Eric Emms MD + [paleo]

Eating Paleo, two months in: Data, thoughts and results

A couple years ago, someone handed me a copy of the The Paleo Diet for Athletes, by Dr. Loren Cordain & Joe Friel. In the book's pages, the authors claimed that eating a diet closer to what our Paleolithic ancestors ate has amazing benefits. A diet that eliminates grains, dairy products and legumes and replaces them with an increased intake of animal proteins and healthy fats, along with plenty of vegetables and fruit results in improved body composition, more energy, superior athletic performance, reduced illness and reduction in the risk factors for the modern long-term illnesses like heart disease and diabetes.

Ever the cynic, after reading the book, I set it aside as another fad diet (Adkins, Zone, Hollywood, South Beach) that promised incredible results, yet failed to deliver. But several times over the last several months, I had conversations with friends and fellow athletes who embarked on this way of eating and reported results quite similar to what Dr. Cordain and Mr. Friel claimed. I began to do some research, discovering that Paleo and similar eating philosophies (Primal, PaNu) seems to have nearly universally positive results for those willing to embrace the change. Maybe there was something to this after all.

On March 1, I began my own Paleo journey, adhering to the following principles.

What I stopped eating (or ate a LOT less of)

Month 1:

  • No grains (including breads and other baked goods, pasta, cereal, granola, oats, quinoa and rice)
  • Minimal dairy (occassionally using some butter for cooking and a small amounts of cheeses like feta or in salads). No milk, no yogurt, no cream. Of course, no ice cream. Ouch.
  • No legumes (including all beans, peanuts and soy products).
  • Starchy carbohydrates: potatoes
  • Refined sugar products: soft drinks (including things like packaged iced teas... ever read the nutrition label of an Arizona Iced Tea?), candy.
Month 2 and going forward:
  • Still no grains, except for the occasional cheat meal.
  • Minimal dairy, but now have added full fat organic whole milk as an indulgence (maybe a glass a week) and whole cream in my coffee.
  • Dramatically reduced legumes: I try to avoid peanuts, soy... will have some black beans on occasion.
  • Starchy carbs (sweet potatoes, parsnips) only immediately before or after hard exercise sessions. I am still avoiding potatoes.

What I eat now:
  • Fundamentally, Paleo or Primal eating is about "real" food. Unprocessed, as close to the source as you can get. If it's a packaged food, the fewer ingredients the better. But ideally, this style of eating minimizes consumption of foods that come in boxes, cans or jars.
  • Meat: beef, chicken, fish, pork. A quick aside about meat. It is pretty well-documented that there is wide variation in quality when it somes to the meat available at the grocery store. Most "factory" cows and chickens are fed a non-optimal diet of grains and soy. When possible, we purchase pasture-raised, organic or wild meat. In the case of beef, we acquired a 1/2 steer from a local supplier, so all our beef at home is grass-fed. We buy the best chicken available at the local groceries, but due to cost and availability this isn't always pastured or organic. Same goes with the fish; wild when possible, but sometimes we eat farm-raised.
  • Eggs: Organic or pasture-raised when possible... but again, sometimes we are limited by what is on hand at the local Wal-mart or Kroger.
  • Vegetables: broccoli, asparagus, various squashes, onions, mixed greens, leafy greens (kale, spinach, swiss chard), bell peppers... the list goes on. You get the idea, lots of veggies.
  • Fruit: berries, mandarin oranges, apples, bananas.
  • Nuts and seeds: almonds (and almond butter, milk), pecans, macadamia.
Most days, my meals are pretty much like the following:
  • Breakfast: scrambled eggs and fruit (apples, bananas) and on the weekend, bacon.
  • Lunch: Big salad with greens, colorful veggies and chicken, tuna, beef and turkey. Basic oil and vinegar dressing or homemade vinaigrette.
  • Dinner: Steak, chicken, fish, some cooked veggies and a green salad.
  • Snacks: a handful of nuts, some trail mix, celery or apples with almond butter, baby carrots, sliced red bell peppers with some hummus. Will have a protein shake (with almond milk and some fruit) after a big workout.

Here's the nutrient breakdown for the first month in daily averages, courtesy of CalorieKing. I wasn't trying to hit any particular numbers, I simply ate when hungry, ate until full and stuck to eating the foods that were part of the plan. To reiterate, these numbers are from March only.

