Drew Stephens

Learning About Nutrition

"Go Paleo" I have learned a lot about nutrition in the past few years, mainly fueled by my interest in fitness. Once I got beyond run-of-the-mill Globo Gym workouts by delving into truly challenging fitness like parkour and CrossFit, it became apparent that I would need to match exercise with proper nutrition in order to excel. Note: if you don’t give a shit about what I’ve done and just want to learn about nutrition, head to the bottom.

In The Beginning, There Was Parkour

Training at Primal Fitness was the first time I came across folks who offered dietary advice that wasn’t focused on weight loss—something I haven’t ever been interested in or needed. Right in line with the nature of the parkour community at the time, the focus of nutrition was pretty loose: eat more protein and less sugar. Like any athlete trying to build muscle, eating more protein than that on a standard American diet (SAD) is mostly a no brainer. Weight lifting folks long ago figured out that protein was essential to building muscle, and in recent years it’s common knowledge since we all see Bros downing their protein powder. Less sugar has almost always been generally accepted as good nutrition advice…at least until it was pushed out by the blind fear of fat…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Next Level: CrossFit

I picked up CrossFit from hanging out at Primal Fitness, and largely as a way to get better at parkour. Parkour involves lots of short distance sprinting with long distance running and a large amount of gymnastic strength & jumping. What better to train such a diverse set of skills than the general purpose fitness focus of CrossFit? Indeed, Primal is also a CrossFit box in addition to being the first facility in the US with such a focus on Parkour. What does CrossFit have to say about nutrition? Quite a bit, and it’s a significant part of the famous World-Class Fitness in 100 Words:

Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat. Practice and train major lifts: Deadlift, clean, squat, presses, C&J, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc, hard and fast. Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense. Regularly learn and play new sports.

Enter The Zone

The main dietary message from CrossFit HQ is that The Zone Diet is the best set of guiding principals for optimum nutrition. As much as it may seem on the face of it, this isn’t just some marketing cross-promotion crap—much like CrossFit you don’t need to buy anything to eat Zone. The basic tenet is that your meals should all be made up of 40% energy (calories) provided by carbohydrates, 30% by protein, and 30% by fat (the food pyramid advises about 55:20:25). Zone prescribes that the carbohydrates you eat be of the low-glycemic index variety: vegetables, whole grains, whole fruit, though some argue that this is offered as secondary to the macronutrient ratio that is the center of Zone.

I gave Zone a solid try while doing CrossFit on my own in 2009 and really liked it—when I managed to stick to the relatively low carbohydrate formula for even a few days I had much more stable energy throughout the day and felt ready to tackle the workout of the day whether I decided to do it first thing in the morning or late in the evening. For a couple of years, I more-or-less followed the Zone and was pretty happy. When I moved back to DC, I started CrossFitting at Potomac CrossFit right around the time they were starting a Paleo Challenge, which encourages people to give a strict paleo diet a try for 30 days. While I didn’t participate in the challenge, I figured it was worth reading up on paleo and giving it a try since I had heard so much about it in the CrossFit community.

Where I End Up: Paleo

I picked up Robb Wolf’s book, The Paleo Solution and, after initially being off-put by the self-help, anecdotal nature at the beginning of the book, I was impressed with the scientific information and references provided later. Over the week I read the book I quickly moved from “I’ll give this paleo thing a bit of a try” to “I will only eat grass-fed beef and organic broccoli cooked in coconut oil”. I found it so convincing in part because of the science, but also the back-to-basics origin for the ideas on nutrition. As anyone who has read widely on modern nutritionism knows, the dietary advice offerings in the past 50 years have done nothing to make Americans or Westerners in general any healthier. Things like margarine are pushed as healthier replacements only to later find that partially hydrogenated fats are supremely deadly.

Paleo starts by saying, “Nutrition is so complex we haven’t come close to understanding it enough scientifically to offer complete dietary advice.” Instead, paleo nutrition bases the nutrition guidelines on what we evolved to eat, that is the foods that sustained humans for the hundreds of thousands of years prior to the rise of agriculture. Since we have arguably evolved very little since the products of agriculture (grains, legumes) became the central part of our diet, about 10,000 years ago, looking back to what our evolution had us eating seems a very good start. We need not attempt to reenact the caveman lifestyle, but we can use the diets of our evolutionary ancestors as a logical framework for making nutrition choices in the modern world.

In so many words, that is my nutritional journey—I am now a complete paleo convert. After trying it for a month, I was absolutely hooked and, a lot like CrossFit, I now try to tell everyone I meet about how awesome this paleo thing is. In addition to never suffering from blood sugar fluctuation induced unhappiness I am also not only ready to tackle workouts whenever, but reading to absolutely own them. Beyond that, the dietary guidelines of paleo fall in line with a wide set of evidence showing that modern diets are wrong in so many ways I really believe that eating this way makes me greatly healthier overall.

Information on Nutrition

The original point of this post was not to just tell my story of nutritional discovery, but to let others know what they should read to understand nutrition. I never like to just tell people what they should eat, because that makes me just another guy hocking advice that Really Will Make Everything Better! Instead, I want to give folks the information to make their own decision—and I think the evidence points so strongly in one direction that anyone who does read up on it will be in the same camp that I’m in.

If you’re just getting interested in nutrition, then these are the articles you should read. If you don’t care about nutrition, I would encourage you to at least read those by Michael Pollan: they paint a pretty grim picture of the food supply in the United States

For those who want to know more, a good next step is to check out some documentaries:

To really understand what nutrition is about, book reading is in order:

  • Why We Get Fat – A much longer version of the Gary Taubes article above explaining the history & details of modern nutrition advice
  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollan’s book that introduced nutritionism and its failings, and describes the industrial food system in detail, contrasting it with local agriculture
  • In Defense of Food – More on food & nutritionism. This is where “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” comes from
  • The Vegetarian Myth – A very striking and thorough tearing apart of every angle of vegetarianism written by a former long-time vegan

If you really want to have a thorough understanding of the lipid hypothesis, Gary Taubes wrote another book that is basically Why We Get Fat with even more scientific evidence and why the calories in-calories out model for obesity doesn’t work entitled Good Calories, Bad Calories.

To get an idea of this whole Paleo thing that I have fallen in love with check out these things, in order of brevity (read: depth):