Flexible Dieting: Why CrossFit Athletes are Ditching Paleo

“The quality of food matters, unless you are a flexible dieter, then you can eat dog shit as long as it is low-fat”

-Robb Wolf, author of “The Paleo Solution”

I read that post on Wolf’s Facebook page a few weeks ago and immediately spit coffee (with sugar) on my keyboard. Was I the only one thinking, “yeah, says the guy who would be ok eating dog shit as long as it was gluten-free?”

Most of us were introduced to the Paleo Diet through CrossFit. Robb Wolf worked hand-in-hand with CrossFit, hosting nutrition seminars promoting the diet until the infamous Black Box Summit.

The Black Box Summit was a $1000 a ticket seminar “For Affiliates, By Affiliates” hosted by CrossFit Central in 2009. Robb Wolf’s lecture at the summit, was defined by CrossFit HQ’s Russell Berger as “covering the basics of indoctrinating new clients into the Paleo diet, using affiliate challenges, before and after pictures and monthly nutrition classes…”

Sound familiar? Although slowly decreasing, these challenges still remain a staple at many boxes, despite what happened next. At the summit, it was becoming clear that some at HQ, including Dave Castro, were leaning toward promoting Zone (a diet more focused on measuring foods) as a favored way of eating to perform. The elite athletes across the CrossFit world were moving away from or had never even started, using Paleo. According to accounts from those at the Summit, including Wolf’s own version of events, Castro told the “Paleo Solution” author to stop “bashing” Zone during his talks. I’m not going to get into all the happenings and competing versions of stories from the Summit – there is plenty to read on that topic if you wish. What we do know is that following the Summit, Wolf was OUT. He was notified HQ had found replacements to fill his spot on the nutrition lecture tour. He wrote a rather scathing response on his website, calling out Berger, Castro and most of HQ for how they handled the situation.

The Paleo Diet was part of CrossFit – even if this was not an official partnership and regardless of how HQ viewed Wolf or the diet’s value – but we are seeing that change. Even back in the early days of the CrossFit Games, everyone knew the top athletes didn’t eat this way, but hey, we weren’t top athletes – and it’s trendy and seems healthy so what the hell, right?

I think the majority of CrossFitters have probably tried the Paleo Diet at some point. Usually towards the beginning of their CrossFit journey – before they realize it is not a sustainable lifestyle and it simply does not allow you to perform at a high level. The change we see now has come in the form of “flexible dieting.” It goes by a lot of names, but the basic premise is, you should be consuming a set amount of carbs, protein and fat each day, depending on your goals. You can hit these numbers any way you like and as long as you hit them consistently, you will see the results you are looking for. Pretty simple right?

It opens up a whole new world to people who struggle to “stay on the wagon” when trying to “eat healthy” and achieve fitness goals. You want ice cream? You can have ice cream! You just have to log all those fat and carbs and make sure you don’t go over your set numbers throughout the course of the day (Read: your ass is gonna be eating a lot of egg whites!) It allows you to eat foods like these – without going off the deep-end. How many of you have eaten a couple pieces of pizza on a Friday night – then said “fuck it – the whole weekend is a cheat and I’ll get back on it Monday”?

Breakfasts like this can fit your macros - you just have to eat around it the rest of the day. That means a lot of low-fat eating, but if that's worth it to you, get after it. I know it is to me and breakfasts like this are a staple for me once a week.

Breakfasts like this can fit your macros - you just have to eat around it the rest of the day. That means a lot of low-fat eating, but if that's worth it to you, get after it. I know it is to me and breakfasts like this are a staple for me once a week.

People like Robb Wolf are critical of this way of eating, although Robb is more flexible in his approach than some of the other Paleo crowd - because they believe it promotes eating low-quality foods. I have had numerous athletes and coaches tell me things like “I don’t want my athletes/teammates thinking they can just go eat donuts and ice cream all the time – they need to eat better food.” That’s as ridiculous as Wolf’s “dog shit” reference at the top of the page.

There’s an old saying that goes “the best diet is the one you will actually stick too.” At the time of writing this, I have logged my macros every single day for almost a full year. In that time, I have learned more about food quality and nutrients than I ever did while trying to follow the Paleo Diet. Sure I can eat ice cream, but that’s a trade-off I’m rarely willing to make once I realized how much meat, vegetables and starches I could eat INSTEAD of the ice cream. It shows you, in black and white, what you are eating and how it will impact your numbers. Not logging your macros is like putting some gas in your car every day, and driving around without a fuel gauge. Some days you are going to put too much in, other days you will run out of gas – you’re driving blind. When I first started logging, I could not believe how much fat I was putting in my body following the Paleo Diet. There were days I would have said I ate “clean”…when I took in 150-200g of fat. Days when I would have told you “I ate a lot today” – where I consumed about 100g of protein LESS than I needed. Athletes who aren’t logging – are not optimizing their performance.

Paleo left. 6 months of flexible dieting right.

Paleo left. 6 months of flexible dieting right.

