Running on Paleo: What’s fueling you?

Important note: This post is meant to be informative, NOT a promotion of the Paleo diet. Please do your own research. See your own doctor/nutritionist before making any change in your diet. I’m not, nor is dailymile, compensated in any way for the following recommendations and links. Nor am I suggesting that you run out and buy everything (be they products or even ideas) shared here. Personal homework time!

It seems everywhere you turn these days, you stumble on something having to do with the Paleo Lifestyle (also known as the Paleolithic, Primal or Caveman diet).

It’s been all the craze with CrossFit fans for many years; but I’m not a CrossFitter, so didn’t tap into it via that channel. And, even though my sister (who’s a part-time certified personal trainer) has been raving about Paleo for over a year, I’ve been slow to open up to it. I thought of it as another fad and just never paid much attention.

But two things this past two weeks perked my ears (and opened my lips) to Paleo.

First: At a girls’ Door County Half Marathon racing weekend, a friend shared her thoughts on it. She’s embracing it, but making allowances when/where necessary. She looked great!

A mutual friend, she said, also began Paleo a few months ago and is loving it. Peer pressure!

She treated us to a super delish nosh: Spinach Cranberry Pinenut Cake. Yum. (Beth shares her running and food adventures, strict cavegirl and otherwise, at Running on Cloud Nine, too).

I returned home and the hard press on the much-touted HBO documentary series, Weight of the Nation, was on. Premiering last week, the program is a first-of-its-kind joint effort by the Institute of Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health ringing an alarm on the alarming uptick of obesity in America. The trailer’s below. Watch each episode online here (much recommended).

Get the basics on obesity and the program’s calories in/calories out concept here.

My second push toward this 30-day Paleo experiment was via a link to a Newsweek article my sis shared (thanks, Eva). Rebutting the HBO special, Gary Taubes explains Why the Campaign to Stop America’s Obesity Crisis Keeps Failing:

At its heart is a simple “energy balance” idea: we get fat because we consume too many calories and expend too few. If we could just control our impulses—or at least control our environment, thereby removing temptation—and push ourselves to exercise, we’d be fine. This logic is everywhere you look in the official guidelines, commentary, and advice. “The same amount of energy IN and energy OUT over time = weight stays the same,” the NIH website counsels Americans, while the CDC site tells us, “Overweight and obesity result from an energy imbalance.”

The problem is, the solutions this multi-level campaign promotes are the same ones that have been used to fight obesity for a century—and they just haven’t worked.

There is an alternative theory, one that has also been around for decades but that the establishment has largely ignored.

This theory implicates specific foods—refined sugars and grains—because of their effect on the hormone insulin, which regulates fat accumulation. If this hormonal-defect hypothesis is true, not all calories are created equal, as the conventional wisdom holds. And if it is true, the problem is not only controlling our impulses, but also changing the entire American food economy and rewriting our beliefs about what constitutes a healthy diet.

Read the rest here.

The anchors of the Paleo Lifestyle are protein and veggie-strong meals, the type even a caveman would be familiar with. No dairy. No processed foods. No simple sugars. No legumes. No grains of any kind (even whole grains are a no-no).

The point is to omit foods that stress your immune system (i.e., foods you’re allergic to), and/or cause spikes in your blood sugar. Primal choices steer you away from the mass of inflammation-producing fare infused with highly-refined carbs, sugar and dangerous industrialized fats that saturate the typical American diet.

So, what can you eat?

Grass-fed meats. Greens and all other vegetables especially avocados. Eggs. All seeds like sesame, flax and chia. Nuts like pecans and walnuts and especially macadamia nuts, which are loaded with heart-healthy monosaturated fat. There’s a heavy inclusion of foods high in Omega 3 fatty acids like coconut milk and oil, wild-caught salmon and white fish.

Even bacon and lard from pasture-raised animals make a showing. White potatoes are out, but sweet potatoes and squash and carrots are okay (there’s *a lot* of heated debate in the Paleo community what is and is not allowed). Most versions of Paleo also allow fresh and dried fruit in reasonable doses (especially if weight loss isn’t a goal).

