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Today’s guest post is by Robb Wolf, author of The Paleo Solution – The Original Human Diet. Robb is a former research biochemist is one of the world’s leading experts in Paleolithic nutrition. He is the co-owner of NorCal Strength & Conditioning, one of the Men’s Health “top 30 gyms in America”. Robb is also a former California State Powerlifting Champion (565 lb. Squat, 345 lb. Bench, 565 lb. Dead Lift) and a 6-0 amateur kickboxer. Robb coaches and consults with some of the top athletes in the world, including world champions in MMA, motocross, rowing and triathlon. Be sure to check out his top ranked podcast The Paleo Solution. Robb knows more than a little bit about training and fueling for peak performance. Today, Robb explores one of the top questions that people ask when they start a paleo challenge: paleo sounds great, but why no grains? We hope you like it. – Kate
So, you are looking for a new way to eat and stumbled across the DailyBurn Paleo Challenge. Cool. You can imagine channeling your inner CavePerson (don’t you love how Political Correctness absolutely sucks the joy from life?) and are ready to take a crack at this Paleo shtick. You imagine shopping and in your head you have fruits, veggies, and whole grains as your primary foods. This seems perfect! Old School! Then you do a little reading on what the Paleo approach to eating actually IS and you are…confused. Lean meats, seafood, fruits, veggies, roots, tubers, nuts and seeds. That’s what Paleo IS. What it is NOT is grains legumes and dairy.
This is the point where the brakes are applied and a host of excuses, concerns and stalling come into play. I get it, I was there too. Unfortunately most folks will not just get in and give Paleo a shot for 30 days, see if they Look, Feel and Perform better and let that be the deciding factor. Instead folks need “convincing” and in order to do that things can get a bit technical. Before I get to that specifically, let me use this example: A little kid asks you why the sky is blue, and not green. How do YOU answer that?
If you do not have a physics background the answer is largely “well, the sky is just blue”, but obviously that is a complete copout and we can do better than that. We can talk about optics, light scattering, the interaction of light with our atmosphere, a little quantum mechanics and we can actually construct a mathematical model describing WHY they sky is blue. Granted, this may make the little kid run into traffic just to avoid this geekfest, but the reality is explaining something as “simple” as why the sky is blue can be a daunting task. Everyone agree on that? Good, now I’m going to throw something out there that will shock and confuse you: Grains, those staples of the Food Pyramid, the back bone of Government sponsored food programs to make you “healthy”…are in fact, not good for you.
Your feelings are likely running the gamut from terror at the prospect of shelving your love affair with bagels and breakfast cereal to outright anger that some biochemist twerp suggest that the government and media do not have our best interests at heart in their collective food recommendations. Well Buttercup, just like the process of explaining WHY the sky is blue might be challenging, so to is the process of explaining why grains (legumes and dairy too) are not great for you. So, if you have a good background in anthropology, biochemistry, immunology, evolutionary biology and genetics, then we can have a conversation about this (and oddly enough you’d agree with the stuff I’m about to write) but if you have not squandered your life in these scientific pursuits, then you will need to take this as a primer, follow-up with the links I provide and become educated on the topic. BUT, please just try this Paleo challenge for 30 days. See how you Look, Feel and Perform. Track biomarkers of health (blood pressure, cholesterol, C-reactive protein) and let these standards drive your assessment. You might not ever understand the science behind this stuff but you can certainly reap all the benefits without any of the understanding. As an aside, I was invited to speak for the California State University, Chico Anthropology Forum and the Anthropologists agree with what I have to say. Interestingly however, the CSU, Chico Nutritional “Science” department does not agree with me, and would love to see me take a spill down a large flight of stairs. Interesting, no?
The Anthropology Perspective
One way of looking at why grains are problematic for folks is that they are “Evolutionarily Novel”. That means they are new to our species and pose a problem for our health due to a miss match between our genetics and some elements in the grains. Now, this information is in fact accurate, but from a scientific perspective, it’s a shaky place to build an argument. Olive oil is “evolutionarily novel” but is quite good for us, so just because something is new to our diet does not guarantee that it is bad. This concept is important however when we try to figure things out like what ratio of protein, carbs or fat is “good” for us. When we look at the literature we find populations that eat both high fat and high carb that are quite healthy. What is interesting however is when we look at some populations like the Kitavans, we see hunter-gatherers who eat a high carb diet yet suffer little or no western diseases. Well, until they include grains in their diets. The amount of carbs does not change, the type does. Which leads us to our tighter argument about grains, the molecular biology perspective.
When we consider grains they are the reproductive part of the plant. If that grain gets eaten, that’s it. Evolution usually arms critters with teeth, thorns, fast feet, poison or a combination of these strategies to avoid becoming a snack. Grains are no exception and they employ a remarkable array of chemical defense methods to avoid their consumption. These include antinutrients such as phytates, biologically active lectins, and immunoreactive proteins.
Phytic acid binds to metal ions like calcium, magnesium and iron. Grains are loaded with phytates. Worried about bone health or iron deficiency anemia? Grains are not your pals.
Lectins are a huge class of molecules that living things use in quite a number of ways. Most lectins are harmless, some are actually therapeutic (some lectins derived from bananas show promise in fighting various forms of HIV) but some lectins are also bad for your health. Grains contain lectins which can damage the gut lining, which increases inflammation and is a newly discovered feature of not only autoimmune disease but also insulin resistance and liver pathology.
Perhaps the most well-known grain protein is gluten which most folks now associate with the autoimmune disease Celiac. Well, all grains contain similar proteins to gluten; oats have Avenin, Corn has zein, and rice has orzenin and what all these proteins have in common is a high content of the amino acid proline. Proline makes these proteins difficult to break down via normal digestion and they to appear to have negative effects on the gut lining and overall health.
But what about carbs on Paleo?
Good question but before I answer that, I have a few questions for you:
- Who are you?
- What are your goals?
These are not dirty-hippy, existentialist questions, but rather questions like “Are you significantly overweight? Do you have symptoms consistent with high insulin levels (fat stored around the waist, high blood pressure, elevated triglycerides)? If so, you do not NEED carbs my friend, you need to fix your little red wagon. Carbs, be they Paleo or not, are not going to be huge friends of yours. You’d be better off to tackle this on the lowcarb side, but I digress. Paleo carbs include these wacky things called fruits, vegetables and starchier items like yams and sweet potatoes. If you are a hard training athlete, you will load up on these items, especially post workout. Skeptical? Great! Check out this study in which two groups of insulin resistant heart patients were put on either a Paleo Diet or a “whole grain” based Mediterranean diet. The Paleo group had a 28% improvement in glucose management. The Mediterranean group improved a barely significant 7% on what the government and most dieticians hold up as the gold standard of nutrition.
If you’d like to dig deeper in this topic here are a few good resources for you:
Tim Ferriss of Four Hour Work Week and Four Hour Body fame was kind enough to post the grains chapter from my book, The Paleo Solution. Additionally you should read every research article published by my mentor, Prof. Loren Cordain and Prof. Staffan Lindeberg.
Simultaneous to starting your research however just start your DailyBurn Paleo Challenge. You will be wiser and healthier for the combined efforts.
Thanks for the insight, Robb! Do you have questions about the role of grains in your diet? Post them here!
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