The Science of PALEO Dieting

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The Science of PALEO Dieting

| By Jamie Nugent |

A Modern Approach to Caveman Eating

The latest and greatest trends of dieting always seem to start off with the best of intentions; I mean, take for example Atkins, South Beach and Dr. Eades, Protein Power. All of these diets had great success, and made many the authors lots and lots of money. What was lost in these diets, however, was the exact mechanism of how and why people lost weight. Unfortunately for many, the simple grasp of calories in, calories out is far too easy of a concept, and as the general public we hate easy answers, and prefer the latest and greatest gimmick. Gimmicks also sell plenty of books!

Atkins and others, relied on lowering your carbohydrate intake to the point of benign dietary Ketosis, a state your body actually likes. Even more interesting is that it is the optimal fuel for the brain. Ketosis is what happens when your body doesn’t take in enough glucose/carbohydrates etc. Your body then breaks down fats and triglycerides into useable fuel. The back bone of this fat molecule is then excreted via your breath or urine. What Ketosis also does, is make you less hungry, and less hungry = less food consumed = weight loss. It’s really quite a simple concept.

Although it’s a simple concept, it’s hotly contested. Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories/Bad Calories, and a well versed debater and public speaker, argues that Insulin only causes fat gain.

Gary Taubes argues that Insulin only causes fat gain.

I don’t disagree with any of the above diets, save for where performance is involved. Studies have shown that repeated sprint performance is severely impaired when dietary carbohydrates are lowered to the point of ketosis. This for most athletes, especially explosive athletes, is a huge problem. But for sports like bodybuilding and simple narcissistic goals (i.e. looking good naked), the above diets are very good and work! Just don’t confuse the mechanism.

This leads me (finally) to the current “Diet du Jour”, The Paleolithic Diet, a diet based on our ancient cavemen and cavewomen ancestors, who in a world of nothing but free range animals, plenty of exercise, no pollution, the worlds purest of waters and surrounded by zero stress, had an average lifespan of ….. thirty three years.  “Woo-Hoo!”

Now, I actually am a proponent of the Paleolithic Diet.  I recommend it fully, and people who use it, typically lose weight, are happier and healthier.  It’s easy, it makes you eat natural foods, eat more vegetables and removes refined grains. These are all very cool things.

Natural, unprocessed foods, more veggies and no refined grains. Very cool with me.

On the other hand, using this as an excuse to eat all the nuts you want or an Avacado Double Down (Two Burger Patties used as the bread and avocado salsa, egg and bacon on the inside)  can and will lead to disastrous results.  I’ve counseled people who have come to me for advice who have failed to lose weight or actually gained weight on the Paleo (and even Atkins) diet before, only to realize that they were eating in excess of 1300 calories a day in Avocados alone! One girl was eating 2000 Calories in Nuts a day, and topped the charts at a whopping 3800 Calories a day!

The thing about dieting in general is, calories are calories, for the most part.   Yes there is a thermic effect of protein, yes there is a satiating effect of fat, and yes there is an insulin response from Carbs… but on the whole… overeating is overeating.

As a general rule with dieting, calories are calories, and overeating is overeating.

I don’t want to talk about what comes first here, (overeating because you’re fat, or fat because you’re overeating), I don’t disagree with Taubes in this regard because there are a whole host of hormones in play when it comes to putting on adipose tissue… and for the most part, Insulin and the sex hormones (Estrogen and Testosterone) have huge roles here. But that too is a whole other article.

The trick with the Paleo Diet is that it should be hard to overeat on it, because, most people can’t and won’t eat 30 bananas a day. It’s hard to overeat on chicken and veggies, cause well, who would? You’d be sick before you ever reached that point.

So where does this leave you?

To be frank; I could give a Rat’s Ass what the Cavemen did. That’s right. Cavemen didn’t work out with weights 6 times a week, nor did they have 9 to 5 jobs, and they sure as hell didn’t do a “Fran” on their birthday.  Their full time job was “Staying Alive”…that’s it.  And most did a piss poor job of it, and so, they got eaten by lions, or zombies, or zombie lions. Also of note, food was not in their face all day every day, or in abundance, or you know damn well they’d be smashing pizza or Mickey D’s nightly…

If he could, you know the caveman would be smashing pizza or Mickey D's all the time.