So can you log your macros and still follow the Paleo Diet? Sure. I eat 205g carbs per day – if I look at my diary on My Fitness Pal from yesterday, and remove the dairy, grains and other carbs that were not readily available to our Paleolithic ancestors – you are left with blueberries (are those Paleo?) Broccoli and some asparagus. To hit my carb numbers I would have to eat four pounds of broccoli, three cups of blueberries and roughly two pounds of asparagus. So yeah, I COULD do it – but who the fuck wants to eat four pounds of broccoli? That sounds terrible – also, two pounds of asparagus? Goddamn your piss is gonna stink to high heaven.

Instead, I had some Berry Captain Crunch French Toast (my god, all the gluten, I’m gonna be so inflamed!) with egg whites and bacon (totally Paleo, bro) for breakfast, grilled chicken breast with noodles (Def NOT Paleo) for lunch, Kodiak protein pancakes (holy fuck more gluten!) topped with greek yogurt (OH NO! Dairy! Run for the hills) and PB2 (A Caveman didn’t have powdered low-fat peanut butter? Well, shit) for dinner. Eat what I ate for a week, then go TRY and eat those 200+ carbs every day (and my carbs are low compared to a lot of my other friends, I have dudes eating 350-400 every day in my gym) on broccoli and asparagus. What these cavemen actually ate on a daily basis, is sort of guesswork – and that is not my claim, that is from Dr. Loren Cordain, the creator of the diet, who admits not a single study evaluating the macro and trace nutrient contents of the foods consumed by these hunter-gatherers was ever performed.

For more detailed facts disputing the claims about grains and legumes in the Paleo Diet, you should read Alan Aragon’s PDF on Evidence and Claims presented at the 2013 NSCA Personal Trainers Conference.

So that’s the problem with the actual food portion, but what about performance?

Robb Wolf, once the leading voice in nutrition for CrossFit HQ - was dismissed by HQ following the infamous Black Box Summit.

Robb Wolf, once the leading voice in nutrition for CrossFit HQ - was dismissed by HQ following the infamous Black Box Summit.

I spent some time researching the Q&A section over at Paleo Hacks to see what problems Paleo diet followers were running into when it came to performance. Not surprising - I came across a high volume of “I’m so lethargic” type comments. When asked how many carbs they were getting in a day, none of them knew, because they weren’t logging. A few replied with “a lot, I eat a ton, like a ton of broccoli bro” but no actual, like, numbers. The highest rated response on one of these threads was a guy who said “I was skeptical at first, but I’ve found on demanding days if I eat a bunch of rice and potatoes I crush it in the gym.” Yeah you do! That must be the “20% NON-Paleo” portion of his 80-20 rule.

The Paleo Diet was/is, like so many “branded diets”, a fad - CrossFit helped it become popular and now those of us with even an elementary-level of nutrition science understand – it’s over. Flexible dieting or whatever you want to call eating the proper amount of macros, is king. This is how top athletes eat, it’s a lifestyle that is “do-able”…for anyone, and therefore one that can be consistent and effective. The war was fought in CrossFit boxes across the country and the outcome has been determined, the winner has been crowned – and the faithful Paleo followers are now viewed as a band of “flat-earthers” who refuse to accept the facts. The Paleo Diet is the Nickelback of fitness nutrition. It’s unfortunate – and I want to be clear here – people who follow the Paleo Diet are not stupid. I know I have tried some ridiculous ways of eating in the past – I didn’t know any better and I was sucked in. This isn’t stupidity, but in today’s information age – science is available, research is available. Being too lazy or ignorant to change the way you do things when confronted with facts, that’s what makes people stupid.

Taking an overhead look back on the Paleo craze – it’s laughable. Why in god’s name would anyone want to follow the nutrition habits of a caveman? If someone’s sole purpose for eating was not athletic performance, but rather surviving – and they sucked D at surviving – would you want to follow their “diet”???

“Hey, you should eat the way I do if you are trying to lift big weight.”

“How much do you squat?”

“About 45 pounds.”

Would you follow that person’s nutrition advice? Of course not. He sucks at lifting and you don’t want to suck at lifting. That’s the Paleo Diet – you are following the nutrition habits of a group of people who were lucky to make it to their 30th birthday. For those trying to use the “you’re not taking into consideration infant mortality” crowd. Read this and don’t bother posting in the comment section because you are too stupid to have a conversation with. 

I just read an 8 page blog of “mathematical evidence” trying to convince me that just because the average lifespan of a caveman was 25 years and the average age at death of a caveman was 25 years old – this doesn’t mean that cavemen mostly died around 25 years old. Skew the numbers however you want – but where does your obsession with living an “ancient” lifestyle end? Do you also eschew modern medicine, technology, beds, houses etc.?

