Thoughts on the Paleo/Evolutionary Eating and Exercise Trends

(Photoshopped) cave drawing of a Nautilus camOver the past few years the concept of “paleo” or “evolutionary” eating has been gaining popularity. Not surprisingly, various “experts” have popped up with blogs, books and programs based on the concept; some good, some not, some nuts, and many with totally different takes on it. Unfortunately, this has caused confusion for people interested in learning more about it, and some of the more absurd takes on it have provided mainstream detractors with fodder for criticism and straw-man arguments.

The general principle, that we should eat in accordance with our evolution, is correct. This does not, however, mean we need to eschew all modern fruits and vegetables (the results of thousands of generations of selective breeding bearing little resemblance to what our paleolithic ancestors ate) or dairy (some cultures have been herding for thousands of years and consuming dairy long enough to have adapted to it) or start eating insects and grubs (however nutritious) or eat all of our meat raw (our ancestors have been cooking food for over 200,000 years).

The goal of “paleo” or “evolutionary” eating is not to replicate the exact diets of our pre-agricultural ancestors, but the general nutritional make-up and resulting energy intakes and hormonal effects.

Keep in mind the actual diets of our ancestors varied between regions and seasons as well as over time, depending on the environment, and that we have evolved to thrive on a wide variety of foods. We are carnivorous (and insectivorous) leaning omnivores. Additionally, what and how much of it you should eat (or not eat) will depend on your genetic make-up, general activity levels and goals.

My opinion on this is what we do not eat is more important than the specifics of what we do, and our health and fitness would be most improved by minimizing or eliminating intake of what Kurt Harris refers to as “neolithic agents of disease”. Namely, grains, legumes, excessive sugar, and excessive linoleic acid (omega-6 fatty acids). I discuss the reasons for this in Opinions On Nutrition.

Paleo Exercise?

Similarly, it has become popular for some trainers to claim exercise should replicate the physical challenges our paleolithic ancestors faced, and recommend things like climbing trees, jumping off of rocks, and running around barefoot through the woods as exercise. They argue our ancestors never had to hunt down and kill a barbell or defend themselves against a hungry Nautilus machine thus these things are “unnatural” and not optimal for improving health or fitness. While all of these things can have an exercise effect, and I am a fan of being barefoot, the same principle applies to exercise as nutrition;

The goal of a proper exercise program is not to replicate the exact physical challenges our paleolithic ancestors faced, but to expose the body to the same general physiological demands of those challenges while minimizing the risk of injury and factors which would undermine long term health.

Just because anthropologists will never discover a cave full of barbells or a 200,000 year old Nautilus machine does not mean training with them is somehow “unnatural” or at odds with our evolution. When used properly these tools are capable of producing the same general physical stresses that stimulated increased muscular strength and endurance, metabolic and cardiovascular conditioning, improved flexibility, improved resistance to injury, etc. in our ancestors, and that is the goal of exercise.

In a way, the “paleo reenactment” trend is similar to the “functional training” trend as they are both based on misunderstanding of specificity and transfer of strength and other factors of fitness. It is not necessary to replicate or mimic an activity during exercise for an exercise to improve one’s ability to perform that specific activity, and it isn’t necessary to replicate or mimic the exact physical challenges our ancestors faced for our bodies to be stimulated to improve general factors of physical fitness. While the skills involved are specific, the general factors of functional ability – muscular strength and endurance, metabolic and cardiovascular conditioning, flexibility, etc. – will transfer between any activities. Improvements in fitness from training with barbells or machines will transfer to any other physical activity. The only thing that will not transfer to everything else is the specific skills.

If you enjoy running, jumping, climbing, etc., by all means do so. Play is also an important part of overall physical and mental well-being. However, if your goal is optimal exercise you have to consider both the requirements for effectively stimulating the desired physical improvements and the requirements for minimizing the undesired factors like injury or excessive wear or stresses that can lead to a loss of functional ability or undermine health later in life.

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32 Responses to Thoughts on the Paleo/Evolutionary Eating and Exercise Trends

  1. Eric Lepine June 21, 2011 at 12:54 pm #

    THANK YOU Drew!!!! Chris Kesser (see http://thehealthyskeptic.org/beyond-paleo-moving-from-a-paleo-diet-to-a-paleo-template?utm_source=The+Healthy+Skeptic&utm_campaign=88adf57743-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email) also wrote a piece recently advocating similar thoughts to Kurt’s and yours here namely, an approach that calls for reference to a “paleo template” instead of a “paleo diet”.

