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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Ask MGBG: The Paleo/Primal Diet Edition

I get a lot of reader questions on all sorts of topics.  They run the gambit from diet and training advice, to what color underwear I'm wearing on a particular day (forest green...in case your interested).  I try to answer them all as best I can and as quickly as I can. 

I've thought to myself a lot lately that some of the questions I'm getting are ones that a lot of you have as well.  If they weren't, I wouldn't be getting the same ones over and over.  So I thought it would be a good idea to start answering them in a little segment I'm calling "Ask MGBG".   

Today's questions are on the topic of the paleo/primal diet.

What are the basics of the Paleo/Primal Diet?

The rules of the diet vary a litle around the edges depending on which version of the diet you follow, but the core principals are the same.  These principals are based loosely on what foods were available to humans during his/her hunter gatherer days, before the advent of agriculture.  The theory of the diet is that our bodies adapted to eat these foods, whereas it has not yet adapted to modern foods such as grains. 

The rules are as follows.  Eat as much meat, eggs, vegetables, fruit, and nuts as your heart desires.  Do not eat any grains or processed food.  Then depending on what version of the diet you follow, you may have limited intake of dairy, legumes, potatoes, and certain "fun" foods like chocolate and alcohol (okay...not a food, but still fun).

What is the difference between the Paleo Diet and the Primal Diet?

These are just different versions of the same basic diet I described above.  The Paleo Diet is the version popularized by Loren Cordain in his book "The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy" as well as Robb Wolf in his book "The Paleo Solution".  I consider it to be the stricter version of the diet, as it forbids consumption of dairy, legumes, and potatoes.  Cordain also asks diet followers to stick to avoid fatty cuts of meat and limit consumpion of foods with lots of saturated fat such as eggs.

The Primal Diet is the version popularized by Mark Sisson in his book "The Primal Blueprint".  It is less strict than the Paleo Diet in that it abides by the "80-20 principal".  This states that followers should try to stick to the diet for 80% of the time, "cheating" 20% of the time.  It does not maintain a preference for lean cuts of meat, and also allows limited consumption of dairy.  This is the version of the diet that I follow.

What are the best books on the paleo diet?

I don't recommend that folks buy a book on the subject, because there is plenty of good information on the diet online.  But if you feel like you need a book for reference, any of the above books I mentioned are fine.

What is the best way to get started on the diet?

I might be a little biased, but my Paleo Starter Guide does a good job getting you through the first weeks until you can handle yourself.  A lot of people tell me it's the only article on the web that gives people a concrete way to start the diet.

Why can't I eat <insert forbidden food here>?  I thought it was healthy/natural/etc.!

A lot of new followers to this diet have a lot of questions about whether a food is or is not "paleo".  For example, a lot of newbies question why potatoes aren't on the paleo diet. After all, aren't they just starchy tubers? They are found in the wild and could have been eaten by cavemen!

I always tell people that this question kind of misses the point about the diet.  Yes, the basic theory of the diet is that what we ate back in the caveman days is what is most healthy for us, and what our bodies can best handle.  But that isn't the end-all-be-all for why certain foods are and are not on the program.  We only have a rough idea of what our ancestors ate.  So not all food choices on the diet make the list or not based on historical reasons.

I tell people to think about the diet this way.  It's not about what foods are or are not "paleo".  It's about making priorities concerning the foods that you eat.  You eat the foods that are most healthy for you, and eliminate those to which your body reacts badly.  The reasons why you would choose not to eat a certain food group vary according to that food group. 

But in general, that priority list will look like the basic rules of the diet.  Meat, veggies, and nuts are most healthy for us.  Eat mostly those.  Fruit is next.  That doesn't mean that dairy, legumes, etc are not healthy or not "paleo".  It means that there are more healthy choices out there ("more paleo" if you will), and you should make it a priority to eat those over "less paleo" options. 

Can I eat <insert forbidden food here> and still be paleo?

