Burn fat faster while sparing muscle tissue — and potentially live a longer, healthier life — by looking to the past for a new approach to performance nutrition.
Fat-loss diets are hardly known for their staying power. While bodybuilders have spent the past century carving out a slow, steady path to building muscle and cutting fat through eating clean, unprocessed foods, the rest of society has scrambled from one fad to the next, taking its nutritional cues from greedy gurus and Special K commercials, all while getting fatter, slower and more disease-prone with each passing year. But one “trend,” called Paleo by its diehard followers, is cutting a swath of long-term fat loss and enhanced muscle building through the fray of useless dietary fads, and its secret is that it’s not new at all. In fact, it’s as old as our genes.
According to current anthropological evidence, the human genome has remained fairly steady for the past 120,000 years. That means that if you travelled back in time to the last ice age and carved a caveman out of a glacier, he’d be pretty much genetically identical to us. He’d have the same capacity for language and advanced mathematics, and he’d have the same dietary needs. If you think of those 120,000 years of human existence as a 100-yard football field, for almost the entire length of the field, humans were Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, eating primarily meat, with some vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. In fact, it’s only in the last 10,000 years (less than the last 10 yards of that field) that humans have become reliant on modern agriculture and its Neolithic staples of grains, legumes and dairy. And according to the latest anthropological research, it’s also during these last 10,000 years that we’ve become significantly shorter, fatter, less muscular and more prone to disease.
Paleo in a Nutshell
In the simplest sense, the paleo diet cuts out grains, legumes and dairy, each of which purportedly contains toxic elements that fatten our physiques and shorten our lives, and encourages consumption of meat — lots of it — along with plenty of vegetables and some fruits, nuts and seeds. In other words, if you can kill it or forage for it, bon appetite. But while many see the Paleo diet as a way to live longer and avoid modern scourges like obesity, diabetes, cancer and cardiac disease, athletes in particular have been experimenting with Paleo nutrition as a way to lean out and build muscle with greater efficiency.
Given these tendencies, it should come as no surprise that the Paleo diet offers benefits for the bodybuilder. And no Paleo proponent is better equipped to customize this ancestral diet for the bodybuilder’s needs than former research biochemist Robb Wolf, CSCS, author of the New York Times best-selling book, The Paleo Solution (Victory Belt, 2010). When Robb isn’t traveling the globe promoting performance-enhancing nutrition or giving talks at NASA to help astronauts combat the muscle-wasting effects of space travel, he’s training world-class athletes, including MMA fighters and pro football players, at his Chico (CA) gym, NorCal Strength and Conditioning, which was recently named one of America’s top 30 gyms.
“You can look at the Paleo diet in two ways,” Robb says. “One is that it’s a diet completely focused on unprocessed or very minimally processed foods. And the other piece is that when we look at foods that we theoretically co-evolved with over millions of years — lean meat, seafood, roots, tubers, fruits and vegetables — relative to Neolithic staples like grains, legumes and dairy, we tend to get much more nutrition per calorie.”
Scratch any notions you may have of weak, scrawny evolutionary ancestors cowering in caves and scrounging for root vegetables. While our ancestors may have shared our genes, paleo advocates point to evidence of them being significantly taller, leaner and beefier than us because of the foods they ate. “Our Paleolithic ancestors were very fit, very strong, and carried good amounts of muscle,” Robb says. So why are we and our Neolithic brethren shorter and chubbier by comparison? Most of that answer, according to Robb and other paleo adherents, boils down to a protein called gluten, which is found in many of our staple grains.
Against the Grain
While animals may be armed with natural defenses — from teeth and claws to heightened senses and the ability to outrun most predators — it’s easy to assume that the plants we consume are docile, harmless and eager to be eaten. But the truth is, most plants — including grains — have chemical defenses that are just as dangerous as any pair of claws, and most are constantly engaged in chemical warfare with one another and with anything that hopes to make a meal of them.
While this is no secret to people with a gluten-based autoimmune disorder known as celiac disease, you may be surprised to learn that all humans are at least mildly susceptible to the damage gluten causes. The perpetrators of this damage are lectins, phytates and protease inhibitors, and together they limit protein and mineral absorption while inflicting a severe inflammatory response, which Robb likens to poison oak in your intestinal lining. “Because of the gut-inflaming elements found in grains, they tend to cause inflammation in the digestive tract that gets transmitted to the rest of the body,” Robb says. “Whenever we have inflammation, we tend to retain water. That’s why you see a lot of contest-prepping bodybuilders instinctively migrating away from wheat-containing carb sources and opting more for potatoes and rice. And when we pull out the rice and the corn and we stick with yams and sweet potatoes, we find that people have much less inflammation throughout their bodies and retain less water in total.”