    As for the exercise part, this has also been going way overboard in recent years. Just as Kurt espouses for the reenactment of the “evolutionary metabolic milieu” or EM2 (and not a strict and dogmatic dietary approach), it would do us some good if we also tried to do the same from an exercise standpoint. This means using principles not derived from a single science or field of inquiry, but ones that draw first on medical sciences like biochemistry, physiology and endocrinology, and then looks back with history and paleoanthropology.

    I’m glad you’ve also tackled this issue :)

  2. Mike June 21, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    Have to agree here, although I do eat some grains.

    I fell into the kettlebell-training fad a few years ago. There are worse methods of exercising, but my repeated attempts at functional training just aggravated a preexisting neck injury.

    I can protect my neck very effectively in HIT style training, and the kettlebells are now gathering dust in my basement.

  3. Katelyn June 21, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

    I love it, Drew! I am sharing.

  4. Bill June 21, 2011 at 6:13 pm #

    Hey Drew,

    Great read as always! What are your thoughts regarding nutritional optimalization in the technological age? We have a much greater understanding now of the physiological and nutritonal requirements of exercise and diet than paleolithic man could ever have conceived. Aptly, we’re now able to target and deliver those requirements with science over intuition\instinct. Does Arthur Jones’s approach to building a better barbell also apply to nutrition?

    • Drew Baye June 21, 2011 at 7:08 pm #

      Bill,

      As understanding of specific nutrient requirements and the effects of food on performance and health improves we will be able to better optimize diets based on individual requirements and goals, however for most people following the general “paleo/evolutionary” nutritional guidelines and adjusting based on their body’s response will get them pretty close to optimal.

  5. Steven Turner June 21, 2011 at 6:54 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    There is a current tractor tyre flipping craze I think that this type of training (craze) comes under the “funtional training” mantra. That is until one lady who now wears a permanant back brace and can hardly move, I am just waiting for the court cases to emerge. I am not sure what tractor tyre plipping is supposed to “mimic” in everyday life.

    IMO improved funtional ability is a product of increased strength.

    I am also glad that you have cleared up some of the Paleo diet issues.

  6. Vanner June 21, 2011 at 8:40 pm #

    Every time I start to read too many blogs and start getting fooled by “functional” fitness, I come back here to straighten myself out.

    Thanks for tackling some of the diet baloney that’s out there; your a brave man. I think Kurt H. locked up his comments section on his blog because of all the fodder and straw-man arguments that he kept having to clean up.

    • Drew Baye June 21, 2011 at 9:37 pm #

      Thanks Vanner, I’m glad the site helps keep your training safe and productive.

  7. Matt June 22, 2011 at 2:33 am #

    Hey Drew, another great post!

    What are your thoughts on intermittent fasting? I’m hearing about it more and more in regards to paleo style dieting.

    Hope to see the book soon!

    • Drew Baye June 23, 2011 at 12:14 am #

      Matt,

      Intermittent fasting works well if you are better adapted to using fat for energy, but can be miserable for people who try it with higher carb diets.

      I should point out paleo is not “low carb” – a diet which obtains most of its carbohydrates from non-starchy vegetables and smaller amounts of fruits and nuts will provide an appropriate amount of carbs for people. It is only “low” relative to the excessive carbohydrate intake typical of diets containing significant amounts of grains, starches and sugar.

  8. Callum Reeve June 22, 2011 at 8:10 am #

    Drew,

    The idea of evolutionary eating has always made perfect sense to me. But if im being honest I have always struggled completely eliminating grains from my diet, mostly because of my paranoia about losing muscle mass/body weight, which is probably fuelled by the notion of carbohydrates having a ‘protein sparing’ effect. I think its likely I’m wrongly influenced by bodybuilding ‘nutrition experts’ who are always quick to point out the anabolic effects of insulin and that a diet low in carbohydrates makes it a lot harder to consume enough calories for additional muscle growth. I could replace the grains with a moderate amount of potato for some starch but im not the biggest potato fan. Thanks for a good a read.

    • Drew Baye June 23, 2011 at 12:16 am #

      Callum,

      If you’re consuming adequate protein you don’t need to worry about sparing it, and protein intake also stimulates insulin secretion, but it does so along with glucagon.