If you don't have a strong negative reaction to a certain food, by all means eat it!  A lot of Primal Diet followers eat dairy, legumes, etc. because they like those foods, and they can.  It doesn't make you any less "paleo" than wearing shoes makes you less of a "barefoot runner".

Does the low carb aspect of the paleo diet limit your performance in endurance activities?

I haven't found that it does.  I've actually found that I have more energy than when I ate a non-paleo diet.  I think this is because my body has gotten better at using fat for fuel.  Fat is a more efficient source of energy anyway.    

But if you feel a little sluggish, I suggest you do one of the following.  The simple way is just to abide by the 80-20 principle, and add some healthy carbs to your diet occasionally.  When I feel like I need a carb boost, I'll have a side of potatoes or rice with my dinner.  That seems to do the trick.

You can also check out The Paleo for Athletes by Loren Cordain.  Basically, the book recommends that you supplement your diet with certain types of carbs at certain times.  I think it makes the subject way too complicated, but it does have a lot of good information about how the body processes carbs before and after exercise.

What's the best piece of advice you have for people trying to start the diet?

Ask questions!  There are a ton of great sources of information on the net to get you started.  Go to Paleo Hacks and participate in the forums.  Everyone there was just like you at one point.  Use that knowledge to your advantage!

If you have more questions, post them in the comments or email me at saypay45@gmail.com, and I will answer them to the best of my ability. 

Going Grok rocks MGBG nation!  I wish you much success in your path to becoming MGBG cavemen ninjas!  Cheers!


  1. Ask and you shall receive! Thanks!

  2. I'm not going to ask questions like why should I not eat X when the caveman ate X whenever she stumbledupon it. The diet says eat no X, so
    that's that.

    But I am curious about the negative reactions upon the consumption of
    carb heavy foods.

    Say I'm wandering and grazing, and I find a patch of wild oats sewn in a field. And I eat said oats. And the bugs on them. This makes me feel good. (and this is a thing I have/will do)

    What negative reaction should I expect? From the grains, not from my wife hitting me for eating bugs.

    I'm actually fairly on-board, but think that whole carbs do have a lot of benefits when eaten in moderation. Were I to eat a loaf of white
    bread every day I would expect to feel sick every day. But I don't eat like that.

    when I mix whole, minimally processed grains into a meal I tend to feel pretty swell afterwards. And I mean that as in good, not bloaty. Am I not listening to some signal thrown in my body somewhere?

    (and I understand the 80/20 and that you do eat some carbs, etc. I want to know what signals I should be looking for when I eat a plate of meat,
    nuts and veggies tossed in with a dose of quinoa or other yuppy carb.

    Sluggishness? something more?)

  3. One thing to remember is that until you have gone about 30 days without grains you probably aren't able to tell whether you have a negative reaction to a certain grain. I tell people that even though they think they feel good, they don't know what good really feels like until they go cold turkey.

    What I find my reaction to grain feels almost like the symptoms of depression. It sucks. That keeps me from trying it again.

    And remember that any nutritional benefit you get from grains, even whole grains like quinoa, you can get in greater amounts from other foods that don't cause significant stomach inflammation and other negative reactions.

  4. Is the 80/20 rule a daily deal, or more of a "setup a cheat day" deal?

    And when you go cold turkey, do you do the 80/20 rule, or are you 100% paleo for 30 days?

  5. Don't think of the 80-20 as a "cheat". Paleo isn't so much a diet as it is a lifestyle. Once you start on it, you won't crave those nonpaleo foods anymore. It's more a recognition that in the modern world it's hard to eat paleo all the time. And in those situations it's okay to go off the program. So eating nonpaleo foods everyday, even if they only make up 20% of your diet or leas, kind of mosses the point of the diet. Eating grains for example can cause inflammation in your gut. So if you eat it every day, you never get rid of that. The point of the diet is to minimize damage caused by those foods.

    And yes, cold turkey means 100% strict paleo. No exceptions. Trust me, after a week you won't want to eat any other way.



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