As you might imagine, all of this gut irritation severely limits the amount of nutrients you’re absorbing, and that holds especially true for protein, says Robb. “When you’re putting a premium on literally every gram of muscle that you have, digestive efficiency is going to be huge. It’s not just an issue of how much food you stuff down your pie hole — it’s a matter of how much nutrition you actually get into your body. And if we remove these gut-irritating foods, we tend to get much better absorption.”
And if that’s not enough, inflammation also impacts your immune system, subsequently impairing your ability to recover from heavy training and build muscle, to say nothing of its relationship to modern-day diseases. “This systemic inflammation and the resulting overactivity of the immune system throughout the body is an issue in everything from Parkinson’s to Alzheimer’s to cardiovascular disease,” Robb insists. “And it’s especially important for bodybuilders because their recovery is predicated on immune function. The better functioning your immune system, the better you can recover, and the quicker you can get back in the gym and lift heavy again.”
The Other Offenders
While grains and their lectin weaponry may be the main culprit, other Neolithic staples — namely legumes, dairy, sugar and processed vegetable oils — have the same kind of gut-irritating and inflammation-promoting properties. “Legumes have similar anti-nutrients — similar lectins — to gluten, and all of them affect different people in different ways, but in general we find that people tend to do better without them,” Robb says. Naturally, that means all soy products and peanuts — yes, peanuts are a legume — are off the table.
While no one will question the importance of cutting sugar, eliminating processed vegetable oils may raise some eyebrows. After all, they’ve been touted by government guidelines for the past four decades as healthy cooking alternatives because of their high polyunsaturated fat content. The problem is, the bulk of that fat comes from omega-6 polyunsaturates, and humans evolved to eat an approximately 1:1 ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s. Throw off this ratio too far in favor of omega-6s and the results, yet again, are systemic inflammation and reduced recovery.
Ditching dairy may be another hard sell — particularly for hard gainers. But Robb thinks there’s a way around it. “The dairy is kind of a gray area,” he explains. “If you can get grass-fed dairy, it wouldn’t be much of a problem. But because we grain-feed our cows, we concentrate the lectins from those grain sources in the milk, so it tends to be just as pro-inflammatory.” Cows, we’re finally realizing, evolved to graze on grass, and they’re just as intolerant of gluten as we are, which is an issue that extends well beyond their milk and right into the meat we rely on to build and maintain muscle.
The Meat of the Matter
Go back to our evolutionary history, when there were no 24-hour produce markets brimming with brightly colored fruits and vegetables gown hundreds of miles away and ripened on trucks before making their way to your table. The bottom line is that most of what we think of as dietary staples are purely seasonal, and we didn’t have constant — if any — access to them while our genotype was being hammered out. So what made up the bulk of our year-round diet? Meat, say most anthropologists.
The problem is, the meat sources we co-evolved with were drastically different from the cellophane-wrapped cuts at your local supermarket, and what our food eats is just as important to our health as what we eat. Grass-fed beef, it turns out, contains the ideal 1:1 ratio of omega-3s and omega-6s, not to mention plenty of CLA, which helps with fat loss and can decrease insulin resistance. The polyunsaturated fat in grain-fed meat, on the other hand, comes mostly from omega-6 fatty acids, meaning it’s another sure-fire recipe for inflammation.
None of this should suggest that our ancestors ate nothing but meat, of course, but protein played a major role in our evolutionary development. As Robb points out, “The reconstructed human diet looks a lot like what bodybuilders would typically want, which is very high protein, anywhere from moderate to high fat, and carbohydrate filling in the rest.” If the words moderate to high fat set off an alarm, you’re likely not alone. But Paleo isn’t necessarily a high-fat diet. In fact, Robb claims that it’s “macronutrient agnostic,” as it focuses on food quality rather than food quantity. So long as you avoid gut-irritating Neolithic foods, you can customize your macros (protein, fat and carbohydrate) according to your body’s needs. That said, Robb insists that, based on what he’s seen in his athletes, a higher-fat approach leads to better results both in terms of performance and body composition. “When people step outside of the mainstream and start playing with their macros, they find that if they eat more fat, they feel better, they look better, they perform better and they recover better. It’s kind of a scary proposition when they’re counting calories [fat has 9 calories per gram, whereas protein and carbs have around 4 calories per gram], but inevitably they end up with better body composition,” he says.
