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If you do CrossFit, you’ve likely heard, tried, or currently follow a Paleo diet or lifestyle.  When we asked our community which diets they’ve tried before, Paleo was the winner hands down.   According to founder, Dr. Loren Cordain, following the Paleo diet is the “key to speedy weight loss, effective weight control, and above all, lifelong health.”

In my experience as a nutrition coach working closely with CrossFitters, I’ve found that what people consider Paleo varies from person to person.  And that’s OK.  We’re going to break it all down for you right here.

In this blog, we’re going to cover:

  • The science behind getting lean with Paleo

  • The nutrition rules of eating Paleo.  Some may surprise you.

  • A day of Paleo meals and snacks from the dietitian

  • Nutrition WOD’s take on the Paleo diet

 

The Science Behind Getting Lean with Paleo

The science behind the Paleo diet is simple.  Dr. Cordain states that Paleo is the diet we were genetically programmed to follow.  Our hunter-gatherer ancestors survived off of lean meats, seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables with minor variations based on location.  Our genetic reliance on these foods hasn’t changed much since agriculture came about.  

Now we eat commercially produced grains, dairy products, seed oils, and a host of other foods that come from a factory and not the land.  By increasing our intake of processed carbohydrates and fatty meats and decreasing our intake of nutrient dense foods and fiber, we have transitioned from lean hunters and gathers to not so lean couch potatoes.  

According to Dr. Cordain, the secret to getting lean with the Paleo diet is in the protein.  Unlike most low carb diets that are moderate in protein (18-23% of calories), the Paleo diet is higher in protein (up to 35% of calories) with a focus on lean protein.  Lean protein has a higher thermic effect and a higher satiety value than carbs and fat.  Basically, when you eat lean protein with almost every meal as suggested for the Paleo diet, you increase your metabolism (burn more fat) while feeling less hungry.

 paleo diet

The Nutrition Rules of Eating Paleo; Some may Surprise you

The intrigue of the Paleo diet is not having to balance meals, weight portions, keep a food log, or count calories.  On Paleo, you can eat all the lean meats, poultry, fish, seafood, fruit (except dried fruits), and vegetables (except starchy vegetables) you can eat.  The concept being it is difficult to overeat real food.

 


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Rule 1: Eat all the lean meats, poultry, fish and seafood you can eat.

Protein is the king on the Paleo diet since this macro boosts your metabolism and keeps you satisfied long after you're done eating. In fact, Paleo diet recommends you get about 55 percent of your calories from animal meats. The key here is keeping it lean.  The following table shows foods that are at least 70 percent protein by weight.  I've included skinless chicken breast and eggs as references. 

 

Food

Percent protein

Food

Percent protein

Skinless turkey breast

94

Beef sweetbreads

77

Shrimp

90

Steamed clams

73

Red snapper

87

Lean pork tenderloin

72

Crab

86

Skinless chicken breast

63

Halibut

80

Eggs

34

 

Rule 2: Eat all the fruits and non-starchy vegetables you can eat.

Because there is such a thing a protein toxicity, you’ve got to eat your meat with fruit and vegetables for the fat and carbs as well as the fiber.  A few things to note, the healthy fats from nuts, seeds, and avocados fall into this category.  In addition to fiber, they also provide fiber and a healthy dose of fat to supplement what’s missing from those lean proteins.

That said, if you are trying to lose weight with Paleo, Dr. Cordain recommends limiting dried fruit to two ounces a day and nuts to four ounces a day.

Rule 3: Don’t eat cereal grains.  

Grains are carbohydrate dense and provide little in terms of protein or fiber particularly when processed.  Per the Paleo rules, grains include corn, wild rice, seed-like grains (quinoa) and all the variations of wheat, rice, oats, etcetera you can think of. Grains do not have a place at the Paleo table.

Rule 4: Don’t eat legumes.

Legumes include dried beans like pinto or black beans in addition to lentils, soy, and peanuts.  Although legumes provide plenty of fiber and even a little protein, they are not as nutrient dense as Paleo foods and were not as sought after as our paleolithic ancestors.  Also, legumes require extensive preparation to make them easy to digest like soaking and sprouting, and our ancestors were on the move.

 Paleo Diet CrossFit Nutrition Review

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Rule 5: Don’t eat dairy products.

In the hunter-gatherer days, in order to have dairy products, you’d have to catch an animal that recently gave birth and milk that animal.  In reality, it was easier to kill the animal and eat its flesh. 

Rule 6: Don’t eat processed food.

The Paleo Diet defines processed foods as those with added fat, sugar, and salt.  Our ancestors didn’t eat foods fried in seed oils, honey was one of the only sources of sugar and that was hard to come by, and salt was only available to people living near an ocean or salt water lake.  Food was typically eaten soon after it was found, so the need for salt preservation wasn’t around then.

Rule 7: Pick your Paleo level.