  • Daily calories: 1876
    • I was somewhat surprised by how low this was. For reference, my Basal Metabolic Rate (daily calories burned at rest) is 1986.
  • Carbs (g): 139 29.64% of total
    • Here, Mark Sisson of MarksDailyApple.com talks about an ideal range of 50-100g per day for weight loss and 100-150g for maintenance, plus roughly 100g for each hour of training.
  • Fat (g): 94.5 45.3% of total
    • Nothing remarkable here... certainly more than the 44-78g range recommended by the Mayo Clinic, but not surprising considering all the nuts, avocado, healthy oils, and of course, a good amount of animal fat.
  • Protein (g): 117.3 25.01% of total
    • Way more than the FDA's 56g Recommended Daily Allowance (RDI), but quite close to the.7-1.0g per lb of lean body weight guideline recommended by many fitness trainers for those looking to increase lean muscle mass.
  • Fiber (g): 24.69
    • Depending on where you look, most experts recommend a fiber intake between 20-35g per day. I ended up well within this range... despite no grains. Amazing to think vegetables have fiber. Whooda thunk?
As far as exercise levels and intensity, for the month of March, I simply went on a maintenance schedule... keeping volume and intensity levels as close as possible to what they were in January and February. This worked out to an daily average of 45 minutes of exercise, 67% of which was cycling, indoor rowing or running and 33% strength training.

On April 1st, I upped the intensity of my training somewhat added in some longer cycling sessions, while continuing my strength training as well. Total volume came in just under 65 minutes avg per day (72% cycling/rowing/running, 28% strength training)

Weight change.
March 1: 209.6.
April 1: 193.6
May 1: 189.0

Very dramatic weight loss the first two weeks (about 12 lbs), since then it has slowed to about 1 lb per week.

Performance and strength gains are evident. A few data points:

One set standard pushup max:
March 1: 43, May 2: 78
TRX Low Row/Atomic Pushups (aka 40/40 challenge):
March 1: 18 pushups/26 low rows; April 29: 40 pushups/41 low rows

There was some initial impact on my endurance the first two weeks... my energy level crashed after about 20 minutes into any extended cardio workout. But this subsided and my energy levels and endurance improved and exceeded previous levels after this transition period. In fact, I set a new indoor rowing half marathon personal best on March 27 and my strength on my bike is improving every day.

Overall impressions on changing to this way of eating:

I'm not going to lie. The first couple of weeks, I was craving bread, rice and pasta... it was such a cornerstone of my meals that it seemed strange to have a meal without some starchy carb in it. But, now I am used to it and am perfectly satisfied with a plate full of veggies with some protein, whether its in the form of a big salad, or some cooked veggies and a nice portion of roasted chicken or steak.

Benefits:

  • Improved body composition: I am losing body fat consistently, and thanks to a consistent exercise routine, building lean body mass and improving strength. What else can I ask for?
  • Energy levels: More consistent throughout the day. No post-meal "food comas". No energy crash in the afternoon.
  • Sleep: Generally improved, once I'm out, I am out until about 8-9 hours later.
  • More consistant hunger patterns: I am rarely "starving". I eat three times per day... moderately sized meals, but I rarely find myself super hungry like before.
Cons:
  • Eating while out or traveling: paleo/low carb options can be hard to come by while eating out or on the road, particularly for breakfast. I am getting used to special ordering.
  • Food preparation time: So many of the quick foods available are grain based, so it can be inconvenient to cook every meal. Grabbing a pizza on the way home from the kid's softball practice is no longer in the cards. Or if we do, I have to make my own meal while they eat pizza. Which begs the question, are my kids eating paleo? Yes and no, but that's the subject of another post.
  • Cost: Protein is expensive. Carbs are cheap. Enough said.
I'll wrap up this very long post by addressing one important point. I am a big believer in Mark Sisson's 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of the time, I eat clean and according to plan. The other twenty... do I have a slice of birthday cake at my daughter's birthday party, have a scoop of ice cream on a hot day or indulge in a Nutella and peanut butter sandwich after a long bike ride? Hell yeah, I do. Life is too short!