You Can’t Do Paleo and Do CrossFit

So, let’s talk.

There are a few ideas swirling around our local community and the community at large that I would like to address. One of them is the unfortunately pervasive idea that adopting a Paleo-style diet and doing CrossFit well are incompatible. This is simply not true, but I understand where it’s coming from. Here is how it flows:

  1. You decide to try Paleo
  2. Okay, so you can’t have any bread, rice, cereal, or pasta, no refined sugar anything, juice, soda, alcohol, etc.
  3. Sooo meat and salad then, alright
  4. Which often ends up meaning you don’t eat hardly any carbohydrates because the Paleo Gods stole all your preciouses!
  5. Like a good CrossFitter though, you keep showing up and doing your programmed metcon workouts (the majority of what we do at the gym), which are highly glycolytic, and eat up your glycogen stores like nothing else, which are supplied primarily by carbs
  6. Funny, that
  7. In addition to the normal pains of working out, your workouts start to consistently achieve a new level of SUCK (if that’s even possible) after about 3-5 minutes, almost every time
  8. And if it goes over 15 minutes or so, HOOO BOY
  9. This is probably an understatement, how much this feeling sucks
  10. Your gains/PRs also vanish
  11. You feel sucky
  12. Screw this!

Last year (or was it the year before/2014?), at the CrossFit Games, Dave Castro famously asked all the qualified Games Athletes at the Athlete’s Dinner (night before competition) if any of them were “doing Paleo”, and no one raised their hand. Big whoop. But it was a sort of seminal moment, something everyone had on their mind already. And many in the community took this home as a supreme form of validation of their un-Paleo-ness from The King On High. Which is unfortunate.

I have a few objections with this:

  1. What is Paleo even? Everyone on the internets seems to disagree. If I’m in that room and I raise my hand, whose definition of it am I subscribing to?
  2. If I were an athlete with a sense of business savvy and, at a more base level, a sense of peer pressure in a group I feel especially privileged to be a part of (most people at the CF Games are there for the first time, and understand Dave Castro is basically their boss), do you know what I do: I wait to see if anyone else raises their hand first.
  3. To what end do you raise this question, Mr. Castro? What should people in the world at large learn from what elite athletes are eating?

These are all potentially BIG topics upon which a lot of intelligent people disagree. But to not waste your time, here’s the deal:

  1. Really Super Duper Strict Paleo with no exceptions is a great idea for people who do not train hard or work out at all even. Science supports Paleo-style eating being an ideal candidate to support optimal health. Is it the only way? Of course not. Interestingly, this demographic is also the vast majority of sedentary and/or overweight people who populate this great nation of ours! Which makes something like Strict Paleo a great public policy recommendation. Not that we’re anywhere near that yet.
  2. Really Super Duper Strict Paleo is probably even a great idea for overweight people, and people new to exercise who only do a little strength training and a little aerobic training, but no glycolytic work. This is actually my preferred approach for new clients starting Personal Training who are ready to change their activity level (start working out) and their diet. Somewhat ironically, most overweight people who join a gym think working out a lot will do the most to solve ALL their problems, because Biggest Loser. We know now nutrition matters A LOT more, and doing both hard CrossFit and Strict Paleo is precisely the formula that many will sabotage themselves with as a result. It’s like driving with the emergency brake on. Unfortunately, it’s a tough sell to get this particular cohort in the gym to not workout the way they think they absolutely need to (BURN MOAAAR CALORIES). Really high volume intense training plus diet restriction for sedentary and overweight people is not only wrong (i.e. it doesn’t work in the long run), it is also irresponsible (can easily lead to injuries, especially in novice trainees).
  3. Really Super Duper Strict Paleo is NOT a great idea for people who train hard and often, especially those who do a lot of classic CrossFit conditioning, aka “Metcon”.

