The Evolution of Diet
This is part 1 of a 6-part series on the diet for the endurance athlete. In this section we will take a look at some historical background about the evolution of man’s diet and the changes that have occurred over the centuries. Perhaps you have heard of the books The Paleo Diet, by Loren Cordain or The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson. In each of these two books lies the same basic philosophy: modern humans should eat the same types of food that our ancestors ate. The theory is that if modern humans ate as our ancestors did, then we would be in a greater state of health. Cordain and Sisson also claim that from an evolutionary standpoint, humans have been aro1und for around a 100,000 years. Around 10,000 years ago, civilizations started developing agriculture to sustain population growth. It makes one wonder if the processed and refined foods commonly ingested today are at the center of many health problems today.
Both Cordain and Sisson believe we should get back to the simple eating approaches used by earlier generations. That means simply eating real foods. Humans evolved for hundreds of thousands of years by eating naturally occurring foods, so perhaps we should ask ourselves if we shouldn’t continue with that tradition.
The foundation of the eating approaches proposed by Cordain and Sisson independently, is to simply eat real foods. Mankind evolved by successfully eating the same type of naturally occurring foods, so we as modern humans should continue that way of eating. However, as endurance athletes, we need to make a few modifications to accommodate our energy needs in training and racing. I took Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint approach and modified it to meet the endurance athletes’ needs. The PB approach, in a nutshell, assumes that early human calories came primarily from fat, then protein, then CHO. I believe that we should still maintain a high fat diet with moderate protein (for muscle recovery), and only as much naturally occurring CHO as we need to keep our hormones and blood sugar levels (discussed in part 3) at healthy levels throughout the day.
By real foods, I mean foods that are naturally occurring. They would probably spoil if you left them on a counter for a few days. This would include meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and (occasionally) legumes. Grains are also naturally occurring, but more often than not, the “grains” (even the whole ones) are processed in some manner. When grains are processed they are stripped of their key nutrients (e.g., bran, germ) and replaced with much smaller amounts of nutrients, along with other chemicals. This includes things like whole grain or whole wheat bread.
It should be noted that our bodies do not easily digest grains. Once ingested, what isn’t digested is either eliminated through our system or turned into fat. People have been eating grain for only a few hundred years, which is miniscule to the hundreds of thousand of years our digestive systems have evolved without eating grains. It would appear that humans aren’t evolving fast enough to process grain, which may be one of the main reasons why obesity has become such a problem in this country. Have you ever eaten a granola or kashi bar, or maybe some pasta, and had GI issues like cramping, gas, bloating or general abdominal discomfort? That could be because your body is trying to digest too much of something it can’t. Our body’s propensity to store excess carbohydrates is covered briefly in Part 2 and more extensively in Part 3 of this series.
Typically, processed foods contain preservatives and chemicals that our bodies can’t process. Both Cardain and Sisson believe the reason is because our systems haven’t evolved enough to be able to process these chemicals and preservatives effectively.
Processed foods don’t contain much real nutritional value, despite what the “nutrition” label might say. Have you ever stopped and looked at the ingredients list found on a package of processed food? Often times we are challenged to pronounce the words let alone understand what they are. Many sound like ingredients in high school chemistry experiment rather something you would want to put in your body. Regardless of what the FDA deems safe, you need to determine if you really want that stuff in your body.
Let’s take a look at four types of oil: olive, vegetable, corn, and Canola. Olive oil is simply oil that was squeezed from olives. Vegetable oil is not oil squeezed out of vegetables. When you think of vegetables, you probably don’t think of very fatty or oily foods (olives and avocados being the exception), and because of this, making vegetable oil requires a tremendous amount of processing to extract the oil. Corn is actually a grain (not a vegetable), and like vegetable oil, contains chemicals that are by-products of the processing. As for Canola oil, there are arguments that it is good for you because of the Omega-3/Omega-6 ratio (covered in Part 2), but because it is a processed oil originating from a genetically engineered seed, you might want to avoid it. However, it is my opinion and that of others that it is a better option than the vegetable and corn oils.
Last year the corn industry created commercials on how High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is not bad for you when compared to sugar. Their argument was that it contained the same amount of calories as sugar, so HFCS is a very sensible substitute. What they don’t mention are all the chemicals inherited through enzymatic processing that is contained in each gram of HFCS. Enzymatic processing is not only unappetizing, but it isn’t good for you either.
Organic vs. Non-Organic
Generally speaking, organic foods will be better for you than their non-organic equivalent. The reason isn’t necessarily because of nutrients because both organic and non-organic foods generally contain the same amount of nutrients.
However, organic foods don’t contain pesticides and other chemicals used on them. On a personal note, I think organic fruits and vegetables just taste better. Have you ever purchased those double size monster strawberries on sale, only to take a bite and feel like half the flavor is missing? Next time, trying buying some organic strawberries, and realize how good they really are!
A general rule of thumb is if you are going to eat the entire product (e.g., most vegetables and some fruits), buy organic. If I don’t eat the entire product (e.g., banana, avocado), then you may not want to buy organic – mainly for cost reasons.
Another thing to touch on are things like organic cracker or similar organic processed foods. Just because it says organic doesn’t mean it’s good for you!
Dairy: The Gray Area
Dairy is in a gray area because you can’t go out into nature and just pick up some butter. Dairy is a bi-product of animals; some are minimally processed, and there are some health benefits with dairy products. A perfect example is using butter versus margarine or other processed substitute. Butter contains 2 ingredients: cream and salt. Margarine contains many processed ingredients.
It should also be noted that humans are the only species on earth that consume milk (or milk derived products) after infancy.
• Eat real, naturally occurring foods such as meat, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables
• Avoid processed foods like breads, pastas and industrial processed oils such as vegetable, corn, soybean and canola
• Eat grains only when necessary
Written by Ryan Denner. Ryan Denner is in his 4th year of endurance athletics, with his 2009 focus being Race Across America. He raced RAAM as part of an 8 person team – Team ViaSat, coming in second place in the 8 person division. Ryan enjoys researching diet and nutritional aspects, relevant to athletes and non-athletes alike.