Friday, March 19, 2010

Redux #21 - "The Paleo Diet for Athletes" by Loren Cordain, PhD and Joe Friel, MS

I'm definitely getting burned out on these nutrition books, but at this point it's become a kind of addiction. I've learned something interesting or helpful from every nutrition book I've read so far, and I'm afraid if I skip over one I'll miss that one thing that will finally make me understand what really is the best way to eat. The paleo diet is also big in the crossfit world; I figured the least I could do is see what everyone keeps talking about. So I picked up The Paleo Diet for Athletes (2005) by Loren Cordain, PhD and Joe Friel, MS.

The Paleo Diet had a number of things going against it from the get-go, which may or may not be fair. First, it's about the sixth or seventh nutrition book I've read. They all have some good points, but they are also all one-sided and contradictory. At this point, I know a lot about nutrition, and you have to be pretty damn specific and convincing when you contradict what other books and doctors have recommended. Also, my tolerance for one-sided nutrition advice has decreased exponentially with every nutrition book I've read. Secondly, I was a vegetarian for about ten years, and I'm still very amenable to a vegetarian diet, so the constant, "you must eat tons and tons of meat" in The Paleo Diet was a little grating and did not dispose me to accepting everything that was suggested. Finally, I read The Triathlete's Training Bible by the same Joe Friel back when I was thinking about doing triathlons, and I followed his exact advice when it came to strength training. However, I ended up with relatively weak hips, core, and shoulders. I was not well-rounded. My current workouts have made me much stronger and less susceptible to injury. I'm sure Friel is helpful to his very specific clientele of elite endurance runners and triathletes, but going into this book I had already found Friel's advice not the best for me.

I ended up underwhelmed by The Paleo Diet. Although there was a lot of information, and some of it was new and interesting to me, I finished confused and unconvinced why "The Paleo Diet" was the answer to all of our nutrition woes. One problem I had was that this book should really be titled, "The Paleo Diet for elite endurance athletes." Friel goes on and on about what exactly to eat after a 30 minute, 90 minute, 2 hour, and 4 hour long workout--going into excruciating details about exact numbers of carbs and what kind to have, depending on your weight and the intensity, as well as what to eat and drink every 10 minutes during a workout. A lot of it felt like a retreading of his Triathlete's Training Bible, and I got a little bored. I also realized that I am not anal enough for this book. Although I can certainly be compulsive, I was surprised to discover that I just don't care enough to count every single carb and glucose molecule that crosses my lips. I'd really rather eat real fruit than get slightly better performance from gels. However, I can see it appealing to the very serious triathlete. In fact, I sometimes felt the tone was a little condescending to anyone who is not a serious, elite athlete.

The first part of the book is based on the premise that "serious athletes" should not follow the paleo diet before, during, and after workouts and races because they need to refill their glycogen stores, which fuels their workouts. So sports gels, bars, protein powders, and sugary and starchy foods are good in those times (see the book for many more specifics). Finally, the second section of the book got to the paleo diet part. I was actually kind of excited about reading how our stone-age ancestors lived and ate. Unfortunately, most of the interest was sucked out by the use of dry statistics. They ate 25-40% fat, 40% protein and blah, blah, blah. There were some interesting points--that too much protein in a diet is toxic, so the hunter gatherers had to hunt big game because big game had more fat than skinny, little rabbits, and they needed the fat to offset all the protein they were eating. However, there were very few specifics about individual groups, which I would have found more interesting.

This review is already dragging on and on, so I'll sum up my problems. This diet feels very random to me: We are going to base our diet (and some rather drastic diet choices) on what we think men ate over ten thousand years ago, although their diets varied incredibly based on where and when they lived. None of the plants and roots they ate are around anymore or we wouldn't be able to digest them. Except for people who hunt game animals, the meat is considerably different (although I appreciate that the authors recommended grass-fed, free-range meat, and that they warned about the dangers of mercury and other chemicals in fish). No dairy products and no grains are allowed because cave men didn't have them. But canola oil is okay because the authors have decided it's healthy. And stuffing down the sports gels and power bars are okay when you're exercising because "elite" athletes work so much harder than the hunter/gatherers and need to replenish their glycogen storage. And beer is okay once in awhile because the authors are afraid that no one will adopt their diet if they say no alcohol. I kept thinking about the Tarahumara from Mexico that I read about in Born To Run. They are hunter/gatherers that live a primarily vegetarian diet with some small animals for meat, and they are amazing athletes who can run all day. Members of the Tarahumara won the Leadville 100, one of the most challenging endurance races in the country, at least twice. I don't see how the Tarahumara fit in with the authors' hypthesis. I also wondered why there is no allowance for how different people are and how they've evolved. Perhaps if you are related to the Tarahumara you are better at digesting some grains.

I agree that the paleo diet is likely healthier than "the typical American diet," but I was not convinced enough to be converted. I think I'll take a couple points from this book with me, but I won't be playing cave woman any time soon. I really thought this was going to be the last nutrition book for me, but then my brother brought over some book about eating for your blood type and my curiosity is now piqued. I really, really hope that will be the last one, though.

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