Monday, January 12, 2015


If you're eating a healthy (Paleo) diet you should be getting 30-70 percent of your energy requirements from fat. This sounds like a lot but keep in mind that fat is more than twice as energy dense as carbohydrate or protein (1).

Many of the fats we consume on a Paleo diet come from whole foods such as oily fish, full fat cuts of meat from (grass-fed) ruminant animals, avocados, eggs, nuts, seeds, etc. 

But we also need to liberally add fats and oils to our foods to make them more nutritious and palatable.

Many vitamins are fat soluble which means they need to be consumed with fats to be properly absorbed. I highly recommend everyone use healthy cooking fats liberally and always add at least some fat to your vegetables, salads and green smoothies. 

So let’s take a detailed look at most of the commercially available sources of fats and oils and then consider which ones we should cook with, which ones we should not cook with but can consume raw, and which ones we should avoid completely. At the end of this post I have embedded a .pdf infographic summarizing this guide, which you can download for future reference.

But first we need a basic lesson in fatty acids. 

There are many different fatty acids, each with their own structure, benefits and potential detriment. Basically without exception any naturally occurring fat in healthy, unprocessed whole foods can be safely consumed in its natural state. Even naturally occurring trans fats are completely healthy (Kresser, 2013). And we certainly now understand how saturated fats are healthy if they are from the right sources. 

However, when fats are refined and processed many of them become unhealthy. For example, if you were to take a handful of sunflower kernels and eat them - yes they would be relatively high in omega-6 linoleic acid - but they wouldn’t be harmful. 

Yet take those same sunflower seeds and process the bejesus out of them using extremely high heat and chemical solvents and what you are left with is an unhealthy refined substance - nutrient-poor, unstable and prone to oxidation - that is simply not fit for human consumption. 

Polyunsaturated fats are not inherently unhealthy. Omega-3 is a PUFA and we all know how healthy that is, even though most of us don’t consume enough of it. 

Nuts, seeds and poultry have high levels of omega-6 PUFA but I wouldn’t avoid eating them just because of this. We do require some omega-6, but not in the prodigious amounts that a Standard American Diet dishes out. 

The problem is that unhealthy refined PUFAs like corn, soybean and canola oil absolutely dominate the Western Diet and we are unwittingly consuming them by the truckload.

Pick up any processed food and you will more often than not find one of these three junk oils listed as an ingredient. Go into any restaurant and they will almost certainly be using one of these oils to cook with. Even seemingly healthy "organic, gluten-free, vegan” snacks tend to use sunflower or canola oil as their fat source. 

This is the reason why our omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is completely out of whack - close to 20:1 where in Paleolithic times it would have been closer to 2:1 - because we are completely inundated with very highly concentrated omega-6 vegetable and seed oils (Sisson, 2014). 

Americans get 70% of their polyunsaturated fats (mainly omega-6) from oils, shortenings and margarines (ibid).

It would be impossible to get such high ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 by eating whole foods. But refined vegetable and seed oils can contain up to 75% omega-6 by weight so you can see how easy it is to consume 20g of omega-6 by eating half a bag of corn chips. And how much omega-3 is in that piece of salmon you ate for lunch? Maybe 3-4g at the most. You see my point?

The effect on our health of all these cheap, crappy, inflammatory oils should not be underestimated. We’re slowly getting the message that added sugar is bad for us but most people are still completely unaware how harmful these industrial PUFAs are and the role they play in metabolic diseases such as obesity and heart disease. You have been warned!


FAT 101

Fat v Oil

Fats and oils are both compounds of glycerol and various fatty acids. The only difference being that at room temperature, fat is solid and oil is liquid. For the purpose of this article the terms 'oil' and 'fat' are interchangeable.

Saturated Fats (SF)

Have no double bonds between the carbon atoms of the fatty acid chain. This makes them very stable when heated or exposed to light and oxygen. Examples include Coconut oil and butter.

Monounsaturated Fats (MUFA)

Have only one double bond between the carbon atoms of the fatty acid chain. These are fairly stable when heated but can still go rancid if exposed to light and oxygen. Examples include olive oil and avocado oil. 

Polyunsaturated Fats (PUFA)

Have many double bonds between the carbon atoms of the fatty acid chain. These are the most unstable fats and do not stand up well to heat or oxidation. Examples include sunflower, canola and corn oil. 

Polyunsaturated fats are the worst to cook with because those double bonds are reactive - they tend to react with oxygen when heated, forming harmful compounds and free radicals (Grootveld, 2006). 

The longer and more often these oils are heated (like over several weeks in a restaurant fryer) the more dangerous they become. Dietary linoleic acid that has been oxidized via heat has been shown to directly lead to atherosclerosis (Starprans, 2005). 

Smoke Point is simply a measure of the temperature at which heated oil starts to break down and burn. The more leftover (protein or sugar) particles there are in a fat the lower the smoke point will tend to be - so an unfiltered extra virgin olive oil will have a lower smoker point than a more refined light olive oil; just as butter will have a lower smoke point than clarified butter (ghee).  

It is important to note that smoke point is not the most important factor though when it comes to the health outcomes of consuming cooking oils - the number of double bonds is far more important (Gunnars, 2013). 

So you can take smoke point into account if you are cooking at very high temperatures but you should never choose to cook with a polyunsaturated fat like grape-seed oil just because it has a high smoke point.

For example, olive oil may smoke slightly when you cook it at really high heat, but it won’t necessarily inundate you with harmful compounds or free radicals. Or more accurately, even if there are some free radicals produced they seem to be countered by the anti-oxidant properties of olive oil. 

By contrast, grape-seed oil probably won’t burn even at very high temperatures but it may still be causing havoc to your metabolism from all the nasty toxins produced when those double bonds react to heat and oxygen. 

The last thing I would like to mention before going through each of the oils in detail is that it is worth considering the source of the oils you are consuming: do they come from naturally fatty substances like olives or coconuts and therefore require minimal processing? If yes then they are probably fairly healthy. 

Or do they come from industrial by-products like corn cobs, cotton seeds or grape seeds that aren’t very oily at all? If yes then they require extreme processes to extract that fat and the end product is effectively refined waste that big corporations have found a way to trick consumers into eating. Who in their right mind would eat oil from cotton? It’s a con.


