By Eirik Garnas
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Paleolithic nutrition is one of the most highly debated topics in the health & fitness community! On the one hand, “the paleo diet” was the most googled diet last year, and millions of people worldwide now swear by a paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet as a way to stay lean and healthy. However, not everyone is so enthusiastic about the prospect of eating like our caveman ancestors, and as the paleo movement has gained increased mainstream attention, more and more sceptics have voiced their reservations and criticism of the paleo philosophy. As history has shown, this is the typical observable effect that occurs when anything “new” gains more foothold among the public. Also, since many of the principles of the paleo diet goes against most of the conventional wisdom people hold about nutrition, there’s no suprise that there’s so much controversy. Food and diet are very emotional topics for many, and for some strange reason, some folks seem to be upset that so many people now choose a dietary strategy that is based around eating nutrient-dense whole foods and ditching grains, refined vegetable oils, refined sugar, and “junk food”.
While debate is healthy in the sense that we can hopefully take small steps towards a better understanding of nutrition and health, the discussions surrounding paleo can get ridiculous at times. More often than not, the “paleo debunkers” are unaware of the actual science, don’t know what the paleo community is all about, and/or use arguments that have already been addressed time and time again by various paleo authors (e.g., we no longer have access to the same food as our paleolithic ancestors, the harmful effects of antinutrients in grains and legumes are overblown). However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t legitimate flaws to some of the principles of the paleo diet, and I have actually addressed what I consider to be one of the most important – and often overlooked – ones myself. Anyways, let’s leave the controversy and dogma behind and instead look to gather as much quality knowledge about health and fitness as possible.
What we have to remember is that ancestral health is about so much more than just food, and the fact is that the vast majority of people in the ancestral community look at paleolithic nutrition and lifestyle as a starting point/guide for achieving good health in the 21st century, not a strict set of rules. This carries over to today’s most. Even though many coaches, trainers, gym goers, and other fitness enthusiasts don’t necessarily want to switch to a paleo-type diet, they can still gain a lot of knowledge about health & fitness by learning about ancestral health principles.
For those involved in the ancestral health community, bloggers, researchers, and authors in the field of Strength & Conditioning provide a valuable source of information about improving athletic performance and maximizing muscle growth and strength development. But what if we turn the coin? Coaches and personal trainers often have a lot of knowledge about sports science, exercise physiology, and training in general, but lack an understanding of the concepts underlying ancestral nutrition and evolutionary fitness. The same is even more true for regular gym goers and fitness enthusiasts, who often know nothing about evolution, hunter-gatherers, and paleo diets.
Clearly, you don’t have to be into paleo and evolutionary fitness to recognize many of the things I mention in the article. However, these 5 aspects of exercise, diet, and health generally receive a lot more attention within the ancestral health community than they do among personal trainers, lifters, endurance athletes, and other fitness enthusiasts who are unaware of the principles underlying the paleolithic lifestyle.
1) An evolutionary perspective on health & fitness gives us a good idea of what it takes to achieve a lean, healthy, and fit body
Regardless of whether you associate yourself with the paleo community or not, there’s little doubt that everyone can learn a lot by looking at fitness through the lens of evolution. Our genes were primarily selected for in the paleolithic era, and even though the industrialized modern city looks very different from the ancestral environments our species Homo sapiens sapiens occupied in stone age times, our general biology and physiology have changed little in 10000 years (1,2,3).
There hasn’t been enough selective pressure and adaptation to allow us to keep up with the rapid change in diet and lifestyle, and as a result, there’s a discordance between our ancient bodies and our modern way of life. This discordance manifests itself as diseases of civilization, such as heart disease, acne vulgaris, obesity, and type-2 diabetes, which are rare or unknown among hunter-gatherers (1,4). The question that often comes up in debates of paleo is: How much adaptation has occured? While few will disagree that we’re not well adapted for the modern, western lifestyle, the paleo philosophy is based around the idea that we should go further back, to the neolithic revolution about 10000 years ago, to understand why chronic disease runs rampant in today’s society.
