Practical Paleo: An Interview with Adam Farrah
Good morning, SlimKickers! We're long-time readers and fans of Adam Farrah, who blogs about the Paleo lifestyle, and wanted to pick his brain on the best way to ease into Paleo, and many other questions. Here is the interview we did with him recently. Enjoy!
SlimKicker Team: Tell us how you discovered the Paleo diet, what your blog's mission is about and what you do.
Adam: I discovered the Paleo diet twice really. I basically discovered it by trial and error when I was recovering from Ulcerative Colitis. I was determined to avoid a lifetime of drugs and surgery and was reading everything I could find on diet and health. This was back in 2004 and the Paleo diet wasn't really that well known or popular.
I basically "arrived" at Paleo by trial and error as I worked with my body to find what foods made me feel better and what foods made me worse. When I finally read "The Paleo Diet" by Loren Cordain a few years later, I saw the science behind why what I had found mostly empirically was working. From there I got a lot more interested in Paleo theory and methodology.
Also, I was getting more and more involved in Kettlebell and Martial Arts training and eventually found my way to CrossFit training. At the time, Robb Wolf was very involved with CrossFit and he's a student of Dr. Cordain.
So, it all came full circle for me - the diet I was eating for health and healing was also a performance diet AND had a lot of science behind it showing that it was the "original" diet for humans. Once I saw that Paleo was also a good diet for hard-training athletes, I was freed from the "I have to eat a weird diet because I have something wrong with me" mindset.
My blog, practicalPaleolithic.com, is a very eclectic blog that covers Paleo diet and lifestyle, strength training, CrossFit-style metabolic conditioning, motivation and even some spiritual aspects of Paleo and training lifestyle.
My purpose in writing the blog is to make Paleo, training and health a much more integrated endeavor and bring together resources and ideas from a lot of different sources and genres. I'm mostly interested in the practical application and implementation of things in the real world - that's how the name of the site came about.
I consider myself an author and a scientist first. I also have training certifications in Kettlebells, CrossFit and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I primarily write for my blog and have a number of book projects launching soon. I also teach seminars and take a few one on one clients on an individual basis, depending on whether I think we're a good fit to work together.
I also run the Facebook group "Strong is the New Skinny" with Marsha Tieken Christensen - that group and our work for more than a year is was popularized that slogan.
SlimKicker Team: A lot of people view Paleo as very intimidating, and part of the problem is they don't know where to start. Would you recommend people dive into Paleo with a strict, disciplined approach, or ease into it?
Adam: I think diving in can be a good strategy for a few reasons. It's a good approach if you train at a CrossFit gym since they pretty routinely do "Paleo Challenges" where they all go Paleo as a team for four or six weeks.
I think dropping processed foods, grains and dairy - while challenging initially depending on your eating habits - is a great way see how bad those foods were making you feel. Most people start feeling really good after a week or two of Paleo and only then realize how much those foods were contributing to things like digestive problems, migraines, fatigue, acne, etc.
You can ease into it, of course, provided you really do ease all the way into it. The full benefit of Paleo is seen when you go Paleo 100% though and I think "easing in" can set you up for fooling yourself into thinking you're eating better than you really are.
Beyond that, if you any kind of health problem that you're going Paleo to help treat, you pretty much NEED to go Paleo 100% to see the benefits. When I was recovering from my illness, even a little grain or dairy a few times a month was enough to keep me from full healing.
SlimKicker Team: Are the rules different for someone who needs to lose weight? Do they still need to look at calories-in, calories-out, or is eating unprocessed, whole foods good enough?
Adam: For many, many people, just going Paleo and losing processed foods and grains and dairy is more than enough to get them to their ideal weight. For some people, it might be a good idea if they're not getting to an ideal weight or their weight loss has gotten stuck (like, they're not consistently losing around a pound a week or so) to start looking at calories in and I do talk about that in my book.