COCONUT OIL

92 % Saturated Fat
6 % Monounsaturated Fat
2 % Polyunsaturated Fat

Coconut oil is a real Paleo darling. It has countless scientifically-backed benefits from enhancing weight-loss to its antimicrobial properties. It’s high saturated fat content means it is stable at heat and stores well for years. I think it is delicious and I even use it as moisturizer. 

Verdict: Use liberally for cooking or eating raw

OLIVE OIL

14 % Saturated Fat
74 % Monounsaturated Fat
10-20 % Polyunsaturated Fat

Olive oil is one of those unique foods that everyone can agree is healthy. It is a time-proven staple of the Mediterranean diet. It is delicious raw and should be a mainstay in everyone’s pantry. My Italian Nonna basically drinks the stuff and her skin at 87 is better than most 50 year olds’. 

I used to think that Olive Oil wasn’t suitable for cooking but some recent research has completely quashed those fears and it seems that it is completely safe even at high temperatures for very long periods of time. Due to its relatively low smoke point though I don’t personally use it for high heat cooking. I prefer ghee or coconut oil for baking. 

You need to be careful to find a good quality olive oil as some generic blends will actually add in cheap vegetable oil. To avoid this go for an Australian brand if you’re in Oz or a Californian if you’re in the U.S. 

My Abruzzese family in Italy make 500 liters every second year and go through it all! 

Verdict: Use liberally raw and for lower temperature cooking

BUTTER

64 % Saturated Fat
26 % Monounsaturated Fat
3-6 % Polyunsaturated Fat

Our grandparents were right. Butter is amazing. Not only is it delicious but it is packed with nutrition - one of the best source of vitamin A, E and K2, as well as the fatty acids butyrate and conjugated linoleic acid. 

I love the stuff so much I put it in my coffee and now use it as my main cooking fat. 

It is very important to get pastured/grass-fed butter. It is slightly more expensive but still relatively cheap compared to good coconut oil. I pay $3.29 for 250g sticks of Kerrygold Irish butter. 

Like olive oil, butter has a relatively low smoke point due to some leftover protein or sugars but if this concerns you then you can use clarified butter (ghee) for cooking at higher temperatures. 

Verdict: Use liberally for cooking or raw - even as a condiment or in your coffee.

PALM OIL

50 % Saturated Fat
40 % Monounsaturated Fat
10 % Polyunsaturated Fat

Palm oil is highly controversial because of it’s reputation for destroying native orangutan habitats. However, sustainable palm oil, particularly the less refined red variety, has a lot of reported health benefits - notably it’s high content of CoQ10 and Vitamin E. Like coconut oil it is fairly unprocessed, heat stable and tasty. 

Verdict: Great for cooking or raw but look for a sustainable source

BEEF TALLOW

51 % Saturated Fat
46 % Monounsaturated Fat
2-4 % Polyunsaturated Fat

Personally I don’t use beef tallow but only because it isn’t easily accessible to me. Like all animal products it is best to buy organic, grass fed. I would happily use it for cooking though if I had it. 

Verdict: A great cooking fat

LARD (PIG FAT)

39 % Saturated Fat
45 % Monounsaturated Fat
11 % Polyunsaturated Fat

Except for some occasions where I will render the leftover grease from my bacon I don’t use too much lard. However, I think it can be completely healthy to use as a cooking fat so long as you can guarantee it is from a healthy source. Unfortunately most pork production in the U.S is questionable at best. 

Verdict: Can be a good cooking fat but I think there are better options 

CANOLA OIL

7 % Saturated Fat
63 % Monounsaturated Fat
28 % Polyunsaturated Fat

Canola oil come from rapeseeds. Because it has a high level of monounsaturated fat and a decent amount of omega-3s it has been (incorrectly) labeled as a “heart healthy” oil. The problem is that it is highly refined and requires temperatures upwards of 500 degrees and chemical solvents to extract it, meaning that most of the omega-3s are destroyed or rancid on the shelf. It is a cheap, industrial seed oil with little to no nutrition.

Verdict: Avoid

FLAX SEED OIL

8 % Saturated Fat
20 % Monounsaturated Fat
72 % Polyunsaturated Fat (47% Omega-3)

Flax Seed oil has been proffered as a healthy source of omega-3 for a long time. It is very high in omega-3, up to 50%. However, because it is so high in overall PUFA it is highly unstable and prone to oxidation and rancidity. People taking it for a supplement would be better off taking fish oil. I certainly wouldn’t recommend consuming too much of this stuff, let alone cooking with it. 

Verdict: Don’t bother

CORN OIL

13 % Saturated Fat
24 % Monounsaturated Fat
59 % Polyunsaturated Fat

This is one of those industrial bi-product oils that is just heinous. Getting oil from a corn cob is clearly a bad idea and nothing good can come of it. It is very high in omega-6, has zero nutrition and is not even close to being a real food. 

Verdict: Strongly Avoid

PEANUT OIL

17 % Saturated Fat
46 % Monounsaturated Fat
32 % Polyunsaturated Fat

Peanuts are legumes and along with wheat are one of the very few foods that I recommend people strictly avoid. The reason being is that peanut lectin is the only anti-nutrient I know of that is not broken down by heat or digestion and has been shown to penetrate the gut lining and enter the bloodstream in at least one study (Lalonde, 2012). Peanuts are also prone to mould and rancidity. 

Verdict: Avoid

SUNFLOWER SEED OIL

10 % Saturated Fat
19 % Monounsaturated Fat
63 % Polyunsaturated Fat

Another ugly industrial oil that also happens to be utterly pervasive in packaged food and restaurants and egregiously marketed as healthy. It’s not healthy. Very high in omega-6 PUFAs with no nutrition.

Verdict: Strongly and actively avoid

SAFFLOWER OIL

6 % Saturated Fat
14 % Monounsaturated Fat
75 % Polyunsaturated Fat

Similar to sunflower oil but actually worse, if that’s possible. Even higher PUFAs. 

Verdict: Strongly and actively avoid

SOYBEAN OIL

14 % Saturated Fat
23 % Monounsaturated Fat
57 % Polyunsaturated Fat

Along with canola, corn (U.S) and sunflower oil (Aus), soybean oil is freakin’ everywhere. It is another cheap, subsidized (GMO) crop oil that is even partially hydrogenated… all round bad news. If I see another can of ‘tuna in olive oil’ that has soybean oil listed in the ingredients I’m going to drop my shopping basket and scream until the Whole Foods security dudes frogmarch me onto the street. 

