions do not. Many of the participants in the Paleo challenge in our area are eating a lot of bacon, steak, and other red meats with a concomitant high intake of saturated fat. As a medical doctor, I am not ready to condone high level consumption of saturated fat.
Who says cavemen were actually healthy?!? The life expectancy was something like 40 years. I have seen it written that the low life expectancy was because cavemen had an arduous life and died of accidents and infections, not “Western diseases.” Yeah, well maybe they needed a few more lectins for tissue repair and infection prevention! Or perhaps they just didnâ€™t live long enough to get cancer, heart attacks and strokes!
The Tarahumara and Other Healthy Populations
Even before Christopher McDougall made the Tarahumara a household name with Born to Run, the Tarahumara were known to be one of the “healthiest” populations on earth. The Tarahumara live in the remote canyons of Mexico with little access to Western society. Their rates of cancer, high blood pressure, mental disorders, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, etc. are a fraction of ours. The Tarahumara don’t eat processed food, of course, but their diet staple is corn. Also, they run for fun, so they get lots of exercise.
Other current day examples of people avoiding â€œWestern diseasesâ€ can be found amongst the tribes of Africa. These tribes subsist primarily on grains. Elite Kenyan runners, for example, get up to 80% of their calories from carbohydrates! To me, these examples show that grains (particularly whole grains) are not necessarily our enemy. I think the real problem is the abundance and over-consumption of highly processed, calorie dense carbohydrates with essentially no nutritional value, which is why I limited my â€œwar on carbohydratesâ€ to flours (particularly white flour) and sugar.
The â€œBSâ€ Factor
Okay, I understand the idea of poetic license or allowing for a â€œfudge factor.â€ But the way the Paleo diet was presented to us takes things a bit too far. Things like oil, coffee, vinegar, cocoa powder, dried fruit, and processed meats are all considered Paleo in some versions of the diet. Those are all processed foods that a caveman would NOT have access to. Also, it is probable that fishing did not exist during the Paleolithic era, so all sea food would be out. I am not saying these things are unhealthy, but I don’t like being told caveman ate them.
The Cardio Crash
Specific to my running, a carbohydrate source is necessary to prevent “bonking.” Bonking occurs when the body has no readily available glycogen. Your muscles don’t shut down, but your activity is limited by the rate of conversion of fat (or protein) to glycogen. This means you exercise at a much slower pace than you could if glycogen was readily available. Therefore, during aerobic activities that last longer than 90 minutes–the time it takes for your body to become depleted of glycogen–it is essential to consume easily digestible carbohydrates. Even Mac has allowed carbs such as Gu and Gatorade during his long runs because of this.
I have absolutely loved the opportunity to examine my own dietary patterns and make positive changes. I am trying to think through my food choices and find what works for me and fits my beliefs. Despite my above reservations toward the Paleo diet, I have cut almost all grains out of my diet, with the exception of oatmeal, which I have before almost every morning run. To tell you the truth, I really donâ€™t miss grains as the substitutions are just as satisfying to me, things like curry over spinach instead of rice, spaghetti squash instead of pasta, and hummus on cucumbers and tomatoes instead of pitas.
As mentioned, I have drastically cut my dairy intake. And my vegetable consumption has probably tripled (and I thought I did a good job of this before!) But I still eat almost no meat and I have a lot of non-Paleo diet items like tofu, yogurt, peanut butter, protein powder, and meat substitutes (Quorn and Morningstar farms products).
The hardest part for me has been cutting out sugar. Damn, that stuff is good! I am trying and I donâ€™t crave it at all, but when somebody is waving a cookie under my face, it is still hard for me to say NO. But I am trying, and I am getting better. The good thing is that I feel GREAT and I am running really well on this kind of diet, so hopefully that is the positive reinforcement I need to keep this stuff out of my mouth!
I think the Paleo diet has many good points, and in the Venn diagram of eating, I have a lot of overlap. But I have no plans to immerse myself completely in the Paleo circle.