These are all things cavemen didn’t have access to. The absence of these things all had an impact on their lifestyle. How restful was sleeping on the hard ground in a cave? How much recovery from a hard hunting session did this grant them? They lived in bitter conditions with none of trappings we take for granted. This all had an impact on their nutrition and what they needed to survive and attempt to thrive in the wild. If you want to follow this bullshit diet – go for it, but don’t half-ass it. Sleep in your driveway so you mimic their rest and recovery. Cook everything over an open flame in your fire pit. Stop going to the doctor – instead, visit your local Shaman for some sage-brush smoke-cleansing ritual to eradicate those annoying cancer cells that are killing you.

Your diet should reflect your goals. If your goal is to perform well and compete - then grains, dairy etc should be part of your diet.

Your diet should reflect your goals. If your goal is to perform well and compete - then grains, dairy etc should be part of your diet.

The food we have access to today is wildly different from our Paleolithic ancestors – so even if you are following this diet, you aren’t really eating like a man in that era - even the Elk, Deer or Moose in your freezer that you killed yourself – vastly different.

The Paleo Diet, specifically the version that gained notoriety through social hysteria and a cult like following in my beloved CrossFit world, has always struck me as thoughtless and off base. To think that eating like a caveman is even possible, much less an intelligent thing to do, dumbfounds me. I mean, even eating a diet that your favorite celebrity follows and sweating to the oldies with Richard Simmons seems like more of an intelligent concept to me than trying to emulate the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors,” said Chris McNamara in an interview with wild/STRONG titled "My Pre-Workout Fueled Paleo Rant." McNamara is a human performance specialist and owner of Evolution Athletics

James Fell, syndicated fitness columnist and blogger – accurately points and builds on McNamara’s point in his piece “Paleo is the Scientology of Diets”

“I already said it’s impossible to replicate any aspects of the diet, because our food supply. Even the meat, eggs, fruits and vegetables have been so manipulated since humans first began farming that what we eat today can’t ever possible resemble that of mammoth-slaying Stone Age. Oh, and like I wrote in [another piece], eating mammoth or any kind of meat was exceptionally rare.

Our Paleolithic ancestors were far more likely to get protein from bugs. So instead of paying double for your antibiotic free, grass-fed methane dispenser meat, you should just head to your nearest field and commence chopping down crickets.”

We SHOULD eat a diet of mostly whole foods – but not off some list of what was available to the prehistoric caveman – a list that says these people did not eat grains, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Paleo diet creator Dr. Loren Cordain says you should also refrain from consuming potatoes - a whole food that most nutritionists would define as “nutrient dense.”

Is it, really?

Is it, really?

Alan Aragon, who I linked to earlier in this article, is a nutrition expert and one of the leading voices of the Anti-Paleo crowd. He takes a lot of flack from the Paleo followers for using things like “science” and “research” to tell us why the diet is ridiculous. In an interview with the Paleo Foundation, he addresses the gluten, legume, dairy-free aspect of the diet and goes into why it simply doesn’t make sense to be eating this way:

The bottom line is that the gluten-tolerant fraction of the population is likely to be well over 90% of us. So, it simply makes no sense to view gluten-containing foods as universally “bad.” Adding to the illogic of banning foods that are tolerable by the vast majority of the population, the traditional Paleo diet doctrine selectively ignores the fact that ‘Paleo-approved’ foods (i.e., nuts, fish, and shellfish), have a combined prevalence of allergenicity comparable to – and by some estimates even greaterthan that of gluten-containing grains.

Another amusing fact is that 4 of the 8 major food allergensdesignated by the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act are Paleo-approved.

Aragon also addresses the humor behind the Paleo Diet’s suggestion of an 80%-20% “flexible” model to their diet.

My biggest gripes with the Paleo Movement is the extreme-ism and absolute-ism that some folks apply to food avoidance despite a lack of supporting research evidence. And even the “Primal” model of going 80% Paleo while leaving 20% for the non-Paleo stuff is rather humorous. For example, in the context of a typical 2500 kcal diet, 20% of those calories coming from grains & dairy would constitute 500 kcal – which is the capacity for a typical bowl of cereal. So, if a bowl of cereal (or 2 cups of pasta, or 4 slices of bread) every day qualifies as Primal, then it sounds a lot like conventional eating to me. It’s just difficult to tolerate the lack of logic there.

Chris McNamara also addressed the fallacy of gluten-free and dairy free in his interview with wild/STRONG.

When I first heard about the Paleo diet, the thing that stuck out to me the most was the blatant dismissal of grains and dairy as evil. Are you kidding me?  We’ve been eating grains for over 10,000 years and survived and thrived as a race. Hell we – HUMANS – have a digestive enzyme to help digest milk called Lactase!  So, tell me again how we are not adapted to drink dairy?  Are some people, some races, less adapted to drinking milk?  Sure. You can say for just about any product if you compare it across every race though.”

As the change to a more flexible approach to nutrition takes over, The Paleo Diet has become a nostalgic punch-line. At a competition this past weekend, a girl was handing out muffins she had made to some of the athletes around our tent.

“Are these Paleo?” One of them asked.

“Are these gluten-free?” my brother asked.

We all laughed and ate a few more. Fueling up with carbs for our next event – because nobody remembered to bring four pounds of cooked broccoli.