      The only reason to ever consume grains is as a cheap source of calories that can quickly be converted to glucose, but starchy vegetables are a healthier option in situations where this is necessary.

  9. Mario June 23, 2011 at 1:46 am #

    Great post Drew.

  10. Dale June 23, 2011 at 11:17 am #

    Just thought I’d interject here. I’m an IF’r and a high-carber, if you consider 200-250g a day high, and IF works like a charm. No, I am not an endurance athlete. In fact, I hew fairly closely to Sisson’s ‘blueprint’ of one or two brief strength training workouts a week and copious walking.

    • Drew Baye June 23, 2011 at 12:10 pm #

      Dale,

      What is “high” would depend on the individual. A bigger or more active individual can handle more than a smaller individual (not require, there is no requirement for carbohydrate in the diet). Mark Sisson’s carbohydrate curve is a good guideline for most people, but for larger or smaller individuals I’d recommend keeping carb intake under a gram per pound of lean body mass per day and getting additional energy from fat if needed.

  11. Chris Brown June 23, 2011 at 11:34 am #

    Very nice. Reminds me of using a “Fred Flintstone diet and George Jetson exercise program.” I think I first heard this comment from Dr. Doug McGuff.

  12. Paulus June 23, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    Good point that our ancestors have been eating cooked food way before our species ever existed. It’s interesting how the “raw” food faddists have been climbing aboard the paleo wagon without even understanding what that means.

  13. Dale June 23, 2011 at 2:12 pm #

    Drew –

    I put the ‘ecto’ in ectomorph. I go 6-0 155. Now, I am fidgety, so I’m sure that the calories I burn through general activity are fairly high.

    The only point I really wanted to make is that never at any point has IF left me ‘miserable’, or certainly no moreso that reducing portions or consciously reducing calories. That said, I would never argue that IF is for everyone. For me, more than anything, it amounts to a convenient means of calorie restriction.

    It actually jibes pretty well with HIT, though: Eat less frequently, exercise less frequently. ;)

  14. Kris Traughber June 24, 2011 at 10:44 am #

    Nice post. I am diabetic and a diet like this is working for me. Although I can’t argue with the science and the fact that this actually works, I do want to play devil’s advocate for a second. If we’re talking about what our ancestor’s ate, we can’t ignore the fact that we’ve been eating grains and beans for thousands of years as well.

  15. Eric Lepine June 24, 2011 at 2:42 pm #

    Kris…

    Your comment brings up a few important points namely, that the bulk of the recent paleo blogosphere (not to be confounded with the real scientific research done in this field by Lindeberg, Boyd, Cordain and others) has been centered on a relatively recent and short time, as well as a very geographically-restricted area. This is why claiming that “paleo” is anything very specific or that it’s something we should reenact perfectly, since it’s what we are adpated to, is assuming quite a lot. It’s assuming, to begin with, that it’s optimal alas, the very fact that we survived all this time only proves that the diet we survived on was adequate to allow procreation and survival of the next generation.

    Modern hunter-gatherers of various agriculturist background offer, unfortunately, but a mirror in to what ‘might’ have been. That doesn’t preclude then that there was ever an optimal macronutrient ratio that we evolved on, any more that grains or legumes are inferior foods. Or dairy. In the case of grains and legumes (and nuts too, which are also, technically, seeds) consumed after careful traditional preparation (which ALL traditional people have been show to do) can, in fact greatly transform these foods, making them on par with other nutritious foods.

    Almost everything is somewhat toxic, including starchy tubers, vegetables, and even some fruits (namely, the berries, full of seeds, which many paleo proponents suggest we should eat, to the exclusion of other fruits). Vegetables are full of assorted goitrogens, oxalates, salicylates, tannins, phytoestrogens, etc. You can’t avoid toxins and still eat a healthy diet, but that’s OK because you don’t have to. You just have to reduce the relevant ones to a level at which they aren’t problematic. Many healthy traditional cultures have shown us that we can do that with grains, legumes and nuts if we prepare them well, as part of an overall healthy dietary pattern including nutrient-dense plant and animal foods.

    Please undertand that doesn’t necessarily imply that I am suggesting you SHOULD eat grains or legumes, or even dairy for that matter. To each their own really. And, quite certainly, 99% of the grains consumed by affluent societies DO NOT correspond to what I am describing here. If you can’t be bothered, then I wouldn’t worry about them. But, the issue is certainly more complex than it appears.