And in case you’re worried about the saturated fat in many meat sources that we’ve been warned to avoid, Robb urges you to revisit the science. “As for the whole demonization of saturated fats, there have been several huge studies recently, and they just can’t pin anything on saturated fat and cardiovascular disease, saturated fat and cancer, or anything else. They’ve tried and tried and spent billions of dollars attempting to prove that saturated fat was a problem, and it’s just not penciling out to be the case.” The authors of a recent meta-analysis of 21 studies published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition are in full agreement with Robb on this last point, as they recently concluded that no study could associate saturated fat with increased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke or coronary vascular disease.
Putting Paleo into Practice
As mentioned, paleo is a diet that emphasizes food quality over quantity, and many of its followers find that once they kick agricultural staples — mainly grains — to the curb, they’re too satiated to overeat and they lose fat without ever thinking about calories. But Robb isn’t saying you should throw out the scale in your kitchen. “This is the appropriate place for someone to weigh and measure with paleo,” he says of the diet’s application to bodybuilding. “When we’re talking about an extreme level of leanness, we can keep people leaner during the offseason because they no longer have a binge-and-purge kind of scenario. We clean up their food and keep them within striking distance of their contest prep, and then when it comes time to really shrink-wrap them down, we bring in the additional attention to detail of weighing and measuring food and monitoring total caloric intake, and it’s easier because they’re already 5–10 pounds out of shape rather than 30–40 pounds out.”
For bodybuilders who are leaning out, perhaps the best part of using a Paleo approach is that you’re less likely to lose muscle as you shed fat. “We’ve worked with some NFL football players who have some really impressive body composition — guys who are anywhere from 280–310 pounds running sub-10% bodyfat — with almost world-champion powerlifting totals, and we’ve been able to keep more muscle mass on them using a Paleo-type approach than with anything else we’ve tried.”
So whether you’re prepping for the stage or you’re just looking to sport a six-pack this summer, Paleo offers some pretty striking benefits, from maintaining more muscle while leaning out to faster, long-term fat loss with less cardio, not to mention better nutrient absorption and improved overall health. But even after they hear about these advantages, Robb admits that many people — especially bodybuilders who’ve seen slow, steady success with standard bulking and cutting phases — aren’t motivated to give up the grains, claiming they’ve never experienced the gut irritation and inflammation that drive the Paleo approach. “Some people say they’ve never had a problem with these foods, but what they’ve never done is pull them out of rotation for a good 30 days to see how they actually do getting their carb sources from yams, sweet potatoes and maybe a little bit of post-workout fruit to refill liver glycogen.”
For Robb, this 30-day window is critical. Whereas few bodybuilders will agree to give up whole-grain pasta forever, once they’ve seen how much better they feel and look after just one month eating Paleo, they usually refuse to go back. “If they’ll go with a 30-day run and get their carbs from yams, sweet potatoes, squash and even regular white potatoes in lieu of the bread, rice and pasta, they definitely notice less water retention and being less puffy, and this is true regardless of where they are, whether they’re contest-prepping or they’re in a mass-gain cycle. In total, they have less inflammation, so they retain less water and recover better, and everything they’d want goes in a favorable direction.”
According to Robb and other Paleo adherents, whether you’re a bodybuilder, an elite athlete or simply someone who still wants to be bounding up stairs when they’re 90, Paleo is your best chance for getting a leg up. “Bodybuilding is definitely pushing the human genetic potential to the outer edges of hypertrophy expression,” he says. But the ancestral diet can still support that process. You may need to tweak and fiddle with the details, but it’s doable.” And even if your only immediate goals are to build a physique that’s composed of as much muscle as your frame will allow while dipping into low-single-digit bodyfat, Robb insists that your physique goals don’t need to override your overall health. “Let’s push that human performance element as much as we can, and let’s do it in a way that’s not completely messing us up” he adds.
For more of Robb Wolf’s views on the paleo diet, visit robbwolf.com.
Don’t lose weeks’ worth of training gains sidelined with a cold or flu. Here’s how to keep your immune system as strong as your bench press.
