[The following post is part of a series on runners and their diets. Christian Peterson is a barefoot marathoner and local legend known as The Maple Grove Barefoot Guy. He follows a Paleo diet. You can read more about the Paleo diet by ultra runner Dave Reid here. Or check out Patrick Sweeney’s post on how to run vegan and Brendan Brazier’s post on Top 8 Vegan-Friendly Foods for Runners, also part of this series.]
If I had to pinpoint the moment in my life that most shaped who I am as a person today, it would be that fateful day a few years ago when I took off my shoes and went out for a run. I felt liberated and free and connected to the world around me. I felt like everything fell into place. I felt like this was the way I was meant to run. It was the start of a big realization; that sometimes the best solution is the natural one. Maybe technology and human progress can’t solve all of our problems. In fact, maybe in some cases progress creates its own problems. Maybe the solution to the problem was the one that nature created a long time ago.
That realization led to a belief system for me. The belief that no human innovation can ever rival the greatest innovation of all time: the human body. We are the product of millions of years of nature’s innovation; a little thing called evolution. And, at least in the area of nutrition and exercise, we function best when unencumbered by the technology that we created.
MY BELIEFS ABOUT DIET
When it comes to our diet, I believe that we evolved over the course of millions of years to eat certain things. For most of human history, we have been hunter-gatherers. Our diet consisted of animal flesh, as well as things we collected during the hunt that grew wild in the earth such as nuts, fruits, and vegetables. I believe that our digestive system evolved over that period of time to process those foods most efficiently.
I also believe that since the advent of agriculture, our food has begun to change faster than our bodies can adapt. Humans are planting crops that are not a product of natural selection, but of human selection. We breed crops not necessarily for their healthy traits, but (at least nowadays) primarily because they are quicker, cheaper, or more resistant to pests. Our resulting diet therefore looks completely different from that of our ancestors. And since technology can develop a heck of a lot faster than our body can evolve, I believe that our body hasn’t been able to keep up and adapt mechanisms to deal with this new food.
But not only did our bodies adapt to eat particular foods, they adapted to eat them in a particular way. Back during hunter-gatherer days, our main focus was securing our next meal. Since we couldn’t well go down to the local restaurant to eat, we spent most of our day tracking and killing our food. We might have gone for hours and even days without eating much, if anything. So our bodies have developed to be energy storage machines.
WHY I DECIDED TO GO PALEO
I didn’t always believe these things. Before I was a runner I was actually more of a bodybuilder. I followed a typical bodybuilder’s diet: 4000-5000 calories per day, 1-2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight (or around 35 grams per meal…a 8-10 oz. chicken breast), divided up into 5-6 small meals a day. I’m not knocking that sort of diet if it works for you. It certainly worked for me. I went from being a 6’7”, 165 lb weakling to a 235 lb dude who was busting out of an XXL t-shirt. My wife could put both hands around my biceps without her fingers touching.
Here I am at my peak weight of 235lbs. I’m not sure what I’m doing with my hand. Maybe trying to look “gangsta” and pretend to cap someone. Though it’s pretty hard to look ghetto in a sky blue polo shirt.
I found that this sort of diet was unsustainable. I got tired of having to eat massive amounts of food all the time. I felt like I was constantly cramming food into my face. I brought a cooler filled with two protein shakes and an extra meal everywhere I went. I felt like if I didn’t, I would lose some of the muscle I worked so hard to gain.
My relationship with food back then wasn’t a lot different from that of the average America. That is, it was unhealthy. Food for me back then was just a means to an end; a particular body-shape. To stay at my peak physical condition, I used every metabolic trick in the book. Along with the 5-6 small meals a day to “rev” my metabolic rate, I ate foods in certain “fat-busting” combinations. I didn’t eat certain things at certain times (no starchy carbs after 6pm!). Certain foods were absolutely forbidden (no dessert!). And if I violated one of these metabolic rules, I felt guilty. And I paid the price with some extra weight in the form of fat.
I believe that most modern Americans have the same unhealthy relationship with food, although to a lesser extent. For the most part, everyone manipulates their food intake to get or maintain a slim figure. Everyone is on a diet. The only people that aren’t are folks who work out so much they don’t need to worry about those kinds of things. Even then, we try to eat what we are told we “should eat”, and when we don’t we feel guilty.
We work so hard to take fat off our bodies and keep it off, without a whole lot of success. With a lot of hard work, and a ton of calorie restriction, the modern calorie-restriction diet takes a whopping 1 lb of weight off per week. And good luck keeping it off! What a life!
I’m here to tell you that you’re not losing the fight with your body because you’re not putting up a great effort. I’m telling you that you’re fighting an enemy you can’t defeat. You might be able to win a few battles with your genetics with some metabolic tricks here and there, but you won’t win the war.
I came over to the paleo diet because I’m tired of fighting the way I was made. Food shouldn’t make you feel guilty, or sad, or most of all… fat. Food is a celebration of life. After killing an animal during the hunt, humans used to throw big parties. Then they used to eat until they were full and never gave it a second thought. They were thin, lean, and muscular without having to put hours on the treadmill or the weight machines each and every day. It wasn’t because they were more active. You don’t have to watch a marathon very long to see a fat runner. They could do this because they ate for the way their bodies are designed.
