The “Paleo” Nutritional Template

We are almost one month into 2020, and the New Year is often characterized by change. For many, January is an annual “renaissance” of sorts. More than a simple “reset”, the beginning of the year is ripe for possibilities, potential, and the opportunity for personal growth. The criteria by which “success” and personal growth are measured will differ among individuals, but improvements in health and wellness are worthy benchmarks for all. Nevertheless, prioritizing health and wellness is contingent on a whole lot more than participation in fitness activities. Regulating nutritional practices is just as important as lifestyle practices and engaging in regular physical exercise; however, developing consistency with respect to productive nutritional practices can be a challenging commitment.

Discovering what works is the first phase of the battle, and what works varies from person to person. There are, perhaps, thousands of organized nutritional templates out there, if not more, and millions of related resources that saturate the internet. Because each individual’s nutritional needs are unique, these templates—and the theories on which they are based—are general in scope, so before selecting a dietary model from the vast array of options available, it is useful to develop an understanding of the reasoning behind each formulation.

One dietary model that has gained recognition in the fitness industry, especially in the CrossFit community, is the “Paleo” nutritional template. In this article, I will summarize the basics of the theory that underlies the Paleo nutritional template, and I will discuss some of the general guidelines it espouses.

The term “Paleo” derives from the period in human prehistory identified as the Paleolithic (Age), and the “Paleo” nutritional template promotes restricting dietary intake to the natural (whole) foods available to primitive beings living on Earth during this period. This was the era of the “caveperson”, which can actually be a misleading label. These primitive beings were anything but sedentary cave dwellers; rather, their lifestyle was characterized by the nomadic presence and constant migration of a hunter-gatherer. Because primitive beings were always on the move—they went where the food was—their lives were active to a degree that modern humans would struggle to comprehend. As a consequence, these primitive beings were physiologically capable and relatively “fit”, in a practical sense. After all, their lives depended on their physical stamina and their ability to travel long distances in sometimes harsh conditions.

Moreover, these early humanoid beings were not plagued by the same chronic ailments modern humans face, like diabetes, heart disease, obesity, allergies, etc. Many of these illnesses and conditions can be linked to the lifestyle and nutritional practices of modern humans, and from this reality we can begin to discern the reasoning that underlies the Paleo nutritional template. It is also why so many CrossFit participants and elite athletes endorse the “Paleo” dietary program.

The laws that govern the interrelationships between lifestyle and nutritional practices, and how these practices translate into tangible results—physiological and neurological adaptations, aesthetic changes, athletic performance, and metabolic efficiency/functionality—are not always easy to understand. Nonetheless, how we see those interrelationships affects our behavior. CrossFit’s interpretation of the interrelationships between lifestyle practices, nutritional practices, and results suggests that our nutritional practices fuel performance and facilitate recovery. Further, when the rate and quality of performance and recovery are enhanced, we see greater results—athletically and aesthetically. This is because food is the energy our bodies burn when we engage in physical activity. In simpler terms, provide the body with clean energy, and it will function better. This allows us to accomplish more work (of a higher quality) when we exercise, which results in all manner of appealing “gainz”. Within this analytical framework, we also see similarities to the lifestyle experience of the primitive beings that lived during the Paleolithic Age: the endless cycle of finding enough sustenance to support a small community that was always on the move—to find more sustenance.

Not all Paleo nutritional templates are identical. This should not be surprising because the nutritional practices of primitive beings were dependent on many changing variables: terrain, weather/climate, equipment/tools, etc. There are, however, basic stipulations that most Paleo dietary programs agree on. The foods that should be eaten are: meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, tree nuts, and unmodified, healthy oils. The foods that should not be eaten are: processed foods, sugar and sugar additives/supplements, legumes (peanuts, lentils, and beans), artificial sweeteners, Trans fats and imitation options, and complex grains. The problem with modern humans consuming so many processed foods (non-whole foods) is that these foods are low in healthy fats and high in complex carbohydrates, which cause inflammation and are difficult for the body to break down.

When it comes to altering nutritional practices, gradual change is more sustainable than aggressive, “cold turkey” emendation. Because of our current dietary habits, our bodies favor utilizing certain nutrients as fuel over others. Replacing those sources of energy with others may throw the body into an uncomfortable transition phase as the body adjusts. This has been termed the “Paleo flu”, and symptoms may include unintended weight loss, weakness and fatigue, and other flulike inconveniences. The transition does not happen overnight, but the body will eventually adapt to its new energy supply. Next time we run the Paleo Challenge at CrossFit Mischief, consider giving it a try!
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