“He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves, and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper.”
– Edmund Burke
The mind can either be a beautiful tool, or (and especially combined with an unchecked ego) be a hell of a thing to have to wrestle. Psychological impediments to adopting a full-on Paleo lifestyle abound, and I’ve touched on a few of the more common of those “real life meets Paleo” sand traps and water hazards in this post. All well and fine you say, but surveying the landscape from a purely intellectual standpoint, one might also have a hard time wrapping the mind around theses things: (1) that we as a society could have been so miserably lead astray by so called “nutritional authorities”, (2) that the government, universities, and otherwise intelligent, well-intentioned entities/people could be so thoroughly blinkered, and (3) that diet (writ large) can’t really be that easy, can it?
As to point #3 – well, actually, yes – it can be that easy. Does it require upper-level collegiate work in nutritional science? A Ph.D in Bio-chem? Nah, just a little knowledge of pre-agricultural history will do – specifically, knowledge of what our ancestors consumed prior to the advent of agriculture – plus some rudimentary knowledge of the biological sciences and evolution theory; these few ingredients are all that are really required to facilitate an intellectual, dietary “awakening”.
Points 1 and 2 can be thoroughly addressed by a reading of Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories. Now Taubes isn’t 100% spot-on (in my humble opinion, that is) in every aspect of the subject, but the few areas in which he does run afoul amount to mere trivialities relative to his overall work. If you only read one diet book in your lifetime, make it this one. No time to read the whole thing? Understandable, as it is – even for an avid reader like me – a slog at times. Fear not, though, because this article (hat tip to Ryon Day for the find), serves as a pretty good “Cliff Notes” version.
So we’ve rounded first base and the psychological barriers, turned second base’s intellectual hold-ups, and now we’re headed to third – those inherent (and dastardly) implementation issues; theory to practice, as it were – my favorite subject 😉
Overcoming The Initial, Physical Onslaught
In my experience, most all physical (as opposed to the previously covered psychological and intellectual) Paleo “fails” can be traced back to either (1) the inability to surmount the dreaded “carb jones”, and (2) the (sometimes) pronounced performance drop-offs immediately subsequent to initially “going Paleo”. Of course, all factors have some element of the psychological, intellectual, as well as physical dimension – no single factor exists in a vacuum – and therefore, no factor can be so easily pigeon-holed. There are true physiological issues to consider, though, with these two aspects. Now If you’re like me, though, just knowing that I can attribute these happenings and cravings to part of a very real, and lager, physiological process, makes the corresponding/associated psychological aspect that much easier to deal with.
In simple terms (and I like simple!) what we’re dealing with here is nothing less than a re-tooling of the body’s machinery at the enzymatic level. We’ve suddenly given this marvelously complex organism of the human body an abundance of high-octane, clean burning fuel (fatty acids), in lieu of the unrefined, sugar muck that the body has been forced to contend with for so many years. Immediately we’re then hit with the need for a new breed of intermediaries (enzymes) to perform the mitochondria-appropriate conversion work that had been previously undertaken by the knuckle-dragging sugar brigade enzymes. Unfortunately, this Pygmalion conversion doesn’t happen overnight…or over two nights. A fortnight is more like it.
A little too folksy an explanation for you to stomach? Hey, I understand. These links will give you a little more in-depth explanation – with no Pygmalion references 🙂
Fatty acid metabolism
Fat storage and retrieval (Peter’s Hyperlipid is a fantastic blog, by the way. Highly recommended)
As always, Good Calories, Bad Calories will clue you in to more than you need to know as well.
Anyhoo, while this “re-tooling” is on-going, guess what that body of yours is screaming for? That’s right, the fuel it’s been programed for so long to rely primarilly upon – sugar – in all of its ghastly manifestations. In truth, some people make the transition rather easily. I was in that camp – a few pangs here and there, nothing horrible. For others though, it’s a rough ride.
Ok, so what to do?
So we know that at the onset the Paleo neophyte will be to some extent deficient in the various fat metabolism enzymes, and that within a couple of weeks, this deficiency will naturally self-correct. For whatever intellectual/psychological comfort that provides, fantastic. At this point, I tell people not to worry about overeating (Paleo foods, of course) – and to make damn sure to overindulge in good fats. Battling satiation issues on top of carbohydrate cravings is enough to bust the resolve of most neophytes. So my advice is to leave satiation issues for another day (in most cases this will resolve quite naturally on its own anyway), and deal with shaking the sugar shackles.
