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The Paleolithic Diet

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Bodybuilders and other athletes use specialized diet techniques for various purposes. Their goals may involve losing bodyfat while maintaining lean mass or promoting muscular gains. Other types of diets focus on eating greater amounts of food to gain weight.

Gaining or losing weight is more a matter of regulating total daily calories than anything else. Diets that focus on specific nutrients, such as those that advocate cutting carbohydrates’in all their various guises’still involve taking in fewer calories. The most confusing aspect of bodybuilding nutrition, however, is finding the best diet plan for all purposes. Is there an all-in-one diet that you can follow year-round?

An all-inclusive eating style would promote lean mass gains while minimizing bodyfat accretion. While it appears that such a diet is more of a nutritional Holy Grail than anything else, according to many researchers, it does exist.

Paleolithic Eating

Humans have been around for about 2 million years, and researchers note that the human genetic composition has changed less than 1 percent since modern man came on the scene 40,000 years ago.1 As mankind evolved, humans ate certain types of foods, and researchers believe that even today the human body functions best on an eating plan similar to what was consumed during the Stone Age. In short, we have progressed in many areas of human existence, but our basic genetic pattern is similar to that of Stone Age man.

Anthropologists note that 55 percent of what makes up the typical American diet is ‘new’ food’things that our ancestors didn’t eat. Such foods include cereal grains, dairy foods, prepared and processed foods, alcohol, separated fats (various oils), commercial meat, free salt, refined flour and various sweeteners.2

The price paid for our ‘upgraded’ eating style includes a host of degenerative diseases that rarely occured in primitive man but are common today, such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, arthritis, diabetes and obesity. The mismatch between how we eat today and what we’re genetically programmed to eat causes at least 75 percent of all deaths in Western nations.3

Observations of close primate relatives of humans, such as chimpanzees’which differ genetically from humans by only 1.6 percent’in the wild show that their diets are not only more natural than what humans eat, but they have a much greater nutrient density. The significance here is not that we’re literally monkey’s uncles, but that what chimps eat in the wild isn’t dissimilar to what our early ancestors also ate. For example, in one study an anthropologist observed what monkeys ate on Barro Colorado Island off Panama.4 She found that the average 15-pound monkey took in 600 milligrams of vitamin C a day, or 10 times more than the recommended daily allowance for humans weighing 150 pounds. The monkeys also got a whopping 4,571 milligrams of calcium daily, compared to the 800 milligrams suggested for human intake of the mineral. Other mineral intake for the monkeys was also in the comparative megadose range, such as 6,419 milligrams of potassium and 1,323 milligrams of magnesium. That compares to the suggested human requirements, which are 2,000 and 350 milligrams, respectively.

The anthropologist who conducted the monkey study, Katherine Milton of the University of California at Berkeley, commented on the results, noting, ‘Throughout history humans have suffered from diet-related diseases. If we paid more attention to what our wild primate relatives are eating, perhaps we could learn new things about our own dietary needs.’

While it’s true that early man didn’t have a long life’the average age of death was about 30’it’s also true that people didn’t die from the types of diseases that kill most people today. Early man succumbed to maladies like the bacterial diseases we control today with various drugs and hygienic measures. The important point is that those who did survive to a longer life span appeared to be virtually immune to the diseases that plague mankind today.

Another hint that a natural way of eating is more suitable to human existence is seen in the primitive people (comparably speaking) who exist around the world today. They are rarely fat, tend to be more muscular and stronger than the average Western citizen or so-called modern human, and don’t suffer the ravages of old age, such as increased blood pressure (leading to increased susceptibility to heart disease and strokes), increased cancer incidence (at least 30 percent of cancer is linked to dietary factors) and lowered immune response. Other studies show that when such primitive people accept a more modern eating style of processed foods and foods that are genetically foreign to the body, they, too, develop the same types of degenerative diseases.

So just what did our primordial ancestors eat, and can we duplicate their diet today?