Verdict: Strongly avoid

GRAPE SEED OIL

9 % Saturated Fat
16 % Monounsaturated Fat
70 % Polyunsaturated Fat

The only thing going for this oil is that it has been very cleverly marketed. It is actually just a pig with lipstick on. The health claims are bogus at best and even though it has a high smoke point it is very high in PUFAs and is therefore unstable and potentially harmful to your health. The final kick in the guts is that it’s expensive... Well done Don Draper. 

Verdict: Avoid

COTTONSEED OIL

26 % Saturated Fat
18 % Monounsaturated Fat
52 % Polyunsaturated Fat

Like corn oil this one makes me laugh/cry. In fact it’s even worse than corn oil. If you can’t eat cotton why the hell would you eat cotton oil? It is a farce and a tragedy that this ever made it to the shelves.

Verdict: Avoid

RICE BRAN OIL

25 % Saturated Fat
38 % Monounsaturated Fat
37 % Polyunsaturated Fat

I am pretty suspicious of this stuff. Rice bran is definitely something us Paleo folk like to avoid and I very much doubt its highly refined oil is a substance we want to be putting in our bodies. It is neither a traditional fat nor a minimally processed one and it has no known health benefits. 

Verdict: Avoid

AVOCADO OIL

12 % Saturated Fat
70 % Monounsaturated Fat
13 % Polyunsaturated Fat

With a similar fatty acid profile to olive oil and also from a naturally, fatty source it’s probably fair to say that avocado oil is fair game. Honestly I have no experience with it but from what I’ve read it is a healthy and tasty option. I’m not convinced that it would constitute a good cooking oil though. 

Verdict: Consume raw 

WALNUT OIL

9 % Saturated Fat
23 % Monounsaturated Fat
63 % Polyunsaturated Fat (10% omega-3)

Walnuts are indeed healthy nuts with a decent amount of omega-3 but this is far outweighed by their high omega-6 content. Like other nut oils its high PUFA content makes it prone to oxidation and rancidity. Definitely not suitable for cooking but could be used as a condiment on salads. Store in a cool dark place. 

Verdict: Consume raw in moderation 

SESAME SEED OIL

14 % Saturated Fat
43 % Monounsaturated Fat
43 % Polyunsaturated Fat

The only real benefit I can see of sesame oil is the specific flavor profile that is perfect for some asian dishes. However, it just can’t compare to olive oil, butter or coconut oil in terms of nutrition and it is less stable than these oils. I would be wary to consume too much of this stuff or to use it for high heat cooking.

Verdict: Consume in moderation

MACADAMIA NUT OIL

12 % Saturated Fat
71 % Monounsaturated Fat
10 % Polyunsaturated Fat

Macadamia nuts are awesome. In terms of fatty acid profile they are probably the best nut out there, with a relatively high omega-3 to omega-6 ratio. Like brazil nuts, walnuts and flax seeds, though, these fragile nuts are prone to mould and rancidity. It is also rather expensive so you may want to use it sparingly. 

Verdict: Consume raw or for low temperature cooking. 

CONCLUSION

Fats are a huge part of the Paleo diet and it is paramount that you are consuming the right ones. Like with all foods you need to consider nutrient density, potential health benefits or detriments, price and accessibility, taste and convenience. Personally I stick with the big three that I know are healthy for cooking or raw: Grass-fed butter, organic virgin coconut oil and cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil. 

For your final take away in this comprehensive guide to oils and fats consider the following rules that generally hold true:

  • The less processed the oil the better - if it requires extreme heat or chemicals to refine it, avoid.
  • The healthier the source of the oil the better - if it is a whole, Paleo food that you can eat raw, even better. (e.g. Coconuts, olives).
  • If you can’t eat the source material, don’t consume the oil. (e.g. Cotton seeds or corn cobs).
  • Animal fats from healthy animals are a good choice for cooking due to their high saturation.
  • The more saturated a fat is the better it will stand up to heat and oxidation.
  • The more unsaturated a fat is the more harmful it will become when heated and the more prone it will be to oxidation and rancidity - cooked or raw.
  • Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils should be stored in dark glass bottles in cool, dry cupboards. 
  • Vegetable and seed oils tend to be very high in (omega-6) PUFAs and low in nutrition and should generally be avoided.
  • Always opt for organic, grass-fed animal fats and extra virgin, cold-pressed olive/coconut oils.
To download this free .pdf infographic click here:
Thanks so much for reading and props if you read the whole thing! You guys are awesome. Remember you can always email me thepaleomodel@gmail.com with questions, blog suggestions, feedback, etc. And if you found this useful you can help me out by sharing this article with your followers using the little social media icons below the references. Thanks!

FOOTNOTES:

  1. Think of it this way… Say you eat 270g (10oz / 2 cups) of cooked kale sautéed in 28g (1oz / 2 tbsp) of butter. The kale is 90 percent of the volume of this meal but only 25 percent of the energy (70 calories). The butter, by contrast, is only 10 percent of the volume of the meal but it makes up 75 percent of the energy (200 calories).

    The point is that fat is an incredibly rich and efficient fuel source that also happens to be very easy to consume, digest and utilize as fuel. 

    Unfortunately our messed up and perverse modern take on diet and nutrition has vilified fat and made us fear calories. How fat became the enemy is beyond me. And we were all a lot less neurotic about food (and leaner) a few decades ago when we didn’t know calories existed.  

    It is an unfortunate fact that we use the same word for delicious dietary fat like avocado and dark chocolate as we do for the disgusting adipose tissue that wobbles on our arms or hangs over our belts.

    Still, blaming fat and calories for making us fat is as stupid as blaming diesel for making trains run faster, further and more efficiently than steam. Ludicrous!

    I laugh when I see restaurants promoting certain meals because they have less calories.

    "This low-fat Caesar salad has only 240 calories.” 

    Why the heck would I pay $10 for a salad with 240 calories and more highly processed ingredients when I can get a tuna salad with eggs and olive oil that has 480 calories for the same price and is also healthier? It’s terrible logic. It’s like paying for a full tank of gas but only getting it filled half way. 

