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The Caveman Cometh

Could the Paleo diet be the key to a better run?

Don’t tell Kendra Olsen that you need to load up your dinner plate with pasta to run your best. The 52-year-old long-distance trail runner from Caledon, Ont. is among the growing number of athletes embracing Paleolithic eating, a meat and potatoes diet also referred to as the Paleo or Caveman diet. “It’s helped me get leaner and improve my energy levels – both of which are making me a better runner,” she says. She recently completed a 100-mile race while staying away from items such as spaghetti and oatmeal that are the cherished dietary staples for many runners.

Since the first Paleo diet book hit store shelves in early 2000, the eating plan has been increasingly gaining momentum. This is largely thanks to CrossFit, a widely popular challenging fitness program with many Paleo advocates. The Paleo diet is based on the premise that evolution dictates we are at our healthiest when consuming a diet similar to what the hunter-gatherers did during the Paleolithic Era, a few million years ago. So in other words, a healthy dose of animal protein and plants minus the side of rice. The theory is that because grains such as wheat were not part of the menu until about 10,000 years ago, we didn’t evolve to properly handle a stack of pancakes. Hence the epidemic rates of obesity and chronic diseases like diabetes today. It’s estimated that about threequarters of the food most of us eat everyday wasn’t even available back in the days of spears and woolly mammoths. In fact, much of the packaged processed stuff in the supermarket is new to the human body in just the past few centuries. It’s barely a blip on the evolutionary radar.

Still, most runners would rather run barefoot on Arctic ice than cut out pasta, pizza and bread. “For the first couple of weeks, I didn’t feel very good and had a lot of sugar cravings,” confesses Olsen. “But shortly after those went away and I’m no longer the sugar junkie I once was.” Instead of baked goods, Olsen now loads up on the necessary carbohydrates by filling her diet with fruits and vegetables such as sweet potatoes.

The vast majority of modern-day Paleo followers don’t hunt for their meat or gather roots and berries from the bush – but they do stick to the edibles that would have been available to pre-agricultural populations, namely fruits, vegetables, nuts, red meat (preferably grass-fed), poultry, seafood, eggs and some oils like coconut. Foods that are cut out of this lifestyle include grains (even whole ones), legumes, dairy, refined sugars, and all processed foods. Admittedly a bit lazy in the kitchen, Olsen finds the Paleo diet easy to implement. “Meat, vegetables, and fruits … it’s pretty bare bones eating.” Still, there are times when she breaks the rules. “During long runs, I still rely on products like gels since I haven’t found a good Paleo replacement.”

Supporters claim the diet provides higher levels of vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids while at the same time delivering fewer undesirables like processed sugars and saturated fat than the typical Western diet. All of which can make those who are involved in athletics much fitter and faster. In the last few years, a few scientific studies have shown that the Paleo diet may have some therapeutic effects, namely in improving blood cholesterol and sugar numbers.

  1. Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables The Paleo diet is often considered a meat lover’s fantasy, yet many of our remote hunter-gatherer ancestors obtained more of their caloric energy from plants. Since becoming a Paleo believer, Olsen has greatly increased the time she spends spinning her grocery cart wheels in the produce section. The Paleo diet recommends that we glean most of our carbs from fruits and vegetables, which will provide the body with the necessary vitamins, minerals and antioxidants needed for good health. So try to work fresh fruits or vegetables like berries, leafy greens and root vegetables into each of your meals and snacks.
  2. Eat better meat Instead of the saturated-fat-laden processed meats that are omnipresent in the typical Western diet, strict Paleos say we should be loading our dinner plates with leaner options like grass-fed beef and game meats such as bison. Studies show that cattle stuffed on turf produces steaks and burgers that are richer in heart-healthy omega fatty acids while being lower in heart-hampering saturated ones. Wild fish, such as salmon, are rich in the omega-3 fats that appear to help quell inf lammation in the body. On the downside, you can expect these proteins to be more expensive.
  3. Don’t fear fat The caloric breakdown of the Paleo diet is 19- to 35-per-cent protein, 22- to 40-per-cent carbohydrate and 28- to 47-per-cent fat. One of the most useful dietary tenets is the allowance for generous amounts of healthy fats such as monounsaturated fatty acids present in avocado, nuts, seeds and oils like olive oil and walnut oil. These fats generally don’t raise heart-attack risk; in fact, they’ll probably slash it. The diet rightly suggests shying away from refined vegetable oils that are full of inflammation-promoting omega-6 fats. You’ll find vegetable oils in processed packaged foods as well as the kitchens of many restaurants. Many runners worry that eating fat will lead to weight gain. However, studies suggest that highly processed carbohydrates like muffins and sugary boxed cereals are more of a culprit in causing waistlines to bulge.

– Matthew Kadey