The Paleo Diet

The United States Department of Agriculture advises people to eat up to nine servings a day of fruits and vegetables. Such foods contain phytonutrients and antioxidants that have proven abilities to prevent many types of diseases, including cancer and heart disease. Eating that many fruits and veggies would be no problem for the typical caveman, who regularly ate three times the amount of fruits and vegetables that modern man eats. In fact, fruits, vegetables, beans and nuts provided 65 percent of daily calories for early man.

They also led to an average fiber intake of 100 grams a day. The usual suggested fiber intake today is 25 to 30 grams, yet many people get only 15 grams or less. Among other benefits, a high fiber intake prevents many gastrointestinal diseases and offers preventive effects against cancer and cardiovascular disease. Fiber also encourages fat loss by lowering the glycemic index of ingested carbohydrates. In effect, it slows the absorption of rapidly digested simple carbs, leading to less insulin release, and less insulin release per meal leads to less fat synthesis.

The wide variety of fruits, vegetables and nuts consumed by early hunter-gatherer societies contained a level of vitamins, minerals and natural antioxidants (such as plant polyphenols) that was five times greater than what we typically eat today. That level of antioxidant protection no doubt played a major role in the lack of diseases associated with runaway oxidative reactions in the body, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that those who lived in Paleolithic times’a fancy name for the Stone Age’lived by fruits and veggies alone. Their diets contained an average of 35 percent protein, or two to three times what is suggested for us today. In short, Stone Agers consumed a level of protein commensurate with what’s suggested for hard-training bodybuilders today.

Even so, the source of anceint man’s protein differed significantly from what we eat today. While meat was on the Paleolithic menu, it was lean, wild game that averaged only 3.9 percent fat. Compare that with most of today’s domesticated beef, which averages 25 to 35 percent fat. In addition, the type of wild game eaten during the Stone Age’such as deer, buffalo, horses and mammoths’contained higher levels of omega-3 fats, a more beneficial form of fat that is found today mainly in fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines and mackerel.5

In fact, early wild game contained five times more polyunsaturated fats (like omega-3s) than today’s domesticated livestock.6 Our beef contains only trace levels of such desirable fatty acids. The lack of fat in the free-range beef that Stone Age man ate meant fewer calories, with the calorie count similar to what’s in fish and chicken today. Yet the protein content was the same as today’s fattier beef. The amount of cholesterol’which is not a fat’was similar.

Early man’s greater variety of fruits, vegetables and legumes included various roots, shoots, tubers and other foods that you don’t typically see in the produce section of your local supermarket. Cereal grains, on the other hand, were eaten in either small quantities or not at all, simply because they weren’t available. Cereal grains started becoming plentiful around 1760, after the industrial revolution began in England. The point here is that many researchers think the human body hasn’t evolved enough to process appreciable amounts of cereal grains.

Another common class of foods the Stone Agers didn’t eat was dairy’again because they simply weren’t available. Since their diets were typically as much as 35 percent meat, they apparently didn’t have any trouble getting enough calcium. Even Eskimos, who practically live on protein and fat foods, show heavy bone structures with no signs of calcium deficit. Perhaps early man ate not only the meat, but also the bones of various animals, which would account for the high calcium intake. All those fruits, vegetables and roots likely contributed to the calcium intake as well.

Early man’s protein also came from other food sources, like beans and nuts. Although nuts are considered a high-fat food, they also contain a beneficial array of fatty acids, such as the monounsaturated fats espoused by advocates of the Mediterranean and Zone diets. It’s all a matter of how much you eat combined with your activity level. Also, note that such foods weren’t processed in any way, so they had a beneficial ratio of potassium to sodium.

The low sodium content of Paleo diets partially explains why people didn’t get high blood pressure back then; it is, in fact, a modern-day affliction. Primitive people living today who aren’t exposed to the ‘benefits’ of modern food processing, such as sodium-laded foods, still show no signs of blood pressure increases with age. Stone Age diets were the reverse of modern day diets; that is, they were rich in potassium, low in sodium.7 Another reason for the lack of high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases among early man was the active lifestyle. People just didn’t sit around munching junk food and watching television. Instead, most were hunter-gatherers, with the men hunting for meat and the women gathering plant foods. All that activity, combined with their high-protein, low-to-moderate fat and moderate-carb diet, led to an optimal natural balance between daily calories and energy expenditure. In short, they burned up all the calories they ate, so they didn’t get fat. Some studies show that early man consumed an average of 3,000 calories a day or more, yet obesity was rare due to the extensive physical activity, which included much lifting of heavy objects (ever deadlift a woolly mammoth?) and running.