This leads us to… THEN WHAT? Well, unfortunately, many choose to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. If you can’t do it to the letter, then what’s the point? The point is that it’s just a FRAMEWORK! Does your ideology and belief system match up exactly with whatever political party/person you support? Of course not! Do you use this as a reason to withdraw from politics entirely? Actually, some do. This is unfortunately how it also seems to be with Paleo vs. Un-Paleo. But it doesn’t have to be so. It’s as simple as this:

  1. Do Paleo
  2. Short on carbs? Eat more paleo fruits and vegetables
  3. Still short? Eat more sweet potatoes. They’re delicious when wrapped in foil and baked at 350 deg for about 90 minutes.
  4. Still short? Eat rice and potatoes too if it helps you
  5. Boom.

Are you “doing Paleo” if you do this? Who cares. The name is just a label. Some people like that because they can use it to identify with a tribe. Whichever. You are not a caveman or cavewoman.

Eat food, real food. For your health and fitness, in that order. Tell everyone! Or, don’t tell anyone about it. Thrive.

About Games Athletes. Modeling your training and nutrition habits after people who train for 4-5+ hours per day is a fallacy. In the egalitarianism of the thing that is CrossFit, there is an appeal. You can actually compete in the same arena as Rich Froning, Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, Annie Thorisdottir (my fav ;)), Ben Smith, and Katrin Davidsdottir. Champions of champions, if you’re lucky sometimes even in the same gym with you. What are your chances of ever getting to play football with Tom Brady or Peyton Manning? To shoot hoops with Lebron? A lot less.

They are all human beings, and in that we share something powerful. But athletically and physically, they are not the same as regular people training for overall fitness AND health. They have trained for years and continue to push the limits of human capacity. 4+ workouts per day, almost every day. That’s what it takes to be the best.

This is something I want you to remember (credit to Coach Rudy Nielsen): performing at the highest levels of fitness AND achieving a high level of health and wellness are NOT synonymous. This is contrary to what is taught at the Level 1 certification about the “Fitness-Health-Wellness” continuum. While this model is mostly valid, observations suggest it breaks down at the extreme end. I don’t think it was ever meant to be a blanket statement extrapolated to any/all levels. In short, elite athletes fuel their bodies for a different purpose other than health, and train similarly. Which basically means they can drink a lot of protein shakes, eat a jar of peanut butter and jelly AMRAP, eat a “clean” meal once per day, perhaps even drink alcohol occasionally, and keep on trucking. But not forever. Being elite by definition means it was not meant to last. The average length of an NFL player’s career is 3.3 years. It will be proven similarly in the CrossFit Games over time (already athletes are bowing out/retiring), though hopefully not quite that short since they’re not actually running into people.

Therefore, what Games Athletes are doing with their training and nutrition, while interesting on many levels, actually should not inform your lifestyle. So when Dave Castro — whom I think is an amazing human being despite the constant criticism that comes with his territory — asks the Games Athletes whether they “eat Paleo”, you can either take that as a statement that has some meaning about what YOU should be doing, or not. Honestly, I think Dave is just obsessed with the revolutionary idea that is kindof his baby, The CrossFit Games. He wants to know what the best of the best are doing, not necessarily inferring anything about what you should be doing. He apparently cares deeply about finding and testing the fittest athletes in the world. Beyond that, I’m sure he cares about other things too, but it’s his job to care mainly about that. Is it also a jab against Paleo and perhaps some of its particular proponents on some level? Maybe, who knows. To me it mostly just doesn’t matter. He has publicly stated his support of Paleo principles, so there’s that.

And finally, because I know it sort of matters: Despite how I often joke about eating whatever, or how you’ll see me sometimes nomming on a cookie or pie (mmm pie) or something, I myself do strive to eat Paleo.  I probably am successful 60% of the time right now. I stick to it as much as I can, because I do want to be healthy also. As much as my schedule and lifestyle and priorities and sanity will allow. I hope you do the same.

Eat food, real food. For your health and fitness, in that order. Tell everyone! Or, don’t tell anyone about it. Thrive.


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