The Paleo Diet for Bodybuilders P.I
Burn fat faster while sparing muscle tissue — and potentially live a longer, healthier life — by looking to the past for a new approach to performance nutrition.
Author: Jeb Roberts, MA; Illustrations: Mark Collins
Fat-loss diets are hardly known for their staying power. While bodybuilders have spent the past century carving out a slow, steady path to building muscle and cutting fat through eating clean, unprocessed foods, the rest of society has scrambled from one fad to the next, taking its nutritional cues from greedy gurus and Special K commercials, all while getting fatter, slower and more disease-prone with each passing year. But one “trend,” called Paleo by its diehard followers, is cutting a swath of long-term fat loss and enhanced muscle building through the fray of useless dietary fads, and its secret is that it’s not new at all. In fact, it’s as old as our genes.
According to current anthropological evidence, the human genome has remained fairly steady for the past 120,000 years. That means that if you travelled back in time to the last ice age and carved a caveman out of a glacier, he’d be pretty much genetically identical to us. He’d have the same capacity for language and advanced mathematics, and he’d have the same dietary needs. If you think of those 120,000 years of human existence as a 100-yard football field, for almost the entire length of the field, humans were Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, eating primarily meat, with some vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. In fact, it’s only in the last 10,000 years (less than the last 10 yards of that field) that humans have become reliant on modern agriculture and its Neolithic staples of grains, legumes and dairy. And according to the latest anthropological research, it’s also during these last 10,000 years that we’ve become significantly shorter, fatter, less muscular and more prone to disease.
Paleo in a Nutshell
In the simplest sense, the paleo diet cuts out grains, legumes and dairy, each of which purportedly contains toxic elements that fatten our physiques and shorten our lives, and encourages consumption of meat — lots of it — along with plenty of vegetables and some fruits, nuts and seeds. In other words, if you can kill it or forage for it, bon appetite. But while many see the Paleo diet as a way to live longer and avoid modern scourges like obesity, diabetes, cancer and cardiac disease, athletes in particular have been experimenting with Paleo nutrition as a way to lean out and build muscle with greater efficiency.
Given these tendencies, it should come as no surprise that the Paleo diet offers benefits for the bodybuilder. And no Paleo proponent is better equipped to customize this ancestral diet for the bodybuilder’s needs than former research biochemist Robb Wolf, CSCS, author of the New York Times best-selling book, The Paleo Solution (Victory Belt, 2010). When Robb isn’t traveling the globe promoting performance-enhancing nutrition or giving talks at NASA to help astronauts combat the muscle-wasting effects of space travel, he’s training world-class athletes, including MMA fighters and pro football players, at his Chico (CA) gym, NorCal Strength and Conditioning, which was recently named one of America’s top 30 gyms.
“You can look at the Paleo diet in two ways,” Robb says. “One is that it’s a diet completely focused on unprocessed or very minimally processed foods. And the other piece is that when we look at foods that we theoretically co-evolved with over millions of years — lean meat, seafood, roots, tubers, fruits and vegetables — relative to Neolithic staples like grains, legumes and dairy, we tend to get much more nutrition per calorie.”
Scratch any notions you may have of weak, scrawny evolutionary ancestors cowering in caves and scrounging for root vegetables. While our ancestors may have shared our genes, paleo advocates point to evidence of them being significantly taller, leaner and beefier than us because of the foods they ate. “Our Paleolithic ancestors were very fit, very strong, and carried good amounts of muscle,” Robb says. So why are we and our Neolithic brethren shorter and chubbier by comparison? Most of that answer, according to Robb and other paleo adherents, boils down to a protein called gluten, which is found in many of our staple grains.
Against the Grain
While animals may be armed with natural defenses — from teeth and claws to heightened senses and the ability to outrun most predators — it’s easy to assume that the plants we consume are docile, harmless and eager to be eaten. But the truth is, most plants — including grains — have chemical defenses that are just as dangerous as any pair of claws, and most are constantly engaged in chemical warfare with one another and with anything that hopes to make a meal of them.
While this is no secret to people with a gluten-based autoimmune disorder known as celiac disease, you may be surprised to learn that all humans are at least mildly susceptible to the damage gluten causes. The perpetrators of this damage are lectins, phytates and protease inhibitors, and together they limit protein and mineral absorption while inflicting a severe inflammatory response, which Robb likens to poison oak in your intestinal lining. “Because of the gut-inflaming elements found in grains, they tend to cause inflammation in the digestive tract that gets transmitted to the rest of the body,” Robb says. “Whenever we have inflammation, we tend to retain water. That’s why you see a lot of contest-prepping bodybuilders instinctively migrating away from wheat-containing carb sources and opting more for potatoes and rice. And when we pull out the rice and the corn and we stick with yams and sweet potatoes, we find that people have much less inflammation throughout their bodies and retain less water in total.”
As you might imagine, all of this gut irritation severely limits the amount of nutrients you’re absorbing, and that holds especially true for protein, says Robb. “When you’re putting a premium on literally every gram of muscle that you have, digestive efficiency is going to be huge. It’s not just an issue of how much food you stuff down your pie hole — it’s a matter of how much nutrition you actually get into your body. And if we remove these gut-irritating foods, we tend to get much better absorption.”
And if that’s not enough, inflammation also impacts your immune system, subsequently impairing your ability to recover from heavy training and build muscle, to say nothing of its relationship to modern-day diseases. “This systemic inflammation and the resulting overactivity of the immune system throughout the body is an issue in everything from Parkinson’s to Alzheimer’s to cardiovascular disease,” Robb insists. “And it’s especially important for bodybuilders because their recovery is predicated on immune function. The better functioning your immune system, the better you can recover, and the quicker you can get back in the gym and lift heavy again.”
The Other Offenders
While grains and their lectin weaponry may be the main culprit, other Neolithic staples — namely legumes, dairy, sugar and processed vegetable oils — have the same kind of gut-irritating and inflammation-promoting properties. “Legumes have similar anti-nutrients — similar lectins — to gluten, and all of them affect different people in different ways, but in general we find that people tend to do better without them,” Robb says. Naturally, that means all soy products and peanuts — yes, peanuts are a legume — are off the table.
While no one will question the importance of cutting sugar, eliminating processed vegetable oils may raise some eyebrows. After all, they’ve been touted by government guidelines for the past four decades as healthy cooking alternatives because of their high polyunsaturated fat content. The problem is, the bulk of that fat comes from omega-6 polyunsaturates, and humans evolved to eat an approximately 1:1 ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s. Throw off this ratio too far in favor of omega-6s and the results, yet again, are systemic inflammation and reduced recovery.
Ditching dairy may be another hard sell — particularly for hard gainers. But Robb thinks there’s a way around it. “The dairy is kind of a gray area,” he explains. “If you can get grass-fed dairy, it wouldn’t be much of a problem. But because we grain-feed our cows, we concentrate the lectins from those grain sources in the milk, so it tends to be just as pro-inflammatory.” Cows, we’re finally realizing, evolved to graze on grass, and they’re just as intolerant of gluten as we are, which is an issue that extends well beyond their milk and right into the meat we rely on to build and maintain muscle.
To be continue...
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