The paleo diet is premised around the theory that the human body was designed to eat meat, fruit, veggies, and nuts. I eat any of those foods without restriction; whatever I want, whenever I want. I generally do not eat grains, legumes, potatoes, or processed foods of any kind that wasn’t around back in the good old days. Not that you physically can’t digest these foods, but your stomach can’t handle them as well. The reasons why vary depending on the food you’re talking about, but generally they are seen as causing more harm than good.
I take the paleo diet a step further than most folks do though. A lot of paleo hacks eat the typical 3-5 or even 5-6 meals per day. I eat the way our ancestors did, I fast for long periods of time followed by a period of overeating where I consume as much of whatever it is I fancy. Generally that means I go around 20 hours without eating, and then consume as much food as I want for around 4 hours each day.
That way I take advantage of the fact that are essentially gigantic fuel tanks. We store energy in our bodies in the form of fat. One pound of fat has the equivalent of 4000 calories worth of energy. There’s enough energy in one pound of fat to run a marathon. I use my body’s stored energy to power me throughout the day. Then I eat at night to help my body repair itself, and store fuel for the next day’s activities.
A TYPICAL DAY
Like I said, I don’t eat much throughout the day. So usually I take a piece of fruit or two to work in case I start to feel hungry. I generally don’t. When I first started eating this way I was hungry throughout the day, but now that my body is used to running on fat energy, I don’t get hungry during the day.
For dinner I like to make “all-in-one” style meals that incorporate lots of different ingredients. That way I don’t have to prepare several different dishes to get my fill. Yesterday I made chili. I had three full bowls. Then I ate a bunch of other stuff. It was awesome.
This chili is made with ground sirloin, andouille sausage, onion, green peppers, green chiles, whole tomatoes and their juice, kidney beans (more on that in a minute), chili powder, cumin, and beef broth. I topped it off with some nice guacamole and lots of hot sauce.
Now don’t be frightened by the quantities of food that I eat. You don’t have to gorge yourself every time you eat on this diet. I eat like a pig because I can. I like having big meals. For me, it’s a celebration every time I sit down at the dinner table. But sometimes I only feel like having a normal sized meal. So I do. If I get hungry later, I have a snack. No big deal. I usually will snack on things like raw veggies, sausage, leftovers, deli meats, dried fruit, or whatever else I have on hand.
You probably noticed that I had legumes in my chili. These foods, like most anything on paleo, are not “forbidden” per se. The paleo diet isn’t about deprivation of certain food groups. It’s about putting priorities on the food you eat. So I eat non-paleo foods on my diet, about 20% of the time (we refer to this as 80/20 in paleo-land). And when I do eat those foods, I tend towards foods that make more evolutionary sense, have good nutritional value, and that my body tolerates well. So I am more likely to eat a legume than a piece of toast, because it’s healthier, and my body has a strong negative reaction to grains.
I tend to eat non-paleo meals when I’m eating out or with friends, when finding an all-paleo selection of food can be difficult. I also just sometimes feel like eating a sandwich. I don’t do it all the time. One or two nights out of seven nights, or 20% of the time, is about right for me. Again, my diet isn’t about deprivation. It’s about having my priorities straight.
WHAT PALEO HAS DONE FOR ME
What I notice most is that my energy levels for the day are very consistent. I don’t go through the peaks and valleys of energy that come from ingesting things like carbs and then burning them off as short-supply fuel. My blood sugar is lower and much more even throughout the day. My blood pressure went from 135/90 to 110/75 during my last doctor’s visit.
I also don’t get tired during the day. I’ve run 20 miles without consuming a single calorie, and went out dancing afterwards. Once you stop looking at food as fuel, you realize you already have the energy within yourself to go out and do just about anything. I like living in that world of almost infinite possibilities.
I enjoy food a whole lot more. Not only did I eat those legumes in my chili, but I had a big ole bowl of ice cream for dessert. I didn’t feel guilty for one second. I savored every last bite knowing that not an ounce of it would stay on my body as fat.
In fact, I can’t even keep fat on my body anymore if I tried. I lost 10 lbs in the first few weeks of paleo (down from where I was at 205 lbs to 195 lbs. I am now at 190 lbs), and I really didn’t have much weight that I thought I needed to lose. Most of that weight was in my midsection. I can see all six of my abs for the first time ever. How ab-tacular! But I’m not a stick figure either, like you think I would be for “starving” myself for most of the day. As you can see, most of the weight I’ve lost is fat.
Here I am doing my best “Blue Steel”. I’m not a 235 lb unhappy weight-lifter anymore. I lost most of that muscle a long time ago, and I’m fine with that. But I am a 190 lb strong, confident person that celebrates food and life.
For more information about intermittent fasting, visit The Warrior Diet website. It goes into much greater detail about the health benefits of fasting, and provides you a roadmap to help you get started. You don’t have to go paleo to fast, and you don’t have to fast to go paleo. Either one or both will provide you some amazing results.