Author: By Guillermo Escalante, MBA, ATC, CSCS; Photographer: Rich Baker; Model: Marco Cardona
You may be able to bench press 150-pound dumbbells and squat more than 500 pounds for reps but that doesn’t mean you can’t get shut down at least once this season by a microscopic virus. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the common cold and influenza (known as the flu) are among the top reasons people miss work, school or the gym and have to call on their doctor. While many request a prescription for an antibiotic for their ailment, they don’t realize that both the common cold and the flu are caused by viruses, not bacteria. Since antibiotics kill bacteria, they’re ineffective at curing the cold or the flu.
Dr. Glenn Miya, an internal medicine and pediatric physician in Claremont, California, says: “Physicians will usually only prescribe antibiotics to their patients when the symptoms of the cold and/or flu have continued for more than 7–10 days. Symptoms of the cold or flu lasting more than 7–10 days usually indicate a bacterial infection has developed in the lungs, sinuses or ears that require antibiotic treatment to help combat the bacterial infection.”
Another important myth to debunk about the cold and/or flu goes completely against what your mother told you about getting sick. When you go out in the cold without a jacket, there’s simply no scientific evidence to suggest that you can get a cold from direct exposure to cold weather or from getting chilled (or overheated). While there are some scientific explanations as to why you’re more likely to get the cold or flu when the climate is colder, there’s no direct correlation to cold-weather exposure and getting that unwanted flu or cold. Certainly it’s true that most colds and flu occur during the fall and winter months in North America, but they’re spread for different reasons.
The cold and the flu, which are caused by different viruses, are typically transmitted from a person who is infected with one of the viruses. Although the cold and the flu are similar in nature, flu symptoms are more severe than that of a cold and typically include chills, fever, muscle pains, severe headaches, coughing, runny nose, watery eyes, weakness, fatigue and general discomfort. (A cold will typically not have symptoms of chills, fever or muscle pains.) A person infected with a virus is typically most contagious during the second or third day of infection. In cases of the flu, which is usually accompanied by a fever, the virus is most contagious when the fever is the highest. Touching a surface contaminated with cold/flu germs (such as a dumbbell, weight plate or water fountain) and then touching your nose, mouth or eyes is how these viruses are spread. You can also catch the virus by encountering airborne microscopic secretions after an infected individual sneezes. The illness begins when the virus attaches to the lining of the throat or nose, at which time the immune system sends out white blood cells to attack the germ. Unless your body has encountered the exact strain of this virus, the initial attack fails and your body sends more white blood cells to fight off the virus (causing your nose and throat to get inflamed and produce mucus).
Since there are no known cures for colds and the flu, preventing these illnesses is the primary goal in combating them. Following the prevention tips in the table below will help to keep you in the gym without the sniffles.
Cold Weather and Viruses
1) When the weather is cold outside, people tend to spend more time indoors. This makes it easier for viruses to spread from one person to another.
2) The fall and winter months usually go hand in hand with a lower relative humidity. The most common cold/flu viruses survive better when the humidity is low, which is during the colder months.
3) Cold weather may make the inside lining of your nose drier and more vulnerable to viral infection. If you’re going to cover anything when going out in cold weather, it’s perhaps best to cover your nose/mouth.
4) Lack of sunlight helps the common cold/flu viruses survive longer. The fall/winter months typically have less sunlight than the spring/summer months in North America.
Preventing the Cold + Flu
1) Drink water Water flushes your system, helping you stay hydrated and healthy. Aim for at least 64 ounces of water per day.
2) Avoid touching your face The cold and flu viruses easily enter through the mucous membranes of your body such as the eyes, nose or mouth.
3) Exercise Exercise (especially aerobic exercise) increases your heart rate, rate of breathing, and core body temperature. Collectively, this can help boost the white blood cell count of your body (white blood cells fight off infections).
4) Wash your hands Most cold and flu viruses are spread by direct contact such as through a handshake or by sneezing into your hand and then touching an object, and thus infecting it.
5) Eat your veggies Foods that come from plants (especially dark green, red and yellow veggies) are rich in antioxidants that can help boost your immune system.
6) Minimize alcohol Alcohol has been shown to suppress your immune system. Additionally, alcohol can dehydrate your body.
7) Don’t overtrain While exercise is good, it can be too much of a good thing. Ensure you incorporate adequate recovery, rest and relaxation into your training program to keep your immune system strong.
Illustrations: Mark Collins