I love reading about health, fitness and nutrition and I thought that some of the books I’ve read would be of interest to some of you, hence these mini reviews! I think its really important for me as a health coach and a blogger to find out more about different dietary approaches – and most importantly, form my own opinions!
*This post did start out including two other reviews for Jillian Michaels Master your Metabolism and Making the Cut, but as I went on it seemed to have turned in to a mini essay on Paleo stuff and instead of trying to fit it all in I thought I’d just go all out on the Paleo topic. Also please be very aware that I am looking at this with my own personal health challenges in mind, as I have said many times before I believe that we are all different and different dietary approaches work for different people, do your own research, experiment with what works for you, or talk to me about health coaching (shameless plug) if you want support to figure that out :-) Please also bear in mind that this is a relatively brief run through of the info in these books and is just my interpretation of them!
So, this whole Paleo thing eh, what’s it all about? Of course, the Paleo diet has been tried out by quite a few different bloggers, and seems to be becoming rather a ‘trend’. I had a vague idea of what it was all about, and as I had been going through my own health journey, adding in more animal products and fats, a lot of Paleo style eating started to appeal to me. Then I watched a lecture from Mark Sission as part of my nutrition course and my interest was seriously sparked, so I decided to do my own research.
The first book I read was Primal Blueprint from Mark Sission, as I said, I watched him lecture and a lot of what he was saying really made sense to me for where I am in my own health journey, and after pottering about on his site Mark’s Daily Apple, I decided to get the book. Mark describes his own personal health journey and how he arrived at the Primal diet (not much different between Primal and Paleo, although I think Primal is a little more dairy friendly). He talks about the effects of carbohydrates on our bodies and blames an over indulgence of eating them for most of today’s health issues. He talks about the ‘carb curve’ and how he believes eating over a certain level of carbs leads to weight gain. He talks about the anti nutrients in grains and legumes and how we should avoid them because of this, as well as their high carb content and relative lack of nutrients when compared to carbs from vegetables and fruit. As well as talking about diet, he also talks about ‘primal’ approaches to fitness and general lifestyle. He compares the lifestyles of Palaeolithic families (a character he affectionately calls Grok) with modern day families. He claims that by following the guidance in his book you allow for optimal gene expression – he says that at a genetic level we are designed to be fit, healthy and strong and we just need to alter our behaviours to reflect that of our Primal ancestors. I found this book really interesting, as you’ll see in a moment I’m not completely sold on the ‘Paleo’ aspect, however there is a lot here that I think has some credit.
After reading Primal Blueprint, I remembered that a while ago that I had listened to a podcast called Balanced Bites that had mentioned Paleo. Diane is one of the presenters, and when I was listening to them again, Practical Paleo was mentioned and it seemed like another interesting read so I thought I’d take a look. Very much like Primal Blueprint she introduces the whole basis for eating in a Paleo Style but then goes into a lot more detail with digestion and issues such as leaky gut. From a nutrition science geek aspect, I felt like I learned a lot here. She then introduces various eating and supplement plans for tacking different health issues and finishes off the book with a selection of recipes, most of which look pretty good.
I did enjoy this book, however I have gained a lot more from listening to the Balanced Bites podcasts and reviewing some other websites that she links to from that including the fantastic Paleo for Women by Stefani Ruper.
The book that I am currently reading is The Paleo Solution by Rob Wolf. Again, this gives all the general science based reasons why he believes the Paleo diet is better for our health, but definitely seems to go into more detail than the other two books. The diet plans don’t look that appealing and generally I think this book is much more geared for men than women, which as I will discuss in a moment is a very important point.
A breakdown of the Paleo / Primal diet (at least my take on it), what I think about it and how it relates to my health
I’ve given you a quick overview of what those books cover and if I think they are worth reading. As I said, for me personally I think Primal Blueprint was the best, however for anyone wanting to know more about this style of eating I’d recommend Practical Paleo and for women in particular the Balanced Bites Podcast and Paleo for Women website. If you want to get your head around the ‘science’ then try The Paleo Solution.
To be honest I think this ‘eating like a cave man’ thing is a bit of bollocks. I do see where they are coming from and I’m no expert in anthropology, but I can’t see how Palaeolithic humans could have eaten so much meat. I also think there are inherent issues with this diet in terms of environmental impact, if every one was eating so much meat, then I think we’d have a serious problem (even more so than what we do now) on our hands. I also don’t think that all grains and legumes are ‘unhealthy’. If prepared in the right way, and if you don’t have an intolerance or allergy (to gluten for example), then I can’t see why they can’t be part of a healthy diet.
I’m also sceptical of the science. Scientifically, nothing contradicts what I’ve learned about how our bodies work, but admittedly, bio chemistry is not my area of expertise. All I do know is that science and research studies in nutrition can very often be presented to support almost any ones hypothesis.
However, I do feel that these books make some good points, and in relation to my personal health challenges right now, I have found a lot of things very interesting.
The Carb Curve
Generally the carb approach coming from these books is not in the Atkins / Dukan type ultra low levels unless you are going for dramatic weight loss. However they do do suggest that carb intake should be lower if you are not very physically active, as carbs cause the release of insulin, which in turn manages fat storage, as well as throwing off the insulin and glucagon (another hormone) balance.
Along side the fact that they see grains and legumes as non health promoting due to anti nutrients (something that blocks the absorption of nutrients in the gut such as phytic acid) and the fact that they aren’t ‘Paleo’ – i.e. eaten by Palaeolithic humans, they also add that they should be avoided because they are generally higher in carbs and don’t offer as much nutrient density as carbs from vegetables and fruit.