    Anyway, rants aside a Paleo diet tends to favor fats over carbohydrates as the primary source of fuel, with protein consumption fairly similar to a Western diet but much from higher quality sources. 

References:









Sunday, January 4, 2015


Hi David,

Just found your blog today and pretty much read the entire thing in one sitting. 

I'm trying to figure out carbohydrates in my diet. I've been pretty low carb for the past few years, but I'm beginning to feel that perhaps the evidence does point to consuming more carbs for performance, hormonal balance, etc. You seem to feel the same way. I wonder if you have any thoughts on a cyclical ketogenic diet? Such as eating very low carb and staying in ketosis during the week and then "carbing up" on Sunday. This seems to avoid elevated insulin levels for long periods of time while getting all of the benefits of giving your muscles a hit of glucose and helping your thyroid to function better on a somewhat regular basis. 

Do you have any thoughts on resistant starch carbs (seems to be all the rage on the paleo blogosphere currently)?

My other question is in regards to supplements: do you have a recommendation or list of supplements that you take? Also, Vitamin D3 - I try to avoid sun and wear sunscreen every day for anti-aging purposes and take vitamin D. It seems like you do not think this is a good idea and that it would be preferable to get sun daily? If so, how long do you think would be best? Also, antioxidants--do you supplement these (like taking resveratol and such)?

Erm, final question! Fasting and autophagy. Do you think IFing with BPC gives us enough time to get daily autophagy going? Would it be beneficial to not have the BPC to better induce autophagy? I've started doing a weekly 24 hour water fast for this reason, but maybe it's not necessary.

Ok, thanks if you've actually read through this long message! I think your take on nutrition is on the nose and clearly your in super awesome and healthy shape. Kudos!

Jade

---

Thanks for your excellent questions. Clearly you're very well read in the Paleo realm. I'm going to address your questions one by one.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a doctor and this is not medical advice but I'm happy to share my thoughts with you. 


1. Carbohydrates

Let me start by reiterating that I believe the chronic excessive consumption of refined carbohydrates such as flour, sugar and corn syrup is at the root of much modern metabolic disease such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. 

I don't think that whole food sources of carbohydrate are necessarily "bad" for healthy people and there are many instances of very healthy populations with high longevity who have a carbohydrate-heavy diet from say, rice, corn or roots and tubers. 

Chris Masterjohn did some very interesting work on the prevalence of the amylase gene mutation in humans - an enzyme that helps break down starch. This suggests that we are certainly adapted to digesting rich sources of glucose - more so than other primates - and that increased copies of this gene seem to have an evolutionary benefit. 

And while there are certainly instances of some populations like the Inuit who would have been in ketosis for most of the year, I don’t think that being in a constant and perpetual state of ketosis is desirable or optimal - particularly for fertility and peak human performance. 

Having said that I think we should be fully fat adapted and be in ketosis periodically. The more fat adapted you become the easier it is to switch in and out of ketosis. Intermittent fasting and avoiding carbs and protein in the morning and eating more dietary fat and less carbs are excellent ways to become more fat adapted. If you aren't hungry between meals, don't crave carbs and don't wake up ravenous then that's a good sign you are fat adapted. 

If you aren't doing a lot of high intensity training, aren't looking to get pregnant and/or don't tolerate carbs well then I think a cyclic ketogenic diet could be an appropriate lifestyle for you, so long as you are doing a proper carb re-feed at least once or twice a week. 

Personally, my sweet spot for carbs is about 100-150g a day most days of the week with maybe one or two lower carb days and one or two higher carb days. 

As with most things I think it is important to mix it up. I don't really like the idea of setting a strict schedule for low carb days and high carb days but rather listening to your body and also your circumstances. If you happen to go to a Thai restaurant on a low carb day you want the flexibility to be able to eat some rice if you want, right? 

I know for me that going low carb for months on end screwed me up. Probably because I was doing CrossFit a lot and often having late nights. I started getting lethargic, grumpy and not sleeping well. 

Carbohydrate tolerance varies hugely among the population though. It is a very personal thing and can easily change over your lifetime depending on factors such as stress, sleep, activity levels, season, latitude, etc. 

Some people may eat 150g of carbs a day and develop type II diabetes because they just can't tolerate that amount of glucose over time. Other people could eat 300g a day and have perfect blood sugar control and low levels of inflammation. 

The only real way to tell is to get a glucometer and measure your fasting and post prandial blood glucose over a period of time and see how different amounts of carbohydrates from different sources affect you. I found that my blood sugar rarely goes above 110 even after eating white rice and ice cream, as long as I consume a fair amount of fat and fibre with the meal. So for me I think I can tolerate carbs fairly well. 

You need to self-experiment. Even without a glucometer you should be able to tell if you feel better introducing some more carbs into your diet. 

By the way I am not recommending you go crazy with white rice and ice cream! They certainly shouldn't be staples. 

2. Resistant Starch (RS)

This has definitely been a hot topic in the Paleo-sphere in the last 12 months. For those unfamiliar with resistant starch it is a type of starch that cannot be fully broken down by human digestion so it passes through into the large intestine to be digested by our gut microbes. 

There are four different types of resistant starch, three of these from whole food sources such as unripe bananas or cooked and cooled potatoes and rice. However, it is fairly difficult to get a substantial dose from real foods so typically a refined version of RS such as potato starch or plantain flour is used as a supplement. 

Even though the mechanism isn’t fully understood the anecdotal evidence is that RS improves glucose tolerance (stabilizes blood sugar), can lead to fat loss and other health benefits via an improvement in the state of your gut microbiome (2).

I've looked into it and experimented a bit with potato starch. I didn't notice any benefit and definitely had some issues with gas. Maybe I didn't stick to it long enough.

Even though it is one of the hottest topics in health at the moment our understanding of the gut microbiome remains in its infancy. 

RS has a lot of potential and seems to be helping a lot of people improve their health but it I see it as a very blunt, crude instrument. If RS feeds the good bacteria in our gut, doesn’t it also feed the bad bacteria? Couldn’t RS worsen symptoms for some people whose gut flora is out of whack - like those with Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth? 

It is certainly an interesting area but my gut instinct (see what I did there?) is that it doesn't make sense to eat a refined food such as potato starch in order to get some short-cut benefit. It just doesn't gel well with me and I remain cautious while the evidence for it remains anecdotal at this stage. Many other Paleo professionals such as Dr Tery Wahls feel the same way - that we should focus on pro and probiotics from whole food sources. 