Some scientists believe that early man followed an activity pattern of working’i.e., hunting, lifting and carrying’for two to three days, followed by rest. Some have even likened such a schedule to that of periodization-style resistance training, which is characterized by alternating sequences of heavy and lighter conditioning periods throughout the training year. The researchers suggest that since early man followed such a pattern of work alternated with rest, the human body has evolved to respond optimally to such a training style.

Can You Eat a Stone Age Diet Today?

You don’t have to hunt for wild buffalo, stalk a deer in the woods or search for rare tubers and roots to follow a Paleo-style eating plan today, but eating that way makes balancing activity and food a no-brainer. The higher-protein and moderate-complex-carb aspects of the diet eliminate excess bodyfat and maximize muscular gains, so any weight you accumulate is likely to consist of lean mass, or muscle.

Perhaps the main advantage of a Paleo diet for a bodybuilder is that you’ll be healthier and have more energy, but you won’t have to go on crash diets to achieve maximum muscular definition. You simply have to adjust your daily calories or carbs slightly, depending on your metabolic requirements. In many cases bodyfat levels will be so low that you won’t need a restrictive contest diet.

How can you eat like your Stone Age ancestors and derive similar benefits? Simply eat fewer ‘new foods’ that your body isn’t genetically attuned to. The Paleo eating style differs from that suggested by the USDA’s food pyramid, with its emphasis on certain types of complex carbohydrates. In contrast, proponents of Paleo nutrition note that grains, cereals, pastas and breads weren’t on the human menu until 10,000 years ago, a blink of an eye in genetic terms.

Some Paleo proponents say that while grains themselves aren’t that harmful’unless you have an established allergy to elements in grains, such as gluten’they tend to fill you up and keep you from eating more nutritionally dense foods that are more beneficial to health in the long run. Others, however, link the intake of grains such as wheat to arthritis, gastrointestinal problems, headaches and other possibly allergic manifestations. The allergic aspects arise because, again, the human body hasn’t had enough time to acclimate to grains, which sets up the proteins contained in them as ‘foreign.’

Another food group a Paleo diet downplays is dairy foods. As noted, cavemen didn’t drink milk, and the reason was that dairy animals weren’t yet domesticated for cultivation. The primary problem with milk, however, is its saturated-fat content, and nonfat varieties make dairy foods more suitable. As most bodybuilders are aware, the proteins in milk, such as casein and whey, are about the best available.

Isolated forms of milk proteins, such as those found in various commercial protein powders and meal-replacement supplements, are not only easily assimilated by most people, but they also contain several unique protective food factors, such as various protein peptides absorbed intact. Just because Stone Agers didn’t drink milk isn’t sufficient reason to avoid milk proteins, especially for bodybuilding purposes. You just want to avoid the saturated-fat content of whole-milk food products.

The Paleo diet was devoid of processed sugar. The closest any caveman got to eating sugar was honey. Refined-sugar products increase blood insulin levels, leading to insulin-resistance diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.

Processed oils and fats are also taboo for healthy Paleo nutrition. Early man had a far more desirable ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats. Omega-6 fats are commonly found in vegetable oils. While some of that type of fat is essential’i.e., linoleic acid’too much leads to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease due to increased fat oxidation reactions and increased risk of various inflammatory diseases, such as joint pains and arthritis. Trans fat is the worst fat of all. Trans fats are unnatural, usually processed fats’although they’re also produced in the human body’that act like a saturated fat in the body, leading to increased risk of heart disease and cancer. Most trans fats are listed on food labels as ‘partially hydrogenated fats.’ They didn’t exist in Stone Age diets and shouldn’t be a part of modern diets, either.

