Loosening the Paleo Collar

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I slowly started the Paleo diet back in 2008 and was fully on board by the end of that year. Long story short is that I leaned out and cured my rosacea. The strategies I aggresively followed in the first few years included:

  1. Low Carb
  2. Cold Temperature Exposure
  3. Intermittent Fasting

During this period I never went dairy free and I didn’t increase my exercise. Unlike other diets, the health benefits were not short term. By 2010 it was clear that my health was better and that it required no extra effort to maintain the gains. By following the 3 strategies above, I was in the best shape of my life.

Was it Carbohydrate Restriction?

My early interpretation of the Paleo diet was low carb. I consumed no grains, no rice and minimal amounts of starchy vegetables. I would have an occasional sugar treat such as dark chocolate or ice cream. Since I exercise minimally, I never experienced any problems that seem to be more common with many in the Paleo community that exercise, in my opinion, excessively.

Then in 2010, I started a year of eating seasonally. I wanted to see the effects of eating more carbohydrates in the summer and less in the winter. Since I had already leaned out, I was also interested to see how my body would respond to the reintroduction of higher carbohydrate levels. This is when I added back rice and more starchy vegetables. Unlike my fellow CrossFitting MMA Parkour P90X Extreme More-Is-Better Paleo comrades, outside of walking I exercise typically less than 30 minutes a week. Would the bringing back the safe starches (sweet potatoes, yams, white rice) I removed cause a change in my health or body composition?

I ended the year of eating seasonally in the summer of 2011 and my health didn’t change. My skin, digestion, sleep and body composition were the same as when I followed a more strict low carb approach to Paleo. So I continued eating the safe starches and have now on a regular basis throughout the past year.

Photo by Alan Levine

Was it the Cold Temperature Exposure?

The topic of cold temperature exposure is getting popular again. It is now being called CT or Cold Thermogenesis. Jack Kruse and Richard Nikoley (FreeTheAnimal) are all over this topic. From 2008 until the start of this year, I engaged in some form of cold temperature exposure near daily. My exposure was tame compared to what Dr. Kruse and Richard are doing.

Even though I can’t prove it, I feel that cold temperature exposure helped me lose fat up to a point. Once I dropped 3 inches off my waist and had leaned out, it didn’t help me get Level 3 Lean. From January 2012 until April 2012, I stopped all cold weather exposure to see what would happen. Stopping the cold exposure did not change body composition.

Was it Intermittent Fasting?

I’ve written extensively on my experiences with Intermittent Fasting. I am a huge fan. I’m no longer a slave to hunger. I’m never in a position where I need to eat unhealthy food, because I can always delay eating until a healthy option is available. That might be 2 hours or 20 hours. Intermittent Fasting builds resilience.

One thing I’ve learned from my IF experiments is that when the body starts to feel cold, you are either fasting too much or not eating enough when you break the fast. For the past year, I’ve been listening to my body and dialing back the amount of fasting I’m doing. My typical fast is closer to 14 hours than the longer 16 to 22 hour ones I did in the early years. Reducing my fasting has not changed body composition.

Loosening the Paleo Collar

The steps I took with the Paleo diet are not the ones I am using to maintain my gains. I’m no longer low carb. I’m lower than most Americans though. I still avoid gluten, most soy (fermented is OK), most legumes (sprouted is OK) and seed oils. I’ve added back some cold showers for post workout recovery. I still fast, but the fasts are shorter.

I believe the benefits I got from Paleo mostly occurred in the first two years. I don’t believe following a stricter interpretation of Paleo would yield greater results. Now I am more interested in pushing the boundaries back in a controlled manner. That will be the topic of my next post.

19 thoughts on “Loosening the Paleo Collar

  1. chuck

    after playing with this for over 5 years, i too have added more carbs back into my diet. been doing it for almost a year and a half and feel i am stronger, just as lean, and just as healthy. of course my training has changed too but the point is i have had no detrimental effects. the paleo newbies i talk to are still strict very low carb and are surprised to hear i eat rice and potatoes with no problems. just like you, i suspect i still eat a lot less carbs than most americans.

    let’s face it, starchy carbs are typically easy and inexpensive sources of calories. not everything that goes into my mouth can be a superfood like liver. i cannot afford it and would get bored by it. it is interesting that many critics are not aware of this shift in the “paleo diet” thinking. in the end, if we don’t chronically elevate blood sugar, i think we will be fine with adding these “safe starches”.

  2. chuck

    personally, i think cold exposure is something everyone should do to some extent because so many people are so equipped to tolerate the cold. this makes getting outside to enjoy some fresh air even harder. i believe this will help when we age. older people seem even more sensitive to cold. i also think it helps with recovery from strenuous activity. as a species, i think we are becoming soft and living in a constant temperature is just part of that. these are just my opinions though.

    regarding fasting, based on experience, i think it is a great weight loss technique. based on what i have read, the autophagy aspect seems like a nice side effect. i also think there is evolutionary support for it. regularly scheduled meals probably were not the norm.

  3. Interesting TedTalk. In regards to cold exposure:

    I heard about brown fat and how developing it may help you burn fat. So this winter I tried wearing less warm layers when I was outside for short periods of time. For example i I needed to be outside for 5 minutes or less, I just wouldn’t wear a coat. And by the end of the winter and into the early spring, i noticed I was significantly more tolerant of cold weather. I would be wearing fewer layers than my friends and be perfectly comfortable, while they would be bundled up and freezing. Just thought it was interesting.