Clearly, we can’t eat, train, and live exactly like our prehistoric ancestors (most of us probably wouldn’t even if we could), and you won’t look like a bodybuilder or run like Usain Bolt by adopting a “paleolithic lifestyle”. However, looking at how hunter-gatherers and isolated, traditional populations live/lived can help us understand the types of physical activity patterns, diets, and lifestyles we are best adapted for. That’s not to say we can’t tweak our diet and exercise routine to fit our own needs and goals, but we should always remember that 99,5% of the evolutionary history of our genus, Homo, consists of a hunter and/or gatherer existence. This “primitive” and often harsh way of life has left an imprint that we carry with us today. It’s therefore no doubt that an evolutionary outlook is invaluable when the goal is to improve health and physical performance in the 21st century.
2) Great (ancestral?) health lays the foundation for peak performance and optimal workout results
Health. That’s the area where the ancestral health movement really shines. Contrary to the S&C community where the main focus often is on maximizing muscle growth/strength development and improving athletic performance, the paleo community tends to put more emphasis on achieving optimal health.
In my opinion, the first thing you should get in place – regardless of whether your goal is to build muscle/strength, run faster, jump higher, or swim better – is your overall health. In other words, top-notch health lays the basis for top-notch physical performance. It’s simply very hard to perform your best in the gym if you sleep poorly, feel fatigued, have gastrointestinal problems, or experience other health issues that are closely related to lifestyle choices. And even if you experience no apparent health problems, you could most likely perform even better if you took your health to the next level. Everyone knows that good nutrition and sleep are important for getting optimal workout results, but less focus is often given to health in general. Even if you sleep 8 hours each night and eat a nutritious diet, your health isn’t necessarily optimal.
But why is it so important to take care of your health if the goal is to achieve optimal exercise performance? There are several reasons, but some stand out as more important than others when we’re talking about physical performance.
If you’ve been reading up on chronic disease, you’ve undoubtedly come across the term low-grade chronic inflammation. Some authors even go as far as saying that inflammation is at the root of most, if not all chronic diseases, and even though this is stretching the truth to the breaking point, there’s no doubt that inflammation plays a very important causal role in many of the so-called diseases of civilization.
Inflammation isn’t only important when talking about health disorders, it also affects our performance in the gym. When you’re under systemic low-level inflammation, your immune system is constantly on edge, and your recovery rate and exercise performance are affected.
At this point you might be thinking that low-grade chronic inflammation sounds like a serious and uncommon disorder that certainly doesn’t affect you. Well, you’re right about the seriousness, it can be serious in the sense that it builds up and causes disease over time. However, it’s not uncommon. More than 2 billion people worldwide are overweight and carry excess body fat that releases inflammatory compounds – and to make things worse, overweight is far from the only thing that can cause your cytokine levels to go haywire. Stress, poor gut health, and unhealthy dietary pattern are just some of the things that can trigger inflammatory processes (5,6,7).
Sleeping patterns, diet, exercise selection, body fat levels, and overall health status all impact hormone levels. Insulin and leptin are often the primary hormones we consider when talking about diet and obesity, while others, such as testosterone and growth hormone, are heavily emphasised in discussions of physical performance. One of the things they all have in common is that they are affected by your health and lifestyle! Intake of dietary nutrients, gut bacteria, and body fat levels are some of the things that could impact your anabolic hormone levels (8,9,10,11).
Essentially, this is what it all boils down to. After all, our genes are what code for who we are. Pretty much everything you do, from eating to training to sleeping, affect which genes you express. It’s also been shown that epigenetic changes (heritable changes in gene expression that are not due to alterations of the underlying DNA sequence) can be passed on to the children we bring into live, who might even pass these marks further down to their offspring (12,13).
The epigenome can be thought of as the bridge between our DNA and our environment, and our lifestyle determine whether we upregulate genes that positively impact physiology and health, or genes that make us sick and unhealthy (12,13). So, genetics is clearly important when we want to optimize our fitness levels, and it’s not just our human genes that matter. Each and every on of us also carry another collection of genetic meterial in our body: the human microbiome. Trillions of microbes live “in” and on the human body, and many reports now suggest that these microbial genomes are even more important than our human genome in many regards.
