Re-Tooling the Internal Machinery for High-Octane, Paleo Fuel

“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.

In health,

17 responses to “Re-Tooling the Internal Machinery for High-Octane, Paleo Fuel

  1. Nice, Keith.

    A practitioners’ map to putting m=1 Theory to n=1 Practice. A map that evolved from interlinked feedback of n=1 Practice informing m=1 Theory and vice-versa. That’s what this represents:

    “The all-time favorite ‘methadone’ for the carb jones, though, is Artisana coconut butter.”

    I second that! Triage away.



  2. Really good post. One tip I will put forward is for Paleo newbies is to have some more starchy tubers and root vegtables in their first week or two before the full transition to a more full on Paleo also limit fruit to 2-3 servings a day and as you already mentioned keep those good fats rolling as high as they please pretty much…..

    I love the Coconut Oil too amazing in black coffee too, I just love cooking eggs with the stuff too….



      • I actually prefer coconut milk to oil, at least in coffee.

        In desperate, cream-less times, I’ve tried several other fat sources in my coffee:

        KerryGold unsalted butter – save for coconut milk, probably the best “cream/half-and-half” alternative, once you get used to it

        Greek yogurt – not great, and disappointingly so; the only time it’s let me down

        Creme fraiche – again, not great; along with the yogurt, too sour for coffee

        Valrhona 85% dark chocolate (low sugar, high fat) – recommended; even better with a couple ounces of heavy cream; just make sure the coffee’s hot enough to melt it

        • Thanks for sharing those nutritional bricolage options/results, Erik.

          I use cream (raw preferably) in my coffee about half the time, pending the quality of the coffee I have before me. That last option looks interesting. I think I’ll try that!



  3. I’m another one who had no issues at all switching gears to Paleo.

    I made the switch to Paleo eating while I was still heavily into boxing, and even with the high energy demands of that sport I never felt a problem.

    Results may vary and I’m of the belief that each individual needs to figure out what macronutrient ratios best fuels his/her body. While it can be said that we’re essentially the same creatures as our neolithic ancestors in a biological sense, recent studies have shown that evolution has actually increased rather than decreased since agriculture. Series of microevolutions among our diverse populations are causing different groups of humankind to evolve away from each other at a greater and greater rate – in other words, humanity is becoming more and more of a motley crew. Everyone has different genetic potential, fasting blood sugar levels, etc.

    I had a friend who gave the primal lifestyle an honest go for a full 3 months but never was able to recapture the energy and stamina he enjoyed while eating grains. Of course he went back to his previous diet and felt fine again. This isn’t an endorsement of grains, per se, but an acknowledgement that certain people may need to eat more carbohydrates than others. If my friend had stuck with Primal eating and simply resolved to increase his consumption of fruits and veggies, I’m sure he’d have experienced the same increase in performance. There is nothing in grains that can’t be provided by vegetables and fruits within a more nutritious package.

    I, personally, can get by on very low carbs (somedays dropping below 50 grams) with no problems whatsoever.

    • “…If my friend had stuck with Primal eating and simply resolved to increase his consumption of fruits and veggies, I’m sure he’d have experienced the same increase in performance…”

      My thoughts as well. I’d have had him increase root veggie consumption – carrots, sweet potatoes, etc – then try to whittle him back over time, if he was agreeable to that. I can’t help but to think that the “non-responders” have any of a myriad of underlying health problems (thyroid problems, adrenal fatigue, chronically elevated cortisol, etc.). The non-responders that I’ve dealt with so far have generally fallen into two camps (sometimes both) – heard mentality/those uncomfortable with being the lone “free-thinker” in a crowd, and those who live life at warp speed, get little sleep, work 70 hours a week, etc. Oh, and those who can’t shake the fat consumption phobia.

    • I would have to agree with Keith, I bet there’s an underlying issue with his digestive process that’s affecting the breakdown of fats, which would consequentially affect his ability to get the energy from fat. If he was on a low-fat diet at all, guess what, his gallbladder probably isn’t working up to snuff when it comes to releasing Bile to help further break down fats later on during digestion.

      Or he could have too little Hydrochloric Acid, which most Americans do, which would limit his ability to breakdown fats/proteins in the stomach optimally. Which would, consequentially, hurt his chances of getting energy from those fats, and instead, leave a blob of putrefying fats (as well as other things) building up in his digestive tract.

      Just a thought, though. And a sheer guess.

  4. OK, I am very close to seriously giving Paleo a full college try. But I do have a few questions.

    1) What is the take on dairy? I notice that a lot of Paleo folks still do the dairy while some do not. Everything I have read has dairy listed as Neolithic, but from what I can see, most still use it.

    2)Same question with salt.

    3) My biggest problem overall is one I have not seen addressed anywhere. I am an amateur chef/gourmand, and primarily of the Asian culture groups of foods (Indian, Thai, Chinese). Almost all of the foods that I cook taste really good, are spicy, and have salt and/or soy-sauce as a main ingredient.