    OK, that’s all for now. This was supposed to be a quick post ;)

  16. Elvin June 30, 2011 at 7:31 am #

    So where’s a good place to get the right info on eating Paleo? I feel like I’m addicted to carbs and want to stop eating the way I do. I’m 5’9″ and weigh about 300lbs.

  17. Pete P. July 10, 2011 at 9:26 pm #

    Drew, I have been a fan for awhile and this is probably one of the most informative sites I have ever seen for training and nutrition info from someone who is a paid personal trainer. Now for my question: I am what you might call a “recovering vegetarian” and have dropped all grains and legumes from my diet but am not prepared to start eating meat yet and have been slowly experimenting with fish which I haven’t eaten in years. Can I get most of what I need from eggs and is there any real danger associated with eating too many whole eggs? When I switched from a grainy/beanie diet to pounding eggs cooked in coconut oil the difference was immediately noticeable and feel-able, unlike any supplement I have ever taken! I should mention that I generally saute a ton of broccoli or spinach and mix it in the omelet.

    • Drew Baye July 10, 2011 at 9:52 pm #

      Thanks Pete,

      Eggs are great, but depending on your weight you may need to eat about two dozen daily to get adequate protein for muscle gain. When buying fish go for wild rather than farmed.

  18. Lance August 5, 2011 at 9:28 am #

    Drew,

    I discovered your site and I agree with alot (i.e. training methodology). What I don’t understand is the diet stuff. People all over the world eat very different diets but also maintain good health. In the end genetics wins out I was told.

    I am a 400lb male, yes 400lbs. Relative to my weight, and I am talking fat loss calorie diet:
    1) How many calories do I require as a good starting point to start dropping the pounds?
    2) Exactly what is low carb taking question 1 into consideeration?

    Low carb in my experience has been the Atkins/Anabolic. I gave both of these diets a fair try for a couple times each over a period of 2-3 months. I couldn’t sustain it eating less than 30 grams of carbs each day. Made me sick of flesh foods and I was often lacking energy and constant brain fog.

    My life is in your advice.

    Lance

  19. Richard August 21, 2011 at 7:07 pm #

    Drew, you’ve mentioned in several posts that you consume fish oil supplements. Could you shed some light on actual amounts of EPA and DHA that you aim for every day? Leangains.com recommends 2g EPA, 1.5g DHA. This seems excessive and expensive to me. Also, what is your stance on Krill Oil vs Fish oil? Your response is most appreciated.

    • Drew Baye August 22, 2011 at 8:45 am #

      Richard,

      I’m not sure of the exact EPA and DHA but my total daily fish oil intake is only four grams so probably not anywhere near that much. As for krill vs regular fish oil, I don’t think there is much of a difference. Most of the claims for krill oil related to phospholipids, antioxidant content and purity have been found to be unsupported and are nothing more than marketing hype.

  20. bob stenerson April 7, 2012 at 8:30 pm #

    Thanks for the tips. There seems to be extreme views on diet nowadays. One extreme raw food/vegan folks.
    And then guys like Dr. Greg Ellis. I admire and respect the fact that he looks pretty fit and muscular for a 65 year old. But he seems to promote extreme low carb to no carb. (says he ain’t touched a fruit in 20 years) and eats almost no veggies now.

    • Drew Baye April 9, 2012 at 9:48 am #

      Bob,

      I wouldn’t recommend either extreme. I tend to eat and recommend more fat and protein than carbohydrate but vegetables and fruit provide both nutritional and gustatory value.

  21. Sonny May 21, 2012 at 10:54 am #

    “Paleo” seems to be the buzzword of the day, honestly as long as I stay within my calorie allowance I haven’t seen one shred of difference in weight, health, body composition or anything else in any slightest degree when I tried eating that way for a short period. I eat rather high carb, including rice, sweet and white potatoes, whole grain bread, various whole grain cereals, skim milk and probably many other paleo no-no’s and seem to do just fine. Maybe some people have noticed some kind of difference but for me it was just a waste of time and made eating unnecessarily complicated.

    • Drew Baye May 22, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

      Sonny,

      There are numerous reasons why the foods you mention should be avoided and the majority of people I know and have worked with who have dropped them and adopted a more “paleo” style of eating have noticed significant improvements in overall health, performance and appearance.

      It isn’t complicated at all, it just takes some planning and discipline. I’ve actually found it much simpler both to practice and teach.

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