Gene expression is the area where ancestral health principles really shine. From a genetic perspective (human genes at least) we are very similar to our stone age ancestors, and it therefore shouldn’t come as a surprise that many of the behaviours that are advocated by the paleo movement have such a profound impact on our health and well-being.
3) Healthy, performance enhancing nutrition is about so much more than just making sure you get an “adequate” supply of the different nutrients
Among some fitness enthusiasts, the belief is that good nutrition is simply about reaching a targeted macronutrient intake and getting an “adequate” supply of the different vitamins and minerals. However, as anyone with some experience in nutrition will tell you, this perspective is too simplistic. Clearly, making sure you eat enough carbohydrate to fuel your workouts (or perhaps you’ve gone the route of becoming keto-adapted?), stay on top of your protein intake, and get enough of the essential micronutrients is important. However, the fact is that only focusing on macronutrients and micronutrients keeps you from designing a diet that is truly healthy.
First of all, some people enter into the obvious pitfall of thinking that you can basically eat whatever you want as long as you meet your “nutritional needs”. Sometimes even through massive supplementation. Those who adhere to this strategy are clearly the exceptions rather than the norm, but there are still a fair bit of them out there.
Second, is an adequate intake of the various macro- and micro-nutrients the same as the optimal intake?
In terms of protein, a fairly high intake is often beneficial, at least for hard-training individuals, and this is hard to come by from a low-quality diet, at least if you’re going to avoid fat gain. When it comes to carbohydrate, I tend to favor an intake in the range of 20-40% of daily calories, but if you eat a lot of grain products, sugar, etc. you’ll usually fall above this range.
Last but not least, I’ll argue that the recommended intake by official health authorities for most vitamins and minerals is typically well below what is optimal. Hunter-gatherers and healthy traditional populations have an intake of most micronutrients that is highly elevated compared to western standards, and although more isn’t always better, there’s no doubt that nutrient-density is key. Can you get the same benefits as our ancient ancestors by taking a multivitamin? No. Although vitamin and mineral supplements can be useful, the fact is that micronutrients often work in synergy, and the absorption is generally much better from food. Also, when you eat a nutrient-dense diet you tend to get a balanced intake of everything, while if you take nutrients in isolation, you can end up getting way too much of some minerals and too little of others.
Third, good nutrition is about so much more than carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, and fats. As mentioned in the section on optimal health, the diet you eat affects hormone levels, inflammatory processes, and gene expression. This is something that gets a lot of attention in the ancestral health community, where gut health, antioxidant status, dietary effects on epigenetics, etc. are talked about a lot. However, among gym goers, these things aren’t brought up as often, although there’s no doubt that everyone should take these concepts into consideration when determining how to eat.
4) Less is (often) more
Although diet, sleep, sun exposure, etc. should all be considered as part of the fitness package, the primary focus for gym junkies, trainers, and coaches is often on exercise. In my mind, there’s no doubt that coaches and trainers should have knowledge about ancestral activity patterns and evolutionary fitness concepts. Sadly, most are relatively ignorant when it comes to these things. The evolutionary scope is by no means a replacement for modern sports science, it’s simply a very important addition. Also, modern science and the evolutionary template match harmonically in the sense that ancestral diets, exercise patterns, etc. are shown again and again to set us up for good health.
Hunter-gatherers rarely expend more energy than they have to. Why should they? After all, survival in an ancestral environment is dependent on getting enough energy to match energy expenditure, and simply moving without a purpose in mind therefore makes little sense. This is also where one of the first lessons lie. Since we still, to a large extent, carry with us our ancient biology, there’s no surprise that we also tend to behave like “primitive” cavemen. While the drive towards sedentary behaviour would have benefitted our prehistoric ancestors in the sense that they saved their energy for important tasks, these hard-wired mechanisms have now lead to a world where a large majority of people are inactive. After all, why should we exercise if it isn’t required? Clearly, we still have many reasons to be active, such as the good feeling we tend to get from physical activity (at least when the workout is done), all of the health benefits associated with exercise, and perhaps most importantly for many, the aesthetic improvements that regular training brings – we want to look fit. However, for many, these benefits aren’t sufficient to make up for the perceived cost of exercising.
