“Yeah I eat fried chicken, cheeseburgers, and ice-cream on the regular, because, gains, duh.” I’ve been hearing this kind of talk a little too much lately, and frankly, it’s making me uncomfortable.

I am not under the delusion that all athletes who eat crap for “gains” believe that their diets are healthy, but nonetheless, I think there is a notion that “gains,” that is, growing muscle mass, increasing strength, and improving performance, come from extra fuel, i.e. calories, from any food source, healthy or not. And while this might be true for some people, the problem is really that gains in the gym do not necessarily equal good health.

Case in point? This article, published in the International Journal of Exercise Science, discusses how 44 athletes following a loose, ad libitum paleo diet in conjunction with CrossFit exercise for 10 weeks saw a significant decrease in body weight and body fat and improved aerobic capacity, yet adverse changes to their cholesterol.

The most interesting part of this article is not how it proves the paleo diet to be unhealthy (because in fact, it does not prove this, see why here and here); rather, it is fascinating how this study links half-assed, ad libitum, “loose” paleo with negative changes in health.

What do I mean by “loose” paleo? Let my answer that by backing up and explaining what paleo was initially intended to be. The Paleolithic diet, i.e. paleo, is a way of eating that mimics how our ancestors were perceived to have eaten during the Paleolithic era (to the best of our scientific knowledge). It is thought that humans in this era consumed mostly lean proteins, root vegetables, nuts, and berries (as it was before modern agriculture), with no dairy, grains, or legumes. So, paleo eating at its base calls for emphasis on protein from lean meats and seafood, making up about 20-35% of daily calories. Vegetables and some fruit are to comprise the bulk of carbohydrates, as well as be a great source of fiber, and should make up roughly 35-45% of calories. Lastly, mono and poly-unsaturated fats should also be a focus and make up about 20-30% of calories.

CrossFit, i.e. “the sport of fitness,” is known for touting a paleo diet, and suggests ratios of 30/40/30 for lean protein, low glycemic plant-based carbs, and (mostly) monounsaturated fats respectively.  Their website states succinctly, “in plain language, base your diet on garden vegetables, especially greens, lean meats, nuts and seeds, little starch, and no sugar. That’s about as simple as we can get.”

paleo quote

So how, then, did paleo cupcakes make their way into the mix?

In my opinion, the watered-down “loose” version of paleo seems to be more focused on what is excluded than what is included, creating a bit of a  Franken-paleo. This beast tends to pacify the overuse of natural sweeteners (honey, maple syrup) and grain substitutes to create perfectly “paleo” treats (hey, no grains/dairy/refined sugar, right?) Moreover, it overemphasizes meat (any meat, bacon anyone?) as a protein source and undervalues fruits (and veggies to an extent), as well as excuses high ratios of saturated fat. Following “loose” paleo, one could technically live on bacon-wrapped dates, steak, and paleo brownies.

I know what some of you are thinking. Isn’t “loose” paleo still better than the standard american diet of processed junk? I would say so in many instances. But still, focusing on high fat meats and sweets, refined or not, while limiting produce intake is a recipe for disaster, and completely possible for those who do not have a full understanding of the paleo basics and therefore end up on a Franken-paleo plan.

Remember the study referenced earlier? As it turns out, “no specific macronutrient recommendations were made, as the study design wanted to closely mimic a real world model that would incorporate food choices made by the average consumer.” Moreover, participants were advised on the general principles of paleo (avoid grains, dairy, legumes; increase lean meat, eggs, fish, fruit, veggies, nuts), but “intake of specific proportion of food categories (e.g. animal vs. plant foods) was also not given.” Also, participants were not required to closely track their food intake, so there’s no real proof that they were strictly following the guidelines anyway! For this reason, many critics of the study are crying fraud.

Despite credibility of the study, it is important to recognize that

  1. Participants did see improvement in body composition and fitness based on a loosely followed, non-specific version of paleo, and a relatively intense exercise program
  2. While aerobic fitness and body composition improved on the program, lipid levels worsened, and
  3. Many of us in the “real world” follow very similar programs based on what we think we know about a diet (I’m totally eating paleo just because I eat a lot of meat and I’m not eating grains, dairy, or legumes!)

Bottom line? The foods we include, more so than the ones we exclude, matter. Ratios matter. I don’t eat perfectly (and I don’t eat paleo), nor do I expect others to. But let’s be real. It’s easy to get caught up with Franken-paleo, and if my nutritional strategy is to exclude a handful of foods and eat others indiscriminately regardless of their macro or micro nutrient makeup, much less how they play into the bigger picture of my health, I need to seriously reassess my strategy. Because while making gains in fitness is awesome, it should never come at the cost of good health.