See the full Paleo food list online or download a pdf version.

Generally, I dismiss plans that demand you cut out entire categories of food. Personally (and fortunately), I’ve never had issues with food or any serious eating disorders. I’ve loved cooking healthy meals all of my life, and have been a ‘clean eating’ enthusiast for years. I don’t have a powerful sweet tooth and never buy soda.

Even so, I’d been slipping here and there.

If I’m stressed or famished or pressed for time (and who isn’t occasionally these days?), all of my best efforts can quickly get derailed. When that happens, I’ve found myself in the fast-food drive-through or wolfing down a bag of chips (especially after a long run). I know that’s not healthy, and I want to get on top of those cravings (and doings).

Nixing those cravings, however, requires staying away from the omnipresent lab-created, hydrogenated fat-soaked, high sodium, low-fiber, super sugary fare that’s marketed to us from childhood to grave. Why? Because the moment you consume it, your brain chemistry changes. Its pleasure center is aroused. You’re more likely to overeat because signals from the appetite-regulating hormones leptin and insulin will be ignored.

Your one (over)-indulgence will leave you craving that kind of food-induced brain massage for three days beyond when you let yourself have that little treat.

Talk about setting ourselves up to fail.

That harmless slip can cascade into an all-out, out-of-control slide. And it’s not due to lack of personal willpower. Researchers have found that low blood sugar (there’s that pesky insulin again), and its effect on brain activity, produces a physical craving for high-calorie foods. The effect is more pronounced in the obese.

I’ve known about these studies for a while, and they keep me in check (for the most part).

So a push from a sister, a nudge from a good friend and the HBO series (and its detractors) gave me the nod to look into all of this a little deeper.

First, I pulled out all of my old health and food/diet books. (I have loads of allergy-related volumes due to recurring sinus issues. I also have diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease in my genetic background, so learning about healthy foods and diets has always been important to me). Most either perfectly or somewhat echoed the Paleo Lifestyle. For example, Syndrome X: The Complete Nutritional Program to Prevent and Reverse Insulin Resistance, was published twelve years ago and has an entire chapter on the health protecting benefits of a paleo diet.

Then, I asked my sister what book she’d most recommend. She gave me a copy of the Primal Blueprint 21-Day Total Body Transformation by Mark Sisson. I haven’t completely finished reading it yet but already like its realistic approach.

It supports the 80 percent rule I’ve always embraced: Aim for the target (good food choices) 80 percent of the time, but give yourself a break for being human the other 20 percent of the time (holidays, special dinners and celebrations, occasional cravings).

Sissan does, however, ask that you strictly adhere to the Paleo plan for the first 30 days. For the necessary genetic changes to take place, your body needs time to switch over from seeking carbs for fuel. Stay the course, and you’ll train it to source its fuel from your fat stores instead of that white bagel, pizza or pasta.

Much like a standard elimination diet to treat/find allergies, after 30 days (with great care) you may begin to reintroduce certain foods one at a time. Space these experiments out by three or so days. Then pay attention to how you feel.

Sinuses clogged? Knees achy again? You’ve figured out the culprit.

The Whole30 Made Simple echoes this advice. It also warns against using all of those clever paleo-friendly recipes you see for cakes and muffins and cookies, etc. They ask newbies to go strict the first 30 days to get a handle on those types of cravings, and get intimate with *real* whole food. The e-book goes on to outline the basic paleo diet, offers a vast FAQ section and shares a sample menu plan with dozens of recipes.

While both of these books are useful, the best one I’ve come across so far (thanks, Danielle) is the Paleo Dieters Missing Link: The complete, practical guide to living the paleo diet. Day in and day out. by Adam Farrah. It doesn’t contain any recipes, the author explains, because you can find thousands online and in dozens of cookbooks.

What you will find is a non-dogmatic look at why this diet is not a fad. It’s existed in one shape or another for decades … in fact, millenia. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself ;-)

Your Primal lifestyle will be different than my Paleo lifestyle. Just as paleolithic Eskimos consumed a near zero-carb diet primarily of fish, other hunter-gatherer tribes included some grains in theirs.