This is also a really important point – fruit and vegetables are mainly carbohydrate so grains are not the only source. It’s also really important not to restrict vegetables as you will lose out on vital vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, another reason why I don’t believe a very low carb approach is a good idea – and even these books don’t suggest that other than for extreme weight loss. Carbs are needed for glucose to fuel the brain, however the liver can transform fat to glucose for this purpose if needed.
Oh and another very important thing with carb intake for women is highlighted on the Paleo for Women website, in fact Stefani says that women need to be very careful not to overly restrict carbs as this is another thing that can send the body into ‘starvation’ mode and threaten the normal functioning of the female reproductive system. Again – a very important thing to consider for women against the generally male orientated stuff.
I think carb intake is a very individual thing. For me, I generally feel like I do better on more fat and protein than carbs, however that can change from day to day and depending on how I feel. Most of the time my energy is better and I don’t feel like over eating when my fat and protein intake is higher. As I am also trying to heal my amenorrhea and fat is very important when it comes to hormones like estrogen and leptin, a slightly lower carb, higher fat, maximum nutrient density approach is something I’m going for right now. But I’m doing that because it feels right to me, not cause its Paleo ;-) Oh and I’m not actively avoiding carbs, I’m going for a more instinctive approach depending on how I feel day to day.
Fuelling with Fat
Another part of the carb debate links to blood sugar levels and their stability. I’ve already mentioned a little about the insulin thing, but basically they are saying that when carb intake is high, your body will just burn those readily available carbs and never get to work on your fat stores. Then because your body is so used to just using carbs, it has a harder time converting your fat stores to energy, hence when you eat a more carb based diet, some of us may experience regular hunger and energy drops. This really struck a cord with me, because for a while I was eating 7 times, maybe more a day. I didn’t mind as I love eating, however I don’t like to feel light headed when I can’t get a snack to hold me over. Since I’ve started experimenting with a higher fat diet I am actually managing pretty well on 3 – 4 square meals a day with more stable energy levels.
The Paleo approaches to dairy are quite mixed. The general consensus seems to be that raw unpasteurised dairy is best and only if your body can tolerate it. From the Paleo for Women perspective, she advises against dairy for women with hormone balance issues like myself. I could probably do more research on this, but all I know is that my body seems to do really well with good quality full fat dairy and I’m not about to change that!
Regulation of meals and intermittent fasting
Some people on a Paleo style diet will do something called Intermittent Fasting or IF. It is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – skipping meals and eating on a less regular basis or having a smaller ‘eating window’. This is suggested because Paleo humans would have often gone without food for long periods of time. Again, this is something that I can see would perhaps work for some other people, although it could be highly dangerous for someone with disordered eating. For me of course this would be a big no no, and its even clearly discussed in the Balanced Bites podcast not to do IF if you are experiencing certain health issues, including of course amenorrhea.
Body Fat levels
Another thing that I have liked from both Mark, Diane and Stefani is their realistic discussions about levels of body fat on women. I think it is so refreshing to hear people clearly talking about how it is healthier for most women to have a higher body fat percentage, especially in their child bearing years. Hearing this has been very helpful for me on my journey and makes me feel better about eating lots to maintain my current shape!
I LOVE the Paleo / Primal approach to fitness. I know it probably doesn’t sit very well with long distance runners, but again for me, it is a great philosophy that is perfect for the health issues I’m dealing with. Primal Blueprint probably goes into the most detail suggesting that you should ‘sprint’ once every 7 – 10 days, lift weights 2 – 3 times a week and then do about 4-5 hours of low level aerobic activity such as walking. I’m not sure exactly how this framework fits in with CrossFit that so many Paleo people seem to be in to, but it sounds good to me! They say that too much highly intensive exercise stresses the body and causes it to release too much cortisol, which in turn damages health and can lead to the ‘stress tummy’, i.e. weight gain around the middle. I’m not particularly bothered about whether ancient man ‘exercised’ like this, all I know is that it sounds like a fairly sensible approach to me, and again, very well suited to my health right now, minus the sprinting. I actually have just been sent a book on Paleo Fitness to review so I’ll be sharing my thoughts on that soon.
There is a lot of excellent stuff around Paleo / Primal lifestyle approaches that I really love. Getting adequate sleep, working with your bodies own circadian rhythms, de-stressing with fun, playful activities, going bear foot (Mark promotes those Vibram Five Fingers which I would love to try!), feeling connected to other people and the importance of family and friends, to nature and the earth etc. I am totally on board with all of that whether its Paleo or not it just makes sense to me.
I think there is a lot of Paleo that is crap, however there is a lot of good stuff there too. I feel like people really need to do their reading and research into this lifestyle so they understand what they are doing, and for women, I think they need to do some female Paleo specific research on top of that. As I have already said I really love the Balanced Bites podcasts and the Paleo for Women site, I feel there is a wealth of information there and I love the way they approach health for women. One of the phrases that Diane and Liz use in the podcasts is to be a nutrient seeker, and if there is one thing I am going to take away from my research on Paleo its that. I’m certainly not about to give up my oats or hummus, but I am going to eat more fat and protein for as long as I feel its working for me.
What are your thoughts on the Paleo diet and lifestyle?
How open minded do you feel you are with things like this?
Have you done any research into this approach?
Any links to refutals of the Paleo approach?
Have you come across any other useful books or resources?