The best types of fat to consume are monounsaturated fats, which are found in olive oil, canola oil and nuts, and omega-3 fats, which are found in fattier types of fish. Both types of fat are important to your bodybuilding progress, since they beneficially modulate insulin cell receptors as well as eicosanoid synthesis, which leads to decreased inflammation and more rapid training recovery.

If you don’t like fish, it’s a good idea to use an omega-3 fish oil supplement or an alternative, such as flaxseed oil. Four to five grams of omega-3 fat a day puts you in line with Paleo nutrition.

In general, fish and chicken should be your major sources of protein in a Paleo diet. The lean wild game that early man ate is harder to get today, but the levels of fat found in fish and chicken are comparable. Leaner cuts of red meat, with all excess fat trimmed, are also suitable. Just stick with baking or broiling your meat. Never fry it.

The best type of vegetables from a nutritional and preventive medicine standpoint are cruciferous vegetables, which contain many phytochemicals known to prevent cancer and other diseases. Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, kale and collard, mustard and turnip greens fall into that group. Tomatoes are also great because they contain protective nutrients such as lycopene. Most fruits are great. The important thing is to eat them in their natural form’raw’not canned, dried or frozen.

As discussed earlier, nonfat milk products are okay in limited amounts. You can also eat eggs. While dieting, many bodybuilders discard the yolks, believing that they contain all the fat in the egg. While that’s true, the yolks also contain all the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. They do contain cholesterol, but they also have a good ratio of fat.

If you eat whole grains, eat them as whole grains. That means zero white bread or any other type of processed grain. Oat grains, such as those found in oatmeal, contain beneficial soluble fiber, which helps flatten out elevated glycemic curves, or slows down simple-carb uptake. Soluble fiber also helps the body eliminate cholesterol and food fats.

No one in his or her right mind would ever want to return to Stone Age living. After all, what would that mean to our computer games? Emulating a Stone Age style of eating, however, can prevent disease, maximize energy and promote solid, muscular gains in anyone. It’s a way of eating for life.

A Typical Paleo Menu

Meal 1
3 1/2 ounces oat bran cereal with 1 tablespoon unprocessed bran flakes
1 cup nonfat milk
1/2 cup raspberries
2 slices whole-wheat toast
1 tablespoon blueberry jam
1 piece fruit

Meal 2
1 meal-replacement supplement
1 piece fruit

Meal 3
5 ounces skinless turkey (unprocessed)
2 slices whole-wheat bread
1/2 cup lettuce
2 slices tomato
1 cup nonfat vanilla yogurt
1 apple, unpeeled
2 cups water

Meal 4
1 cup nonfat cottage cheese
2 tablespoons raisins
2 tablespoons walnuts
1 cup water or herbal tea

Meal 5
2 skinless, broiled chicken breasts
beet salad
1 cup Brussels sprouts
8 ounces nonfat milk
3 plums
Note: A typical Paleo eating plan is composed of 30 percent protein, 45 to 50 percent carbohydrate and 20 to 25 percent fat.

1 Eaton, B., et al. (1985). Paleolithic nutrition: a consideration of its nature and current implications. New England Journal of Medicine. 312:283-289.
2 Eaton, B., et al. (1997). Evolutionary aspects of diet: old genes, new fuels. World Review Nutrition Diet. 81:26-37.
3 Eaton, B., et al. (1988). Stone Agers in the fast lane: Chronic degenerative diseases in evolutionary perspective. American Journal of Medicine. 84:739-749.
4 Milton, K. (1999). Nutritional characteristics of wild primate foods: do the diets of our closest living relatives have lessons for us? Nutrition. 15:488-98.
5 Eaton, S.B. (1992). Humans, lipids and evolution. Lipids. 27:814-20.
6 Crawford, M.A. (1968). Fatty-acid ratios in free-living and domestic animals. Lancet. 1:1329-53.
7 Eaton, S.B., et al. (1996). An evolutionary perspective enhances understanding of human nutritional requirements. Journal of Nutrition. 126:1731-1740. IM

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