Okay, so if the main problem is that people have difficulty getting off the couch and into the gym, why does the title of this section say “Less is (often) more”? Well, because although inactivity is the main concern in the grand scheme of things, “fitness enthusiasts” are generally active and usually more concerned with finding the appropriate training frequency, volume, and intensity. While it’s definitely true that many lifters, strength trainees, and endurance athletes could benefit from training harder, the opposite is also true, and there’s no doubt that the adverse effects of training too hard can be severe compared to the lack of results that can accompany “undertraining”.
In the endurance world, some athletes have the idea that more is generally better, and many runners perform high intensity endurance training for prolonged periods of time on a regular basis. One of the problems with this type of training, at least when its overdone, it that it can negatively impact physiology and health by imposing excessive mechanical and physiological demands and increasing the levels of oxidative stress (14,15).
This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Hunter-gatherers often moved long distances every day, but from what the research suggests, they didn’t go into the 80%+ heart rate zone for prolonged periods of time (14,15). Clearly, you have to run long distances and occasionally train to exhaustion if the goal is to become a good runner, but it’s important to avoid too much high-intensity, multi-hour endurance exercise; not only to keep your body healthy, but perhaps also to get optimal results from your training. In other words, tweaking an endurance training program to be more in line with the physical activity patterns of our ancestors can help confer optimal results.
It’s important to note that our paleolithic ancestors can’t really teach us that much about maximizing muscle growth or becoming a fast sprinter, simply because they didn’t train for a specific performance goal. Also, our paleo ancestors didn’t have access to squat racks, nautilus machines, and other types of exercise equipment we have today. Rather than training with a performance goal in mind, hunter-gatherers move their bodies primarily because they have to, and they often perform a wide range of activities, such as walking, running, carrying, and lifting. Like Mark Rippetoe would say, they exercise, they don’t train.
So, to really be able to design an effective resistance training program, modern sports science and practical experience are invaluable. However, I’ll argue that knowledge about indigenous human activity patterns is also important in the sense that it gives us a foundation to work upon.
If you’ve been in the iron game for some time you’ve probably given the high-volume, “completely destroy every muscle group once or twice a week” routine a go. You’ve probably also experienced what so many others before you have noticed: More isn’t always better. Excessive volume and intensity often leads to stagnation. While some people are able to copy the routine of a hard-training juiced bodybuilder and get good results, the vast majority aren’t.
Although we can’t draw very many conclusions about how to maximize muscle growth and/or strength development from looking at the physical activity patterns of our prehistoric ancestors, the evolutionary outlook gives us many hints as to what types of activities we’re best adapted for. In terms of resistance training, there’s no doubt that the 25 set chest training is a novel behaviour, and the stress such a workout imposes is very different from anything humans would have encountered in the wild.
When we combine an evolutionary perspective with modern sports science it becomes clear that training each muscle group more frequently (2-3 times per week) with a lower volume is usually more effective for hypertrophy, at least for novice and moderately trained individuals (17,18).
Looking towards our past can also help us understand why some muscle groups respond better to high frequency training than others. As many trainers have experienced (including myself) and Bret Contreras has repeatedly highlighted, the glutes should be trained multiple times per week for optimal results. This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view. Hunter-gatherers didn’t perform box squats, hip thrusts, or other highly effective glute exercises, but they did use their glutes a lot compared to most other muscle groups. However, for contemporary gym goers this is rarely the case. Many spend the day at school or in front of the computer at work, drive to the gym, and often prioritize upper body training.
Evidence for when the gluteus maximus became enlarged in human evolution is equivocal, but the muscle’s minimal functional role during walking supports the hypothesis that enlargement of the gluteus maximus was likely important in the evolution of hominid running capabilities (19).