I don't see much harm in trying RS for yourself though, especially if you focus on the real food sources rather than the potato starch. 


3. Vitamin D3 and sun exposure

There is some research out there that sunscreen can be mildly toxic and you may be better off not using it and instead limiting sun exposure to build up a natural tolerance to the sun. But I am an Aussie and where I'm from going out in the summer sun without sunscreen is akin to stirring boiling bone broth with your bare hands - you're gonna get burnt. 

So I think wearing sunscreen on your face to prevent aging is probably a good idea, but I certainly wouldn't be afraid to get some smart sun exposure on your body where possible. You can check the UV on a weather app. Levels of 2-4 are a good time to get some sun without risk of getting burnt. When UV is 4-5 or higher you probably don't want to spend more than 20 minutes without sunscreen. 

In summer you may want to avoid the highest UV times of the day but in winter - assuming you’re from North America or Europe - you probably don't have to worry about sunscreen. I don't wear sunscreen most of the year in New York except for summer. 

In the midday summer sun 30 minutes of sun exposure will produce 10-20,000 IU of vitamin D in someone with pale skin (4). Someone with darker skin will produce less than that. 

Unless you are living in the tropics, and especially if you are darker skinned and living in North America or Europe then Vitamin D3 supplementation is probably a good idea. My vitamin D levels are quite low, which is very surprising considering how much time I spend in the sun. 

5,000 - 8,000 IU of supplemental vitamin D3 can be taken daily pretty safely until you get your Vitamin D levels to at least 35-50ng/mL. Make sure it's D3 and not D2 you are taking. 

4. Supplements

I don’t think it is wise to rely on supplements. Real food sources always trump supplements. The problem is that the supplement industry is a massive and hugely profitable business which is also grossly unregulated. This means there are a lot of snakes out there making false claims and producing very poor quality products. 

Many supplements don’t have solid science behind their proposed benefits and some even may be harmful. 

Having said that, I do take some supplements. In the US you can get some fairly decent supplements at low cost through Amazon. Because it is relatively cheap I am willing to spend a few dollars a month to take certain supplements even though I realize they may not offer a huge benefit. For example I take 10,000mg Biotin for my skin and hair, Milk Thistle for liver function and  Activated Charcoal for when I drink some beers or nasty food. 

The supplements that I do think have value and that I take consistently are the following:

DHA and EPA (Fish oil)

I don’t always eat as much oily fish as I would like to so I supplement with 1000mg of DHA and 500mg of EPA on days that I don’t eat fish. I like this brand:



Magnesium

Due to soil degradation and our modern food system most people don’t get enough magnesium in their diet. I take about 300mg of Ionic magnesium citrate every night before bed. I use Natural Calm. I find that it noticeably improves my sleep.



Vitamin D3

I haven’t supplemented with Vitamin D3 before but now that I know that I have low Vitamin D levels and it is New York winter I am going to start supplementing 10,000 IU a day until I get my levels up and then I will probably stop supplementing until next winter.

Vitamin C

If I feel a cold coming along I will load up on 3,000 - 6,000mg of Vitamin C per day until I get over it. It is such a cheap supplement that even if it doesn’t do much I think it’s worth the placebo. Sometimes I’ll take 1,000mg a day just for maintenance.

Whey Protein

I have a really high quality unflavored whey protein in the cupboard that is 100% grass-fed whey and I use it in smoothies from time to time. BCAAs have many proven benefits and whey is scientifically backed as the best form of supplemental protein. If you are vegan hemp protein is probably the best substitute. Check out my Low Carb High Fat Paleo Super Smoothie.

You may also want to consider eating some seaweed for iodine and oysters for copper and zinc when possible. 

I do not take antioxidant supplements. I think antioxidants should come from food only. From what I’ve heard resveratrol is a waste of money. See the Kresser article below for his supplement recommendations.


5. Fasting and autophagy 

Autophagy, literally ‘self-eating’ is a cell process whereby excess junk and nasties are destroyed and cleared out. It’s like a spring clean of your cells or emptying the trash folder on your computer. It is a very important process for a variety of metabolic pathways and longevity. 

From what I understand autophagy is stimulated by fasting among other things such as sleep, sun exposure, exercise and possibly caffeine. I’ve heard from various sources that protein and carbohydrate consumption can inhibit autophagy but that fat doesn’t. Dave Asprey (the bulletproof coffee guy) says that BPC does not interfere with autophagy and may even boost it. I couldn’t find any science to back this up though. 

Either way I think fasting both with or without bulletproof coffee should still see some benefit from autophagy. 

I find intermittent fasting with bulletproof coffee to be far easier, more sustainable and better from a performance perspective. But, since my mantra is to mix things up I don’t have Bulletproof coffee every time I fast and I certainly don’t have Bulletproof coffee every day. 

I probably intermittent fast five days a week and may have bulletproof coffee on two or three of those days. On the other fast days I just have black coffee or coffee with a splash of heavy cream then workout and break my fast around 2-4pm. On days that I am hungry in the morning I eat breakfast. 

Doing a 24 hour water fast once a week is pretty hardcore. If it makes you happy do it but it’s probably not necessary. Brad Pilon from ‘Eat Stop Eat’ says there isn’t much reason to fast for more than 24 hours. Personally I find any longer than 18-20 hours and I’m fighting myself. 

Remember that the ultimate goal is to find a sustainable, healthy lifestyle that is easier to follow than not to follow. The goal is not perfection but gradual improvement. 

References and further reading:

Thursday, December 11, 2014


Unless you've been living under a kettlebell for the last several years you would have heard of CrossFit. Actually, if you have been under a kettlebell then chances are you are already part of the CrossFit CULT movement. 

I was first introduced to CrossFit in 2009 through a good mate of mine who also introduced me to Paleo. Five years later I'm still living the Paleo lifestyle but CrossFit (in the strictest sense) is not a part of it. This article explains why. 

Firstly, let me preface by saying that to my knowledge there isn't any sound science on CrossFit at this time. That means that we have to be skeptical about any claims both for and against CrossFit - ranging from claims that it is either the best form of exercise on earth or the most likely way to tear a rotator cuff or fry your adrenals. Any claims on either side are merely conjecture. 