  4. chuck

    “personally, i think cold exposure is something everyone should do to some extent because so many people are so equipped to tolerate the cold.”

    i meant to say “not equiped to tolerate cold”.

    @becca

    good for you. i suspect you will continue to be more willing to venture outside whereas your counter parts will be holed up in their stale home all winter.

  5. Mike

    @MAS: Are you sure about that ? Women are the ones who tend to wear skirts and open shoes during the cold season.
    There are those who’re starving themselves of any resistance to cold by “dieting” of course, but in general I wouldn’t say that women are having less exposure to cold/putting on more clothes during the winter season.
    Maybe European women are diffferent in that regard 🙂

  6. @Mike – Excellent point. Younger women do seem to be quite resilient to colder weather. As they get older they seem to become hyper sensitive. Just my observation, nothing scientific.

  7. @Becca, I’ve been doing the cold exposure since January, but find it varies a lot with my menstrual cycle (toasty warm in the first half, freezing cold in the second half). Have you noticed this? Or am I not eating enough when I’m not skipping meals? :p

  8. @Anemone, I can’t say I have noticed that… but that’s an interesting observation. Menstrual cycles make everything else a little screwy, wouldn’t be surprised to hear it does the same for your body’s cold tolerance.

  9. Karl

    It seems like a lot of the upheaval in the paleo world these days is coming from the slow recognition that it’s not a magic formula. In fact a lot of the more exciting parts of it worked a little like how many paleo people accuse vegetarian diets of getting positive results despite themselves- for example lots of people get leaner on low carb because they ultimately eat less (the dreaded calories in/out equation), not because of anything to do with insulin or the carbs themselves. Overeating anything is bad for your health, most people eat too many carbs because that’s what junk food is based on, but it’s not the carbs, it’s the overeating that’s the problem. Gluten free, low carb, primal brownies are not the solution!

    I was originally intrigued by the stories of amazing health changes and absence of disease and while I’m glad I followed a paleo diet and have learned all I have, I’m pretty sure that a lot of that was hype- read the boards for any type of diet and you’ll see the same sorts of claims.

    Ultimately I pretty sure you’re onto something here. The value of paleo is in the big themes- don’t eat processed junk, get more sleep, exercise at very high or very low intensity and learn to relax and enjoy life more. Those are first class bits of advice and are responsible for the vast majority of the improvement that paleo brings about. By now I think it’s pretty safe to say that there’s no real benefit in micromanaging inputs to achieve specific outputs. There’s plenty to dive into about what those particular things mean, how to exercise, different foods and in dealing with specific problems like your headaches, but a common sense approach to the big themes is really all most of us need.

    I’m looking forward to your next post!

  10. Stuart Gilbert

    Michael…..between making a case for less exercise and now “loosening the Paleo collar”, there is perhaps a contract out on u sponsored from the exercise clothing business and leisure industries. Do u want to add the Paleo crowd to the people wanting ur head on a platter?…..lol

  11. I’m really enjoying the Kruse video and blog – clearly I have been taking the wussy approach to cold acclimatization and need to step up my game. 🙂

    I think the key variables vary a lot from person to person, other than eating whole foods and getting enough rest. Back in the early to mid-nineties I tried vegetarianism, and a book that influenced me a lot was Annemarie Colbin’s Food and Healing. She talks a lot about listening to your body, and how different people need to eat different things, etc., etc. Then she prescribes a whole foods diet with a ridiculous amount of whole grains (which would put me in a lot of pain). I ended up on paleo by eliminating everything that caused indigestion, and being left with nothing but grass fed meat and sugar, though I struggled with this ideologically until I came across Neanderthin, which talked about how you could actually be healthy eating nothing but meat. I still struggle with it for various practical reasons, so still don’t have all the answers, and love to read what works/doesn’t work for others. One thing that Colbin said was that strict vegetarianism/veganism seems to only work long term for people who eat that way for spiritual reasons rather than health ones, which opens up interesting possibilities.

    @Becca, I think it’s normal for temperature to drop about 1°C/2°F with ovulation, then stay low until menstruation, then climb again. I was wondering whether other women notice this or not. I only started to notice it when the furnace went off long before spring in my building – I think that was too much cold adjustment at once. For the first time in my life, I’m looking forward to when my next period starts and I can stop shivering again.

  12. @Karl, @Stuart – I still believe Paleo is an excellent foundation and many people would do well with a Paleo reboot from the typical crap diet. Once they get healthy, then they can loosen that collar. Yeah, I’m eating more and more carbs these days and my body comp is still the same. So I am still a fan and supporter of the Paleo diet …as a start and foundation.

    @Anemone – With Jack Kruse, I am taking a wait and see approach. If I were more than 20 pounds overweight, I’d absolutely be pursuing some form of cold exposure. Not as extreme as him, but something. Maybe the ice pack between the shoulder blade (4 hour Body protocol).

  13. It seems I got the menstrual temperature cycle wrong (I measured mine a looong time ago) – temperature goes up with ovulation, not down, and I feel colder because my body is trying to warm up (like being chilled with a fever). But that doesn’t explain why I feel warmer in the mornings when my temperature is higher, unless it’s because my temperature is rising, rather than just wants to. :s I’m getting really confused here. At least I figured out it was my menstrual cycle.

    And I think the only reason I like the cold acclimatization is because my brain is happier when it’s colder. I used to be much more acclimatized as a kid, swimming in a spring-fed mountain lake in summers and skiing in not very many layers well below freezing in winter. I miss that.

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