5) Poor posture, muscle imbalance patterns, and chronic pain primarily result from a collision between our stone age bodies and the modern lifestyle
All of us have experienced pain or injuries in some way or another. Sometimes it’s simply a result of falling when running, touching a hot stove, or dropping the dumbbell on your foot. In other words, acute injuries and pain. Although the immediate effect of this clumsiness can be severe, it’s usually nothing compared to the reduced life quality that accompanies conditions such as chronic lower back pain.
Why are so many people affected by chronic musculoskeletal disorders? If you ask a physical therapist or chiropractor he’ll probably tell you that the causes are complex, but he’ll also tell you that prolonged sitting, imbalanced training, sedentary behaviour, and poor posture are the major reasons so many people now experience back, neck, and knee problems.
Most of the physical disabilities we experience in the modern world are rarely – if ever – reported by researchers who study the health of hunter-gatherers. Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, Dr. Dan Lieberman, had the following to say about lower back pain:
We often say the reason people get lower back pain is because we became bipeds and being a biped is a stupid way to use your back. But actually that doesn’t make any sense, because if back pain is so difficult, such a challenge, natural selection surely would have acted to lessen the prevalence and severity of back pain. In fact, if you start asking people who work with hunter-gatherers, most people say yes, actually come to think of it, I don’t really recall anybody saying that they had back pain. I’ve never seen anybody have back pain in the hunter-gatherer context (20).
When we think about it this makes complete sense. After all, humans are just another animal species on this planet, and although we tend to look at ourselves as above the rest of the organisms on earth, the fact is that we too must adhere to the laws of nature. Just like animals who are confined to unnatural living conditions get sick and diseased, humans also experience the same effects when we adopt a lifestyle we’re not well adapted for. Also, just like wild animals have to be physically active in order to survive, hunter-gatherers typically (activity patterns vary significantly) spend hours each day moving their bodies – and perhaps more importantly, they don’t spend their leisure time hunched over a computer.
Does this mean you have to go settle down with one of the last hunter-gatherer communities on earth, the Hadza, if your goal is to get rid of that nagging back pain? No, of course not. However, acknowledging that chronic pain, disabilities, and postural problems tend to occur as a result of a mismatch allows us to more effectively address these issues. By looking towards humans who still live in an ancestral natural environment we can get an idea of how we are supposed to move our bodies and what types of physical activity patterns that promote good musculoskeletal health.
Many – if not most – of the postural problems, technical issues, etc. that are commonly seen among gym goers, athletes, and average Joe’s can be directly traced back to this mismatch. Some examples of this include anterior pelvic tilt and lower crossed syndrome, which are both associated with lower back and knee pain, and upper crossed syndrome, which is associated with upper back and neck pain. All of these conditions are largely a result of prolonged sitting, imbalanced training, and poor movement patterns.
So, what can we do exercise wise to improve these problems. Is the best strategy to simply adopt a hunter-gatherer type fitness program? Well, no. As with so many things in the world of diet and exercise, strategies that seem to help in the prevention of a certain health disorder aren’t always optimal treatment options. Instead we should specifically target the problems with the right exercises and drills. In the case of anterior pelvic tilt and glute atrophy (which are extremely common), glute training should be on top of the list, while in the case of upper crossed syndrome, strengthening the posterior upper back musculature is very important.
The primary takeaway from this post is that regardless of whether you’re a bodybuilder, strength coach, vegetarian, sprinter, endurance athlete, or just average guy/girl who’s interested in achieving good health, there is much wisdom that can be gained from looking at fitness from an evolutionary perspective.
About the author
Name: Eirik Garnas
Besides studying for a degree in Public Nutrition, I’ve spent the last couple of years coaching people on their way to a healthier body and better physique. I’m educated as a personal trainer from the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences and also have additional courses in sales/coaching, kettlebells, body analysis, and functional rehabilitation. Subscribe to my website and follow my facebook page if you want to read more of my articles on fitness, nutrition, and health.