This also means that everything I am about to say is purely anecdotal and completely biased towards my own personal experience. So before all you CrossFit die-hards out there start bombarding me with ad hominem attacks let me say this: I don't care if you agree with me or not. There are some generalizations here and your own experience will probably differ from mine.

My experience is limited to just a handful of CrossFit affiliates in Melbourne, London, Miami and New York over a couple of years. My knowledge of CrossFit and the institution is by no means extensive. I did, however, learn a lot in my CrossFitting days and I am actually grateful for all I learned. I have continued to explore the foundations of gymnastics, Olympic lifting and mobility that I touched on through CrossFit and my training has benefitted greatly.

I think the original foundations of CrossFit are sound and if done with proper coaching and appropriate intensty it still remains the best form of functional training widely available to the public.

However, I think somewhere along the line of it’s market domination and popularization those solid foundations have been overshadowed by the “sport” of CrossFit and the overzealousness of CrossFit die-hards.

We silly humans have a tendency to take a great new idea or movement and turn it into an uncontrollable monster through our over-enthusiasm and extremism. It’s a mob mentality where people get swept up in the movement and caught up in the dogma. It happens with religion. It happens with politics. It happens with corporations. I believe it is happening with CrossFit.

The concept that more is better is etched into our social fabric. Especially here in the USA where we worship competition and sport, where spectacle is everything, hard work and physical pain are honored and people strive to push themselves beyond their physical limits.

A lot of my issues with CrossFit are to do with my perception that it is too intense and too extreme for the average, non-elite person, and at the dogmatic attitude of CrossFitters in general.

This is my personal issue. If I were a stronger person who could resist the heat of competition and use self-restraint to limit my intensity then I probably wouldn’t have a problem with CrossFit. The problem is, like most humans, I’m very susceptible to getting swept up in the mob mentality and ingesting the dogma. Like an alcoholic at a Christmas party I get a little bit carried away and it seems the best way to avoid a bad outcome is to remove myself from the situation.

I found myself overdoing it in WODs and pushing myself beyond my capacity for work. Fortunately I didn’t get injured but I’m pretty sure I would have given how bad my form became when my heart rate regularly got up over 170bmp in those killer workouts.

In the end I decided it was simply better for me to take on the foundations and tenets of CrossFit and practice them myself – free from hype and competition. 

I am not here to bash CrossFit or claim that it is inherently "bad", only to communicate to people why I personally chose not to do it anymore and why I wouldn't recommend it to most of my friends. For whatever reason people seem to be very interested in my opinion on this particular subject, which is why I’m taking the time to write this post.

Ultimately we have to use a "cost versus benefit" approach to something like CrossFit, running marathons or going vegan. Either you determine that CrossFit is worth it for you, or it isn’t. And this can change over time. After a couple of years I determined that CrossFit, in the traditional sense of training at a box, just wasn’t worth it for me anymore.  


WHAT IS CROSSFIT?

CrossFit defines itself as "a regimen of constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity in a communal environment.” 

The types of movements most often practiced in CrossFit include Olympic lifting (snatch, clean and jerk), rowing (on the Ergometer), running, calisthenics (push ups, lunges, burpees), barbell weight training (deadlift, overhead press, squats), kettlebell training and basic gymnastics (rope climbs, muscle ups, handstands). 

Proper programming attempts to schedule various combinations of the above exercises in seemingly random but planned series so that you can achieve constant improvement. 

CrossFit is about being very good at many modes of fitness, without necessarily specializing in any. 

You are encouraged to train three days on, one day off (i.e. 23 days a month) and a Paleo diet is sometimes suggested as a template for nutrition. In reality many hardcore CrossFitters I know eat like binging pregnant women with fetishes for peanut butter, Ben & Jerry’s and Oreo’s… sometimes all mixed together!

FORMAT

CrossFit generally consists of one-hour group classes typically starting with a brief warm up and then some strength training (e.g. work up to 3-rep-max barbell front squat) and/or skill training (e.g. learning the progression for handstand push ups). 

This is followed by a grueling, high intensity Workout of the Day (WOD) - typically a circuit of two or more exercises done for rounds of multiple sets. Everyone completes the WOD simultaneously in a competitive fashion, typically for time or maximum repetitions. 

WODs can be as short as a couple of minutes or as long as, say, 60 minutes. You are encouraged to scale the exercises to suit your capability. For example, the prescribed weight on deadlifts for a WOD may be 155lb for men and 115lb for women. In that sense a small woman could do better than a big man in certain strength WOD given she finishes first or does more reps. Likewise, an absolute machine of a CrossFitter may finish last if he did the full prescribed weight where others scaled by reducing their weight used.

Either way the underlying goal is to push your limits to the absolute extreme in order to get the best time or most reps on the whiteboard, which is often beyond the realm of reasonable form. It doesn’t have to be this way – proper coaching and self-restraint should come in here to prevent people from pushing themselves into risky territory. The problem is that in my experience, proper coaching and self-restraint are often shrugged aside in the heat of the competition.

Basically, the common perception is that if you don’t collapse on the floor in a panting mess, throw up, or feel shaky for at least 30 minutes after the WOD you probably aren’t doing it right. (I’m only half joking).

At the end of the class your results are written on a whiteboard for all to see and you can compare yourself to other members who have worked out that day or to your past performances on the same WOD. Don’t underestimate the motivational power of the whiteboard.

CROSSFIT’S EXPONENTIAL GROWTH

Sometimes called 'the sport of fitness', CrossFit has exploded in popularity in the last few years. There are over 10,000 affiliates - or Box gyms - across the world now, with over 35,000 accredited (Level 1) trainers. It's growing so fast that I'm sure these statistics are already outdated. If you live in a metropolitan city these days in Australia or America, chances are there is a Box near you. 

When I first heard about CrossFit there were less than five boxes in Melbourne. As of October 2014 there are now this many:


Clearly the movement has caught on Down Under. 

WHY CROSSFIT IS AWESOME

1. CrossFit is immensely effective at getting average, non-elite people to commit to a rigorous, elite training schedule. 

CrossFit has absolutely nailed the motivational aspect of training. The combination of the competitive nature, sense of community and camaraderie, exclusivity (it's expensive) and even the way they leverage military motifs and dedicate certain WODs to fallen soldiers all comes together to form a close-knit web of dedication and commitment. It is very clever really. 