And before I get hate mail from the “Paleo-Cult” do realize that I prescribe this diet often, and before you start typing on your non-Paleo computer, realize you were born in a non-Paleo hospital, drove to work in your non-Paleo car and you were given a non-Paleo cast when you broke your leg, so you got better, so the lions couldn’t get you.

To quote diet guru Lyle McDonald “If I spear a bag of donuts, does that make it Paleo?”

So, how do we take what we have learned from our Fred Flintstone ancestors?   Should we be eating Brontosaurus ribs the size of a Chevy and eating nothing else?

Well no…

We’ve heard about the dangers of sucrose, and the “evil” fructose and how they are so horrible for us, and no doubt, they do have their deleterious effects when consumed at the wrong times, or above and beyond our required caloric needs.

The one fuel that is important for any performance longer than 4-6 seconds of effort is glycogen.

Take athletes, for example. The one fuel that is important for any performance longer than 4-6 seconds of effort is glycogen. The first four seconds is ATP-CP, then glycogen, and then eventually, fat…. So for repeated exercise bouts, it is important to get some glycogen replenishment happening. This can happen when your body will break down proteins (dietary or muscle) protein and convert it to glucose (Gluconeogenesis) or by ingestion of some carbohydrates.

Cavemen, on the other hand, mostly walked around all day until the spotted their kill and had one large effort).

So in the end, it’s likely a blend of what our “brilliant cavemen” and our “idiot scientists” have discovered over the years, and that is, that the truth, is likely somewhere in the middle. To this point, we can take a page from Dr. Loren Cordain, author of the famous book The Paleo Diet, who, in a revelation realized that the needs of today’s athlete’s are far greater than what our ancestors were and quickly scuttled out another version of his book where he actually prescribes the following post workout shake.

  •  Dextrose (Very non-paleo – refined corn sugar of all things)
  •  Whey Protein (also semi eschewed by Paleo Zealots – Dairy!  Yikes!)
  •  Salt!

Well in this regard, I give Kudos to Cordain, who must have suffered some wrath from the very people he helped convert over to the “eat natural or die” side of the force, for the balls to use actual science in his thought process. I know that since the acceptance of Whey protein + Dextrose at our “BOX” everyone has got stronger, recovered faster and shattered record after record.

I hate cookie cutter diets, but in a world of guidelines, you pretty much can’t go wrong adhering to the below:

Modern Paleo Diet Guidelines 

  • Eat meats and non starchy Vegetables with abandon
  • Cook with Coconut Oil
  • Take Fish Oil
  • Eat Berries
  • Limit, but don’t eliminate;  Fruit, Nuts and Dairy
  • Remove Grains, all of them.
  • Limit Starchy Vegetables, except at appropriate times*
  • Take Whey Protein, before and after your workouts.
  • If you are a  lean performance athlete or do Crossfit, take approximately 30-50 grams of Maltodexterin or Dextrose in your post workout shake, or ingest 30-50 grams of carbohydrate post workout ( sweet potato )
  •  Keep Calorie intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.

Jamie has over  15 years of real-world experience in the strength & conditioning and nutrition industries. Known for finding unique ways for “hard-losers” to succeed where all other diets have failed, he has been affectionately been given the moniker, “The Diet Doctor” .  Over the last few years, he has shifted his focus to performance training & performance nutrition and is an inspiration for those around him.  His infectious demeanor and unquestionable knowledge is respected by anyone in the strength training and sports nutrition world.  Contact Jamie at

By |July 11th, 2011|Features|

About the Author:
Strong Athlete was founded in 2011 by Strength & Conditioning Experts PK Mills and Gaétan Boutin. With over 40+ years of combined experience in sports nutrition, athletics, and fitness, the Strong Athlete team is dedicated to helping athletes achieve their maximum potential through a holistic approach to training, nutrition, and mindset.


  1. paleo weight loss September 24, 2011 at 10:27 AM - Reply

    nothing ever comes close to Paleo Diet + Exercise.

  2. Gareth February 24, 2012 at 4:30 AM - Reply

    most sensible post I have found so far on the paleo diet..

  3. Jake March 27, 2012 at 9:38 AM - Reply

    you’re incorrect about Dextrose. Dextrose is just glocose. If you can’t eat glucose then you can’t eat anything, you might as well go on a starvation diet. Even Mat Lalonde says Dextrose is ok.

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