Paleo Plus: Rethinking Diet and Exercise

Raw healthy dieting products for Paleo diet

Raw healthy dieting products for Paleo diet


By Gray Cook


I often see parallels between nutrition and exercise. I believe the evolution and development of modern exercise science mirrors that of nutrition science, except that exercise is always about 15 years behind.


I love to discover, peruse and educate myself on the latest trends in nutrition, which certainly ebb and flow. That said, I think the most forward-thinking nutritional advisors in our culture operate by a certain set of principles—historically represented and simply practical. Think Michael Pollan.


As long as a new methodology fits comfortably with those principles, I think we’re onto something. If we delve into nutrition without regard for the fundamental principles of human metabolism and our interactions with our internal and external environments, then we’re just promoting a “one size fits all” or “magic bullet” strategy. Again.


If we were to observe more natural or holistic eating—both in style and substance—we might be better off. It’s not just what we eat but also how and when we eat. To establish balance in your system, intermittent fasting is probably almost as important as what you eat.


The things you put in your body are vital and extremely important, but the way you do it is equally important.


I like the current interest in removing certain foods from our diets, as often espoused in relation to a Paleo diet or lifestyle. The interest in eliminating certain foods has changed marketing. Manufacturers of food products aren’t just telling us that their foods have Omega 3’s and fiber. They’re claiming that their products are devoid of hormones, synthetic additives, dyes, gluten and trans fats.


Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, it seemed like the primary nutritional trend was supplementation. Everyone acknowledged that food sources were inadequate or that the preparation of natural food sources took so long that supplementation was justified. Bring on the shakes, vitamin packets and creatine.


Supplements seemed to have benefits, and research took off (and hasn’t stopped). We learned that if you give a supplement to someone with an obvious deficiency or other impairment in their diet, then any supplementation, by default, will appear to confer a benefit—when all it’s really doing is curing a deficiency. It’s removing a negative, but not adding a positive.


Why was the deficiency there in the first place?


The Whole Foods Phenomenon
The mindset of the past was, “Let’s eat crap and add good things to it.” The current trend (hopefully) is to find authentic food sources and remove the ones that are unnecessary. Unfortunately, it comes down to greed and marketing. As soon as the marketers know what we’re looking for, they will engineer cheaper and less-than-wholesome ways to satisfy our hunger.


Michael Pollan does an excellent job in most of his books by simply advocating (my paraphrase): Eat whole, real food from clean, local sources as much as possible and enjoy the level of variety that makes you feel best.


One of the realities underlying a Paleo approach to eating is the elimination of many foods that are not local, not whole or not authentic.


Is there a takeaway lesson for the way we move in exercise?


I was already a fitness-and-rehabilitation professional when elliptical machines entered the scene. Many of my colleagues jumped on the fact that these machines promoted gluteal activity and involved no impact. The elliptical presented a great way to exercise for people who did not respond well to impact, or who wanted to do their exercise in one place while watching TV. It offered something different from the treadmill and stair stepper.


Did it make us better? Did it produce elite runners, fit hikers, great cross-country skiers and cyclists? Or was it just another way we could ambulate with training wheels? We got the temporary benefit of the metabolic load, but did we stand straighter, stride cleaner and walk with fewer biomechanical errors?


This article does not attempt to answer those questions. It’s a great article to ask them.


Remember the Atkins diet? The South Beach diet? Are you a fan of Paleo? Each of these diets requires you to eliminate more than you add. Many of us enjoy Paleo foods every day. It’s the stuff that we wrap around them or put in front or behind them that complicates the issue. Synthetic foods, extra grains, poor quality dairy products, refined sugars and the dependence on energy supplements all create complications.


We can’t clearly see if a Paleo approach is helping us because of what it adds or what it eliminates, but common sense tells us that the elimination load is greater than the addition load. New foods aren’t being introduced. Traditional foods are just becoming more staples, with less synthetic enhancers. Right? The sandwich without the bread is called a meat salad.


I think the current science in nutrition is instructing us that the elimination of non-authentic food and habitual grazing are both going to help us.


Intermittent fasting and eating whole authentic food (which requires preparation) can enhance your life. Add a few psychological bonuses like a cheat day, and you may be on your way to a nutritional life plan that feels less like a diet and more like a cool way to exist.


Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get exercise to a similar state?


Nutrition Science to Exercise Science
There’s a good general path in exercise like the one I described in nutrition. But that nutritional path won’t help everybody, because some of us have deficiencies. The deficiencies aren’t necessarily because whole foods are lacking. They occur because we absorb nutrients and vitamins at different rates depending on our genetics, our environment, our stress level and our age.


