Going Primal? Not Me.

posted Oct 24, 2010, 6:05 PM by Elaine Vescio   [ updated Sep 12, 2011, 8:12 AM by Donald Vescio ]
Recently a triathlete shared with me how he had lost nearly 30 pounds this year by going primal with his diet. For those of you not familiar with the Primal Diet, a simplistic summary is limiting one's diet to foods that would have been available during caveman days. It is sometimes referred to as the "Caveman Diet". There are a number of approaches to the primal diet with some keeping it to raw foods only, some keeping it vegetarian and others making it carnivorous. Whatever approach, it is a low carbohydrate/high protein diet that eschews all grains including whole grains, and dairy products because cavemen didn't consume them. Proponents point out that cavemen didn't have the lifestyle related diseases that we have today like cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and diabetes. I'm not sure how they would know that, but I am quite sure that the average life expectancy for cavemen was about thirty years of age and they didn't train for triathlons, but I digress. 

I agree with the triathlete that the primal approach to eating can be an effective weight loss strategy for many folks. There is research published in peer reviewed journals indicating that a low carbohydrate/high protein diet can be more effective than a standard low calorie diet for weight loss with participants losing more weight and losing weight quicker than people on a standard low calorie diet. So I am all for people undertaking a lower carbohydrate/higher protein diet for weight loss purposes. For athletes, I prefer that they tackle weight loss once they have recovered from their race season but before their major training has begun for the next season since being in negative calorie balance is stressful on the body and mind. 

Currently, there is no research in peer reviewed journals showing performance benefits of people following a low carbohydrate diet versus a higher carbohydrate/lower fat diet (despite the clamor of some people supporting the Metabolic Efficiency concept with some anecdotes). Most people who lose weight perform better at endurance sports because they are carrying less fat around, not because their body is better fueled for the event. On the other hand, there exists decades of published research showing the performance benefits of a higher carbohydrate diet for endurance athletes. From a health and performance perspective, most of those carbohydrates should come from fruits, veggies, and whole grains, not highly processed foods. Whole grains are not the villains that proponents of diets such as the primal diet claim they are. Highly processed/highly refined foods aren't healthful; whole grains are healthful. 

I have been studying nutrition for many years..earning my bachelor's in human nutrition from UMass back in 1989 and graduating first in my class. I have learned to separate anecdotes from research and have seen many fads come and (thankfully) go. Maybe someday in the future, there will be published research to support a lower carbohydrate diet for athletes for performance reasons. I doubt it, but if there were, then I would be more open to considering it for my athletes.