Not an official rule per se, Dr. Cordain encourages followers of the diet to pick a level to follow which will determine how many open meals you allow yourself to eat each week.  These open meals are not “cheat” meals, but allow people on the Paleo diet to eat small amounts of “off diet” foods like a sweet potato or pasta.

Level 1 allows for three open meals a week.

Level 2 allows for two open meals a week.

Level 3 allows for one open meal a week.

There are no levels that restrict followers of the Paleo diet to eat 100 percent Paleo 100 percent of the time. 

A Day of Paleo Meals and Snacks from our Dietitian

Alright, now that you know the rules, how does this apply to day in the life of you.  I’ve put together a few meals and snacks using the Paleo rules above.

 

Breakfast

Pan fried lean pork chops with a bowl of diced apples, shredded carrots, and raisins

Lunch

Broiled halibut with grilled asparagus, a tossed green salad, and some strawberries

Snack

Celery sticks with homemade guacamole

Dinner

Grilled skinless turkey breast with steamed broccoli and cauliflower and some raspberries with walnuts

Snack

Cold chicken breast slices with cherry tomatoes

Nutrition WOD's take on the Paleo Diet

First and foremost, what I appreciate about the Paleo diet is its focus on nutrient dense foods.  Each of the foods included in the diet top our lists of priority foods for our four food groups: non-starchy vegetables, animal protein, healthy fats, and starch.

When you eat fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and lean animal proteins at every meal, you will fill up on the right kinds of fat, protein, carbs, vitamins, and minerals to support performance and move you along the continuum towards fitness.  You can get there without grains, dairy products, or legumes.

However, what I disagree with is the thought process that if you incorporate grains, dairy, legumes, or starchy vegetables into your diet that you will be unable to thrive.  These foods should not overtake your plate by any means, and should not be consumed with a known intolerance, but when added in the setting of an overall nutrient dense Paleo type diet, they work.

Even Dr. Cordain must have known that or he wouldn’t have allowed for open meals.

What concerns me most with the Paleo diet is the thought process that you can eat whatever you want as long as it’s a Paleo food.  I have seen this mentality fail several of my athletes, especially those trying to lose weight.  They typically have one of four problems.

They overeat nuts and seeds.

More convenient than fruits, vegetables, or homemade jerky, this energy laden snack food can be easily overdone.

They eat fatty, or worse, processed and fatty meats to a fault.

If you were paying attention to the rules, the Paleo diet frowns on fatty meats and on overly salted food.  So, wrapping scallops, dates, asparagus, and everything else you can get your hands on in bacon will not promote weight loss or longevity.

They live for dessert.

Go to any Paleo site and you will find an abundance of sweet treats made with honey, maple syrup, or pulverized dried fruit.  Even though our Paleo ancestors had a sweet tooth too, they didn’t have the same access to sugar that we do today.  A sweet treat was a one or two times a year treat.  Not every day.

Foods that should be moderated aren’t.

The Paleo diet does allow for coffee, tea, oils, and the occasional beer, wine, or spirits.  But servings are limited to two 4-ounce glasses of wine or one 12-ounce serving of beer.  Any more than that is detrimental to your health and your waistline.

 

A Dietitian’s Take          

In summary, the Paleo diet is a “high protein, moderate carbohydrate, moderate fat diet” that focuses on the most nutrient dense foods available.  Dr. Cordain says that by eating the same foods that our hunter and gatherer ancestors did, we are eating the diet our genes were designed to eat thus guaranteeing ourselves effective weight control and lifelong health.

With the growing body of epigenetic research showing how food and environmental factors impact our genetic expression, making sure you eat foods that trigger good things to happen is important.

The Paleo diet does allow some wiggle room throughout the week and does open itself up to an interpretation of what our ancestors really ate or didn’t.  Some followers of Paleo type diets believe dairy fats like butter, or sweet potatoes, or legumes are ok.

In my opinion, any diet that encourages followers to eat a variety of nutrient dense foods is health promoting.  But people who want success on the Paleo diet should watch out for the common pitfalls of the diet like over consumption of nuts, seeds, fatty meats, dessert, and alcohol.

For success on the Paleo diet, people should also make sure they balance their animal protein intake with adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables and listen to their hunger and satiety cues like with any other diet.

Don’t be shy about asking for help.  A nutrition coach or dietitian can make sure you do Paleo right. In fact, it is possible to continue on a Paleo Diet while going using our Premium Nutrition Package, our progressive 90-day program that teaches you not only what to eat, but when to eat, how to eat, why macros matter, and about 30 other covered topics. 

This blog is part of a 4 blog series on popular diets. You can read my blog on The Zone Diet here and stay tuned for my upcoming Carb Cycling and Keto Diet blogs. 

Information on the Paleo diet from:

Cordain, Loren. The Paleo Diet, Revised Edition. New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, Inc, 2011.

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