In the troughs of a hella-jones, and don’t know what to do? Here’s a simple and effective trick: a straight-up hit of good fat – a swig of olive oil or a hunk of (raw dairy) butter works well. The all-time favorite “methadone” for the carb jones, though, is Artisana coconut butter. I understand that Tropical Traditions carries a similar product, though I haven’t yet tried it. I can vouch for some of their other products though, which are out-of-this-world good. A small amount of macadamia or walnuts is another option, though be aware that as we go along we’ll want to begin limiting nut consumption. For now though, just view that as another hurdle for another day. Also, some people are sensitive to coffee (caffeine in general) in that consumption of caffeine will trigger a strong desire for carbohydrates. Personally I wasn’t affected (too much) by this, but I have heard enough anecdotal evidence to know that it is another concern to be aware of. The caffeine-sugar combo can be a daunting duo to defeat for some people. I believe that Julia Ross covers this quite extensively in The Mood Cure.
But dude, forget all that – the real problem is that I feel like a girlie-man in the gym…
Same problem as above my friend – proper enzyme deficiency. Ride it out and you’ll see that you’ll be a beast on the other side of the conversion.
To wit; the following is an example of an endurance athlete’s cross-over, but I can tell you unequivocally that the same applies to strength/power athletes (and your normal, everyday Joe) as well. And note here that Joel (Friel) consciously limited his fat intake during the conversion, while I advocate more of a hyper lipid approach. I think the deficiency of good fats both prolonged and intensified his conversion. Just my opinion, though. Anyway, from Robb Wolf’s most excellent NorCal Strength & Conditioning blog (specifically, this post), we have this:
Here is an excerpt from The Paleo Diet for Athletes in which Joel talks about the Challenge Loren Cordain placed on him to try the Paleo diet for one month. check it out:
“I have known Dr. Cordain for many years, but I didn’t become aware of his work until 1995. That year we began to discuss nutrition for sports. As a longtime adherent to a very high-carbohydrate diet for athletes, I was skeptical of his claims that eating less starch would benefit performance. Nearly every successful endurance athlete I had known ate as I did, with a heavy emphasis on cereals, bread, rice, pasta, pancakes, and potatoes. In fact, I had done quite well on this diet, having been an All-American age-group duathlete (bike and run), and finishing in the top 10 at World Championships. I had also coached many successful athletes, both professional and amateur, who ate the same way I did.
Our discussions eventually led to a challenge. Dr. Cordain suggested I try eating a diet more in line with what he recommended for one month. I took the challenge, determined to show him that eating as I had for years was the way to go. I started by simply cutting back significantly on starches, and replacing those lost calories with fruits, vegetables, and very lean meats.
For the first two weeks I felt miserable. My recovery following workouts was slow and my workouts were sluggish. I knew that I was well on my way to proving that he was wrong. But in week three, a curious thing happened. I began to notice that I was not only feeling better, but that my recovery was speeding up significantly. In the fourth week I experimented to see how many hours I could train.
Since my early 40s (I was 51 at the time), I had not been able to train more than about 12 hours per week. Whenever I exceeded this weekly volume, upper respiratory infections would soon set me back. In Week Four of the “experiment,” I trained 16 hours without a sign of a cold, sore throat, or ear infection. I was amazed. I hadn’t done that many hours in nearly 10 years. I decided to keep the experiment going.
That year I finished third at the U.S. national championship with an excellent race, and qualified for the U.S. team for the World Championships. I had a stellar season, one of my best in years. This, of course, led to more questions of Dr. Cordain and my continued refining of the diet he recommended.
I was soon recommending it to the athletes I coached, including Ryan Bolton, who was on the U.S. Olympic Triathlon team. Since 1995. I have written four books on training for endurance athletes and have described and recommended the Stone Age diet in each of them. Many athletes have told me a story similar to mine: They have tried eating this way, somewhat skeptically at first, and then discovered that they also recovered faster and trained better.
So there you have it my friends, the practicalities of the Paleo re-tooling. A little knowledge, a little “want-to”, and a strong desire to be in better health and/or become a better athlete are all that’s really required to bridge that gap between the Standard American Diet (aptly enough – SAD), and the Paleo lifestyle.