Each approach can and should be considered Paleo, Farrah says.

So, if as a runner, you need to have a slice of Ezekiel bread for energy before you lace up, then go ahead! As long as you’re not eating the whole loaf, you’ll be fine.

A friend’s chiropractor suggested a diet similar to Paleo to reduce inflammation. “I think its so interesting how ‘paleo’ embodies a large number of diets in its genre,” says Amanda of Farrah’s book. “Some diets are meat and veg, some add in fruit, others add in a little cheese and/or milk. Its not all black and white, but its about what works with your body, health and training goals. I appreciate the open mindedness of this book.”

Without action, information is worthless.

And so, I’m dipping my cavegirl toe into the Primal pool the next 30 days. Two weeks in, I’ve hung with the program. Mostly. I’m getting a handle on the new way of prepping and putting together my meals, still learning to use my new cave-worthy items like almond and coconut flour. I’ve built allowances into my day, limiting splurges (or cheats) to no more than one a day.

This second week, it seems easier to stay away from foods I shouldn’t eat.

But the first week, I used a smidgen of yogurt and Smart Balance mayo to make chicken salad. Sue me! And I made my fav super-clean gluten-free blueberry oatmeal pancakes. Toss me to the wind! I admit, the pancakes were a total detour. Won’t happen again.

“Who’s she kidding?” say you die-hards?

Well, I found a nifty and tasty replacement for them in one of my allergy cookbooks!

Pumpkin Seed Pancakes
Grease a non-stick skillet with coconut oil (I used my cast iron and wouldn’t recommend it). Blend 1/2 c pumpkin seeds until fine. Add 1/2 c boiling water. Blend another 30 seconds. Let sit for 5 mins. Make small pancakes so they are easy to flip.. Turn over when edges are brown (the recipe said until ‘top is bubbly’ … but there weren’t any bubbles on any of mine). Yes, they have a greenish cast to them, but they taste great especially topped with mashed banana!! (You could also top it with fresh fruit, etc.)

Oh, yes! I think I just found my new super snack/breakfast.

I know a lot of the sweeter foods are supposed to be limited (more if you’re trying to lose weight). I’m less than 10 pounds over what I weighted in my mid-20′s. I’d like to lose that, but not too worried if it happens slowly. A sprinkle or two of natural sugar found in fruit shouldn’t be a problem for me personally.

It will be — and should — be different for you. Find what works.

No matter how you eat, it helps to prepare a few meals ahead of time so you can give yourself a break in the kitchen when you’re especially busy! Saturday I roasted 2 lbs. of chicken with two full sheets of veggies. Yes, I used a few potatoes (and turnips) in there that I had on hand…not going to throw those away, sorry paleoites!

My sister told me I might feel drained the first two weeks.

I’m finding that to be the case, as least as far as my last run was concerned. Ran strong the first three miles and then felt I hit the wall on the last three. I’m trying out different ways of fueling up Paleo-style before, during and after my long runs: Yams, quinoa, and taking Carb Boom!, a nothing artificial/all-natural fruit gel, on long runs.

Slowly but surely, I’m finding things that work.

There’s lots more to share, but I think this is a good first introduction. I’ve already started drafting next week’s Paleo post. There are major health-protective benefits of eating this way, like reducing that inflammation in the body I already mentioned. I’ll share the research and data with you on that and more next time.

Have you gone paleo? If so, what are your fav websites/blogs/products? How long ago did you take the leap? What’s the experience been like? Advice for newbies? What do you use to fuel before, during and after your intense workouts?

About Ilona M.

A Midwest-based digital journalist, author and 2011 dailymile team ambassador, Ilona loves trail running, forest hiking, road biking, open water swimming, free weights, meditation and yoga. Aiming to balance her love of motion with the sedentary and still pursuits of research and writing, she hearts dailymile because it keeps her moving, laughing, learning and growing.
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