    Now, most of the curries (Thai and Indian) easily fit into the Paleo mold, however, they would be close to inedible (or cause serious stomach upset) due to their spice level without eating carbs with them. I could decrease the amount of curry that I use in them, but then the taste would not be very good. As well, the ingredients in Chinese food (Soy sauce and other Chinese sauces)fall largely into the bean and salt camps. What to do?

    Honestly, I think that this can be done (I have come up with a great Indonesian Beef Rendang that fits the bill and tastes great), but I am very open to suggestions and ideas from you Paleo pros.



    • – I happen to do well on raw, unpasteurized dairy – in moderation, of course – though I think this is a highly personal issue that requires a serious n=1 study. I would suggest neophytes go completely dairy-free, though, until a solid baseline has been established.

      – I limit salt, though I don’t abstain from it. I do find that once having gone Paleo (and following a full transition), a little salt goes a long way.

      – I think Richard at Free the Animal and Marc at Feel Good Eating are probably your go-to guys for the Paleo culinary arts. I tend to take the Panu approach in these matters.

      • Thanks Keith.

        I already had a long read at Pa-nu, it is a great blog that I plan to keep up on. I will check out the other ones too.

        Thanks again,


    • To be honest, dairy is my best friend. Now, I do come from a Northern European ancestry, so I’ve sort of have an advantage when it comes to dairy digestion.

      But like Keith said, definitely go raw. Raw milk, raw butter, raw cheese can be your best friends. But I would advise that you first do an elimination diet method and cut out all dairy for two-three weeks. Than slowly incorporate it back into your diet.

      If you have some type of reaction (from getting sleepy to breaking out in a rash) after eating dairy after being off it for that time period, chances are you’re a bit intolerant to dairy and would probably be best to limit/remove it from your diet. It might be a good idea to incorporate butter and/or cream before milk and cheese just because butter and cream are usually completely fat without the Casein (protein in milk/cheese) or Lactose (sugar) that so many people don’t do well with. But I believe some people who are Casein/Lactose sensitive can still do butter and cream just because they lack those two elements of milk.

      As for salt, salt is great for us. Especially if you are suffering from any level of Adrenal fatigue (which most Americans have to a certain degree). Unfortunately, much like milk, the salt that gets pumped into the majority of America’s food is refined of all it’s nutrient value. But we still need salt, especially for hydration purposes. Just look for a good quality salt that isn’t pumped up with synthetic/added Iodine, and you’ll be a step ahead of the crowd.

      The only comment I have regarding you’re third question is that it’s probably best to completely avoid the Soy sauce if it isn’t properly prepare (i.e. fermented with salts and enzymes). I’m not an expert on Soy yet, so that’s only my opinion…

      Anyways, good luck with the paleo conversion!


  5. “as we go along we’ll want to begin limiting nut consumption”

    Please expand just a bit. I don’t remember anything in previous posts (and I did a word search to confirm) suggesting restriction of nuts. Is new information leading you in this direction, or did I simply misinterpret your meaning?

    • I think one should consider nut consumption only in light of the balance of the diet – in others words, nuts are certainly not “bad” per se, but the forms most people eat aren’t necessarily all that good. Peanuts,of course, are a legume. Most times nuts are roasted in cotton seed oil and are heavily salted, and by the time you get a hold of them, the oils have begun to go rancid. Raw nuts are a better choice, however the omega 6/omega 3 ratios are skewed heavily to the omega 6 side (though walnuts and macadamias are ok in this regard), and unless our diets are chock full of grass fed/free range/wild caught protein, that just amplifies the omega ratio problem. They do contain some pretty potent anti-nutrients (not on the level of grain/wheat) although that can cause some problems. And they pack a heavy calorie wallop – not really a problem unless you’re trying to bust through the lower bf% plateaus, but certainly something to keep in mind. I do eat nuts personally, but sparingly. Moderation is key. Of course, n=1 tinkering may prove that you tolerate them well (just as I’ve had good results with raw dairy in moderation) – just keep in mind the potential negatives, and tinker appropriately.

      • Thanks for that answer as I was just about to ask the same question.

        On the anti-nutrient issue I have read from Paul Chek that soaking raw nuts in some water causes them to sprout and removes the anti-nutrient compounds in the nut just like it does with whole grains. I’ve tried this with walnuts and it’s interesting how sprout-like they taste after a soak.

        I personally only eat walnuts and macadamias and 90% my protein is grass fed so do you think a handful each of walnuts and macadamias 5 days a week would be or become an issue?



        • Not at all, I do the same myself. Interesting about the sprouting idea (ala grains) – Check is an interesting guy, with many a good idea. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to worry about sprouting before I consume, though – just limiting sounds more realistic to me. But hey, to each his own, right?

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