Crossfit follows a methodology when it comes to fitness. And, along with it is a nutrition philosophy. Since Crossfit has become more mainstream, so has the Paleo diet. As a Crossfitter and a Dietitian specializing in sport nutrition it’s probably not surprising that I would have some kind of opinion on the diet.
I was recently talking to a friend about Crossfit and Paleo and when I told her I don’t actually follow Paleo I blew her mind. As a 5 year loyal Crossfitter and Crossfit coach, it certainly may come as a surprise to most that I’ve never followed a Paleo diet. In spite of this, I have been able to get lean, get strong, and perform at a high level. Go figure.
If you haven’t heard about the Paleo diet by now, you’re likely living in a cave. No pun intended.
To sum it up, Paleo attempts to re-create a diet similar to what our ancestors ate as hunter-gatherers living on the land. In addition to weight loss and increased energy, it purports to decrease inflammation and chronic disease, and promote optimal health by restricting the diet to whole foods that are unprocessed and unrefined. Sounds pretty amazing right?
The Paleo diet varies depending on what you read and how strictly you follow it.
Here are the key features:
- High intake of protein (ideally lean, grass fed meats).
- High intake of fibre, vitamins and minerals.
- Low intake of carbohydrates and sodium.
- Items to eat include meat, fish, fresh produce, eggs, nuts and seeds.
- Foods not to eat include all grains/cereals, beans/legumes, dairy, refined sugar and processed foods.
- Technically, peanuts, soy and tofu, as well as quinoa are also off limits. I think it’s implied that alcohol is also banned.
So what’s my take on the Paleo diet?
Before I continue, I should preface all of this by saying that my goal is not to bash Paleo but to help people make an informed choice.
First, understand that the foods we consume today look nothing like they did in Paleolithic times. For the most part this is actually a good thing. As much as GM foods, processing, and modern farming practices get a bad rap, it is these very practices that have made foods edible that otherwise weren’t and in many cases MORE nutritious and digestible. For more on this check out this awesome Ted talk.
I actually love many aspects of Paleo. A diet that focuses on lots of veggies, quality proteins, and unrefined foods is legit. Certainly alcohol, and processed foods including white refined carbs are not necessary. They are however delicious…
This point brings me to the diet’s sustainability.
Go take a look at your fridge and pantry. Now, review the list above and imagine what’s left… In my mind and in my experience counselling those trying to follow Paleo, the sentiment is that it’s hard to maintain and requires much planning. Furthermore, those on a budget may encounter some problems. Lean, higher quality proteins including wild fish, grass fed beef, and free range chicken and eggs are pricey. Plus, be prepared to spend a fair bit on fresh produce. In order to make up for the plethora of banned food groups, you’re going to have to consume a heck of a lot of berries, sweet potato, cauliflower and kale to feel satisfied.
A diet high in lean protein, veggies and healthy fats is healthy and can lead to some positive body comp results for some. That said, it is NOT a guaranteed weight loss plan. Those who lose weight often do so as a result of restricting many foods, including bagels and muffins, not necessarily because Paleo is magic. And then there are many that gain weight.
Why? Well in order to feel full, it’s easy to overdo it on the protein and fats rather than the veggies and many don’t pick the right kinds of proteins and fats. Just because you’re not eating refined sugars, and processed foods, this diet is not a free for all. It’s also worth noting that Paleo followers are known to plan a “cheat day”. If you follow my blog, you already know my thoughts on this (input eye roll). You can read more about my opinion on that here. Ultimately, if you need to plan one of these you almost definitely feel deprived. Lots of Paleoites consume enough calories on a cheat day to blow their weight loss efforts.
Remember that fat and proteins like red meat are calorically dense. While almond butter, eggs and avocados are great options, they pack a punch. P.S. bacon is not a high quality meat and following Paleo doesn’t give you carte blanche to pound it back. Likewise, a Paleo brownie, just like a gluten free or vegan brownie, is STILL a brownie. Almond flour, coconut oil, bananas, and cocoa powder may be found in nature, but they don’t equate to low cal.
Paleo diet shortfalls
As for the foods it bans, well for someone who loves to eat and looks at finding balance in one’s diet, I can certainly see potential issues here. Here’s a summary of my nutritional concerns.
- Possible Vitamin D and calcium deficiency (yes we can get calcium elsewhere but not as readily, see my blog about milk for more info on this).
- Limits convenient snacks like yogurt and cottage and milk – high in protein, and low in fat.