And here is where the cult-like devotion of CrossFitters actually pays dividends. It is difficult to just dip your toes into Crossfit at a box gym. Damn, if you're paying $200 a month or more you better be using it!

But more than that, the rigid structure and accountability make it easy for the undisciplined to get motivated. The often charismatic coaches yelling support while your fellow CrossFitters cheer you on to finish that final set give you so much encouragement that it would simply be rude not to be a committed member of the team. No one wants to let the team down. Maslow's need for belonging is a strong human desire. 

Being a CrossFitter gives you access to an exclusive club of like-minded individuals who share an experience of overcoming physical pain, working together, competing and improving. I have no doubt that the mental toughness gained through physical training can be life-changing for some individuals. 

2. The results are impressive

I was already in reasonably good condition when I joined CrossFit. I've been consistently training in the gym in many different modalities for over 15 years. Back in my Army Reserve days I even won the 'Best at Physical Training' Award in my platoon on graduating recruit training - the real "boot camp". But I have never felt stronger and fitter than when I was really focusing on CrossFit. 

With the level of volume and intensity that CrossFit demands the initial strength, mobility, skill and general conditioning gains are truly remarkable. It is not uncommon to see slight women who walk in to a box not being able to do a three proper push ups being able to clean and jerk their bodyweight in less than a year. It is basically impossible to do CrossFit consistently without seeing vast improvements in CrossFit-specific "skills" and conditioning. 

Most of the CrossFit trainers themselves that I've come across are insanely ripped and strong. Although being ripped does not necessarily mean being healthy, as 10 years in the modeling industry has shown me first hand. 

3. The 'sport of fitness' is a global phenomenon that has some merit

I am a big supporter of anything that gets people motivated to get moving and improve their lives. 

I have many concerns surrounding CrossFit as an individual practice, which I will cover in detail soon, but as a collective movement I must admit that it is a step in the right direction. 

As one who has studied commerce and economics I am a big believer in free markets and have a lot of faith in consumer choice. In this sense CrossFit deserves its stratospheric rise in popularity and success. There was clearly a gap in the market for an exercise movement for average people striving for elite fitness and CrossFit fills that gap as the most accessible form of functional training available today.

The participation in the CrossFit Games has almost doubled year-on-year. Last year 138,000 competed in the CrossFit open. Money continues to flow in from sponsors such as Reebok, who were early to jump on the CF bandwagon. ESPN even picked up the coverage of the Games. This year's winners, Rich Froning and Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, took home a cool $275,000 each for their superhuman winning performances. 


WHY CROSSFIT IS NOT SO AWESOME

1. CrossFit acts like a cult

If you’re a CrossFit devotee and this subheading makes you defensive, you are merely proving my point. There is nothing wrong with exclusive clubs, or even employing a sort of ‘us versus them’ ethos in order to increase dedication and loyalty to a certain community. 

What makes CrossFit seem like a cult - and I’m talking here in a relatively benign sense of the word, say, something more cultish than ‘cult' film but less cultish than Scientology - is that there are certain dogmas, attitudes and a defensive manner inherent in CrossFit that stem all the way down to the very core of the institution and possibly to the founder Greg Glassman himself. The CrossFit juggernaut seems to be quite cagey about their methodology, very pugnacious towards any criticism or detractors and it sounds like Glassman has fallen out with many people over the years. But anyway, I’m not here to talk about individual personalities and hearsay.

What I do hear though, is plenty of dogma surrounding CrossFit. Dogma is ‘a set of principles laid down by an authority as an incontrovertible truth’. For example, CrossFit teaches you that efficiency in a movement is crucial to be able to complete a high volume of work, quickly. Using this logic, kipping pull-ups, where you use a type of circular (butterfly kipping) or swinging momentum (kipping) to be able to do far more pull-ups than you could do with strict form, are the taught as the way to do pull-ups. 

And CrossFitters accept this and love it without really questioning whether it is a best practice. Kipping pull-ups are a mainstay of CrossFit. When I started CrossFit I could do around 12 strict pull-ups. After a few months I could do 25 unbroken kipping pull ups. I stopped doing strict pull ups-all together. Kipping pull-ups were the bomb! Look how many pull ups I can do now, I thought. Basically I had ingested the dogma that kipping pull-ups were great and made complete sense and that strict pull ups were for losers.

I should mention here that some coaches will still program strict pull ups into strength training but kipping is the mainstay for most WODs and butterfly kipping is essential to be competitive at the higher levels of the CrossFit games.

The problem is that kipping pull-ups are a terrible idea from a sports physiology standpoint, and only make sense in the realm of CrossFit. The harsh jerking movement at the bottom of the kipping pull-up - where you have the force of roughly three times your bodyweight bearing down on your connective tissue - is a dangerous movement for those who do not have the strength and conditioning on those joints and tendons to be able to get away with that kind of force (Sommers, 2014). 

Sure, gymnasts can safely do movements that place up to ten times their bodyweight on connective tissue but only after years of very specific gymnastic strength work. 

Anecdotally, shoulder injuries are rife in CrossFit and it seems that kipping pull-ups are a major culprit. But even though many CrossFitters realize that kipping is a quirky, initially awkward and often painful way to do pull-ups, they’ve drank the Cool-Aide and ignore these gut feelings. I know, I was one of them! 


2. CrossFit is "extreme" for the average person

I think CrossFit is an extreme level of exercise for the average person. 

What do I mean by extreme? Well I think that if you combine the volume (total work load), frequency (almost daily) and intensity (competition level effort) of fully committing to CrossFit then this is above and beyond the level of exercise that THE AVERAGE human needs in order to thrive. Furthermore, by training beyond their capacity with highly complex motor patterns such as Olympic lifting some people may be putting themselves at risk of overtraining and/or injury. 

Obviously this is relative. Proper coaching and the self-restraint to limit volume, frequency or intensity to your personal capacity are of course the intended means to reduce the risks of overtraining and injury. Yet in my experience the proper coaching and self-restraint were lacking.

The big caveat in claiming that CrossFit is “extreme” is that I'm talking about normal people who just want to get fit, strong and look good naked. If you need to be in superhuman condition for your job, or if being awesome at CrossFit is really that important to you and it is worth the risk then that's great - power to you. 

But for mere mortals like me and most of my friends who do (or did) CrossFit we probably don't need to be doing five to six WODs a week to be fit and healthy.