Isn’t exercise the same? Absorption rates vary. With Kettlebell Swings, one person loses weight and another person throws his back out. What does the process of helping you achieve a great diet look like? First, check to see if you have a deficiency. Most of us probably have one somewhere. Then, follow as many of the general principles as possible.


After eight to 10 weeks, recheck your deficiency and determine whether a good general approach addressed the issue. For some, it will not have been addressed. Besides the good general nutritional principles they’ve adopted, they may need to supplement due to a previous illness or to another factor that could be interfering with their natural absorption of vital nutrients.


That statement carries over to exercise. If you find out through the functional movement screen or some other assessment tool that you have a strength imbalance, first follow good general principles of functional exercise. I think we each have a pretty good idea of the exercises or activities that may be causing us difficulty.


Some exercises cause pain and some trigger a significant amount of soreness or tightness—beyond the normal muscle fatigue that we enjoy after the workout. Maybe these are red flags, the body’s way of communicating that we may have overdosed the experience or compensated our way through what we thought looked a lot better than it was.


Unfortunately, we’re at the same point in exercise evolution that we were at in the 1980s and 1990s. We’re consistently looking to add a supplement before following general principles that would produce better function. If we follow those general principles and still don’t have a positive experience, we can perform corrective exercises—exercise “supplementation” analogous to the protein shakes and multi-vitamins we use to hedge our nutritional bets or improve nutrient absorption.


Unfortunately, the Functional Movement Screen and other functional movement practices are labeled “bad,” because they ask you to eliminate something from your workout.


There are two logical reasons for eliminating something.


First, if you eliminate it and your issue gets better, you learned something. Second, if you eliminate it and nothing changes, you’ve also learned something.


Where’s the fear in learning? I think the number one fear in sports performance and strength & conditioning is that somehow we will lose a performance edge. But how? Are we testing performance so frequently that we can see all the environmental factors that could interfere with it?


Most athletes who are serious about their performance plan to peak at a certain point, which means their performance can be tracked on a graph fairly easily. If you took a more functional approach and noticed a huge dip in performance, you could take action on the dip so quickly that it would be a mere blip on the graph.


I think the fear of giving up performance time to regain authentic movement and a good functional base comes from a lack of objectivity and a lack of frequent testing. If I’m not helping you meet your goals or all of your goals, I’ll be the first to know. I’m watching the gauges in a systematic and objective way. This should not be the exception—it should be the rule.


I will have the data to justify both the elimination of a particular exercise and the introduction of a new functional move or correction, which, in the same amount of time, will produce significantly more tangible benefits than general physical preparation or skillful performance in a specific endeavor.


Here’s where the phrase Paleo Plus comes from. If you followed the rules of an elimination diet like Paleo and you got good results, then it’s OK to reintroduce things that give you pleasure, add to your convenience or allow you to look forward to something. You can introduce a little something like that every now and then or in the form of a cheat day.


I try to eat local/whole/simple/Paleo whenever I can. If I want a bowl of ice cream, a slice of pizza or some salty potato chips, I’m going to do that too. If I notice that I’m going overboard, I cut back a bit.


If I can achieve nearly the same results by cheating a little and adding a plus within an otherwise strict elimination diet, good for me.


Take that advice to your exercise program, your clients and your athletes. Take that advice to the patients headed back to their active lifestyle after you rehabilitate them, hopefully having learned the lesson that all injuries should teach: Could I have done anything to prevent this, or at least lessen the severity? In some cases, you will say “no,” but in other cases, you’ll say to yourself, Well, I couldn’t avoid the injury, but my rehab is taking longer because I have 15 other problems that were exposed when I went through the rehabilitation process.


Remember, the purpose of elimination in your nutritional plan is to provide a competitive advantage in your current environment. You want to maintain muscle, be lean and have more energy. If eliminating something helps you achieve that, it confers a competitive advantage and performance enhancement.


Cleaning up a dysfunctional movement pattern can have far reaching effects and change any performance metrics that may have plateaued for you. You won’t know unless you look, and you can’t retest unless you test something the first time.

  • Set your movement and performance baselines
  • Eliminate exercises that look supplementary or body-part-oriented.
  • Embrace whole movement patterns first: run, jump, carry, climb.
  • If you’re stiff, breathe and get healthy. Then get mobile.
  • If you’re not strong, carry stuff and lift stuff.
  • Own your movement patterns. Simple and basic first. Without load, then with load. Always with integrity.
  • Watch your body and movement patterns change.
  • Eliminate things that don’t make good sense or seem to be supplementary. See how good you get against your baseline test.
  • Watch your performance so that you’ll have no excuse for making an unqualified statement about what you think performance is and what it’s not. The first requirement of performance is participation, and if you’re jacked up, you’re not a participant today.
  • Enjoy your simple, basic and whole exercise program. Once you own it, add the plus for fun. You earned it!
  • This article was originally published on




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