- Unfortunate restriction for pre and post workout fuel since dairy has an ideal protein-carb ratio and is high in whey, casein, and leucine; proteins/amino acids proven best for muscle growth and recovery.
- FYI Almond milk contains ZERO protein or carbs. It’s akin to lightly flavoured water.
- Some people believe that legumes are unhealthy due to lectins and anti nutrients. With proper cooking methods this is a non-issue.
- Legumes are a cheap, low fat, vegetarian way to add fibre to our diet, especially heart healthy soluble fibre and high in vitamins and minerals such as iron, magnesium and potassium.
- Legumes are super filling and a convenient way to bulk up the protein content in many dishes.
- Very restrictive making meal planning difficult.
- Whole grains have lots of soluble fibre important for heart and bowel health. Note, you don’t get high amounts of soluble fibre from fruits and veg.
- Whole grains provide vitamins and minerals. Highlights are B vitamins like thiamine, important in metabolism, and folate, necessary for healthy fetal development.
- Whole grains help keep us full and blood sugars stable when eaten in moderate amounts as part of a balanced meal or snack including protein and/or fats.
- Sugar can be a useful form of quick energy AKA fuel, especially for athletes.
- Sugar in moderation can add flavour and fun to food and this is part of living!
Is Paleo ideal for Crossfit and athletic populations?
For the athlete population, Paleo perplexes me a bit. Sure, our bodies can adapt to using fat for energy, but this is not efficient, especially for a high intensity sport like Crossfit which rely mostly on carbohydrates for energy. While Paleo isn’t explicitly marketed as an extreme low carb diet, if you look at the restricted foods let’s be honest, you’re inherently restricting carbs. Some fruits and starchy veg are allowed, but in moderation, and with dairy, sugars, grains, and legumes all crossed off the list your carb options are looking pretty spartan.
At Crossfit you’re a sports car, not a utility van. You run on premium gas with a demanding motor. This gas is glucose AKA sugar AKA carbs AKA glycogen, which is the body’s storage form of this precious fuel in the liver and muscles. Crossfit is based on short duration, full body workouts that are technically demanding – they require agility, coordination and strategy in addition to brute strength. Compare this to a steady state exercise on a recumbent bike. Carbs not only fuel the muscles but also the brain! Given the intensity, you are almost always performing under low levels of oxygen availability. This is called working anaerobically. Fat is best used as fuel under very low intensity activities like walking, where oxygen is still plentiful. The physiologic conditions of Crossfit do not allow fat to be easily accessed as a fuel source. So, if adequate carbs aren’t available you will be forced to use your body’s protein and fat stores for energy. Now tell me why would you want to use your muscles to fuel your workout when that’s what you’re there trying to build? You wouldn’t! Furthermore, using fat for fuel is sluggish and thus performance may follow suit.
If you don’t have fuel in the tank you can’t work as hard and this means less strength gains and fewer calories burned.
I can’t argue that some may be able to perform fine under these conditions, especially over time and adaptation. Also, Crossfit is short so you don’t have to perform for a long duration. I’ve postulated that the high amount of protein on the diet may help mediate some of the muscle loss when carbs stores are low. But, the question is, are you performing optimally? For higher level athletes training multiple times a day, I would argue this diet is simply not sustainable.
A Paleo loyalist will debate that sweet potato, fruits and veggies do indeed provide enough essential carbs. But, as someone who’s spent the last 21 years counting carbs and dosing insulin to match my carb intake, I can certainly attest to how much broccoli, berries and potatoes I’d need to eat to meet carb demands for optimal performance, plus there’s not a whole lot of variety here. As an aside, from professional experience, strategically adding back carbs to my clients’ existing Paleo diet has led to leaner body comps and higher levels of performance and strength in a matter of weeks.
Follow the fundamental rules of Paleo but…
- Include unrefined, whole grains like brown rice, barley and quinoa in moderation, especially timed around your workouts to fuel properly.
- Include legumes sometimes to have some inexpensive, high fibre, vegetarian protein options.
- Lastly, if you tolerate dairy, include low fat, no-sugar added dairy products like milk, cottage cheese and Greek yogurt at breakfast and snacks to ensure you’re getting bioavailable calcium and Vitamin D, along with the convenient added benefit of high quality whey, casein and leucine to boost your muscle building and recovery capacity.
- As for sugar and alcohol, this is a personal choice. But I don’t think a caveman would have denied themselves a piece of dark chocolate and red wine if it was offered every now and then…do you?