Some people have the work and recovery capacity to get away with it. Others don't. 

Especially for those who don't have their lifestyle dialed in with adequate sleep, stress management and good nutrition, jumping headlong into CrossFit might not be the best way to achieve your long-term health and happiness goals. 

I think the person who can really delve into CrossFit for the long-term, without overtraining or getting injured is quite rare. Of course there are probably some people who have been doing CrossFit for 10 years, have never been injured and couldn't live without CrossFit... but these are probably the outliers. 

I know far more people who jumped into CrossFit for a couple of years and have since turned away from it, either through injury or just not being able to maintain it with their busy lifestyle. In this sense I just don't think CrossFit is a sustainable form of exercise for most people in its current state. 

3. CrossFit can be risky 

I've been to some fantastic CrossFit boxes around the world and met some incredibly talented and sensible coaches. Unfortunately I've also been to some sub-par affiliates and received some rubbish instruction from people who really aren't qualified to teach any movement - let along the highly technical nuances of Olympic lifting. 

I have since sought out Olympic lifting coaching from proper Olympic lifting coaches and I absolutely love my Oly lifting practice but I don't think it is for everyone.

Traditional weightlifting programs in Eastern Europe and Asia demand years of progression before young athletes are allowed to even pick up a barbell. CrossFit, on the other hand, often throws people into the main lifts within just weeks of starting, and in a largely uncontrolled environment that demands multiple reps for time. It is not uncommon to see classes of 30+ people with just one or two coaches. I think this is madness. Once again, proper coaching and programming should prevent this but in my experience many affiliates are keen to get their clients under the bar as quickly as possible.

If you ask me the risk of completing 30 snatches or 30 clean-and-jerks for time far outweighs any possible benefit of doing so. 

Getting a sedentary adult with no athletic background and just a few weeks of CrossFit training to perform Olympic lifting movements in timed workouts is about as irresponsible as giving a person who has never driven before a Lamborghini and telling them to race five laps of Nürburgring. 

Of course not all affiliates do this and many have excellent coaches and very good "on-ramp" training schedule for novices but as a general rule the intensity of CrossFit combined with the complexity of movements and a competitive environment all feed into a relatively risky endeavor for your average, non-elite person. 

4. CrossFit is probably not optimal for health and longevity

If you've read a lot of my work here on The Paleo Model you'll be familiar with my holistic approach to lifestyle and how I always warn against extremism. When it comes to exercise I think less can be more. I think the minimal effective dose of exercise is actually quite small and going too far beyond that is really not necessary and may even hinder achieving a healthy body composition and overall wellbeing. 

High intensity training is fantastic, but not at high volume and frequency. Intervals, tabatas, sprints and circuits are very effective ways to train but only as a short, sporadic or acute (hormetic) stress. If done too much and too often then there is a risk of your training becoming a chronic stress that may actually do more harm than good. 

Just as I think running marathons is not a great way to get healthy, I don't think doing CrossFit is the best path to choose if overall health and wellbeing are more important to you than performance. 

Athletic performance and health are definitely correlated, and some training is always better than none, but I think focusing too much on performance can potentially hinder your health and longevity if you exceed your capacity to adequately recover and thereby create a state of chronic systemic inflation. 

CrossFit has the potential characteristics – volume, frequency and intensity – to constitute a regimen that may lead to overtraining and chronic inflammation.

Chronic systemic inflammation can result in a host of metabolic issues such as adrenal fatigue, endocrine disfunction, mood disorders, poor sleep, fatigue, irritability, low libido, chronic infections and a host of other ailments. 

CrossFit is a physically demanding regimen that is also addictive and dogmatic. When you're swept up in the CrossFit mindset it is very difficult to take your foot off the gas pedal and take it easy - especially if you are a competitive type-A personality (like me) who thrives on punishment and adrenalin. More often than not CrossFit attracts people such as this and filters out those who can't cut it. 

Now please remember that exercise is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to a "healthy lifestyle". I believe that nutrition is more important exercise, as is sleep and stress-management. 

Exercise is extremely important, but it doesn't need to be extreme. Unless performance is crucial to your job or livelihood then I really don't think your training should be so extreme that it constitutes a chronic stressor to your body that could potentially harm your health in the long term. 

I'm not saying that CrossFit constitutes overtraining or a chronic stress to everyone. As I said some people have the capacity to train like this, others don't. Some people have the self-restraint to limit their volume, frequency and intensity to reasonable levels. It is all relative.

MY CONCLUSION 

As a general rule and erring on the side of caution, I think that the potential for injury and overtraining in CrossFit for the average person merely looking to "get in shape and be healthy" tilts the cost/benefit analysis towards the "probably not worth it" side of the scales. 

This is my opinion. You need to decide for yourself. But if you do try CrossFit just sip the Cool-Aide... don't skull it! Always remind yourself that CrossFit is not a religion so please don't preach to your friends about it incessantly or think less of people who don't CrossFit! 

Conversely, if you're a professional athlete, in the armed forces, a first responder or just really, really want to attain an elite level of fitness and are willing to put up with the risks then CrossFit might be great for you. Interestingly, in 2011, the U.S. military, in conjunction with the American College of Sports Medicine, advised soldiers to avoid CrossFit, citing "disproportionate musculo-skeletal injury risk" (Davis, 2013). 

Ultimately, (like the U.S. military) I decided that CrossFit wasn't worth it for me. But I am very grateful for my time in CrossFit. I met some amazing people, had a lot of fun and learnt a great deal about my physical limitations.

I saw how CrossFit can really help people – motivating them and empowering them to take control of their fitness and physicality. But I still believe that there are other less risky, less dogmatic and more sustainable ways to approach fitness, which I why I still wouldn’t recommend CrossFit to most of my friends.

But I’m not a hater! I really loved CrossFit and I still incorporate many of its methodologies in my training today. My WODs just don't include kipping pull-ups or snatch reps for time! 

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References:

Chris Sommers, 2014: The Paleo Solution Podcast - Episode 213. http://robbwolf.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Paleo-Solution-213.pdf

Grant Davis, 2013: 'Is CrossFit Killing Us?' Outside Magazine. http://www.outsideonline.com/fitness/strength-and-power-training/Growing-Pains-CrossFit-Injuries-On-the-Rise.html

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