In a lot of cases, people aren't eating enough on Paleo and need to eat more as opposed to less to stimulate their metabolism. It's really easy to overeat on starchy carbs and once they're out of the diet, calories can get low if you're not careful.
Still, part of the "magic" of Paleo is that, once you start eating the foods your body is most well adapted to, body weight and fat loss becomes a non-issue as do appetite and craving issues.
SlimKicker Team: What about macronutrient splits? What do you think is the ideal split between carbs, proteins and fats? And how would it change if you're more active?
Adam: This is an interesting one and there's a lot of debate around it. In particular, this issue had a lot to do with the split between Robb Wolf and CrossFit. The most popular proponent of macronutrient ratios is "The Zone Diet" by Barry Sears. When that diet came out over 10 years ago, it was a great leap forward because it got people out of the "fat-phobic" mindset from the 80's and early 90s that came with the aerobics craze nonsense.
Where The Zone goes wrong is 1) promoting the same macronutrient ratio for everyone and 2) not focusing enough on food quality, i.e. Paleo foods from clean sources.
Now, when I start a client on a Paleo diet, I usually go with a "Zone-ish" split - The Zone is 40% carbs, 30% fat and 30% protein and I use 33%, 33%, 33%. I do this just to get a baseline to adjust from because we have to know where we are so we can get where we want to go.
But, I rarely stay at those proportions and most people will vary somewhat in both what they need for optimal health and performance and how well they hit those ratios from day to day.
As far as changing nutrient requirements with activity levels, this is a really big topic that I get into in my book. Briefly, some people are fueled better on fat and some are fueled better on carbs. For example, my girlfriend who is highly active in CrossFit, yoga and Olympic Weightlifting eats 40-45% of her calories from good fat sources like grassfed meats, pastured whole eggs and coconut oil.
BTW, I couldn't even tell you what my ratios are at this point! All I know is my digestion is good and my performance, mental acuity and mood are all doing pretty well. I haven't weighed a food or calculated nutrient ratios in over a year.
SlimKicker Team: What's your view on fruit, particularly for people who want to lose weight? Fruit obviously has nutritional value, but since it contains so much sugar, do you recommend just sticking to 1 serving a day?
Adam: Ah, the fruit thing. Personally, I eat a lot of fruit. I have a fruit smoothie with additional fiber from ground flax seeds and psyllium husk as my first meal of the day - I even use some rice protein powder in there! I also have done a lot of green smoothies with fruit in the past. (Here's a post about my green smoothies: Green Smoothies and the Paleo Diet).
I feel that, while there is some validity to avoiding sugar and fructose, for the majority of people, drastically restricting fruit isn't really necessary and causes more harm than good psychologically. Some people will do well on more fruit and some will do better on less fruit.
A lot of that comes down to individual metabolism and learning your body. As an example, my girlfriend, Michelle, limits her fruit because she just feels better on a lower carb, limited fruit diet. On the other hand, I do very well - digestion-wise - when I make the first meal of the day a high-fruit, high-fiber smoothie. Both approaches are "correct" because they work for the individual.
I get a little cranky about this topic because I've had people literally freak out at the mere mention of foods like bananas or apples. It just strikes me as really neurotic to get into restricting healthy foods like fruits to a very high degree. I think the best thing you can do is read my book (shameless plug) and use the information and techniques I provide in that resource to figure out for yourself what foods are best for you.
All that said, I do have a strong prejudice toward optimizing digestion and overall health. Some people seem to fuel better on lower carbs and higher fat from a performance standpoint - some even going almost completely ketogenic or Atkins-style. I focus on how I feel mentally and physically and how well I'm digesting as opposed to numbers on the scale or my bodyfat percentage.
In the end, I think the fruit issue comes down to a completely individual thing, but under no circumstances do I think fruit should be demonized or restricted for purely theoretical reasons.
I'd only restrict it if there were an insulin management or digestive issue associated with it for an individual or if there was an obvious athletic performance increase when fueling on fat as opposed to higher glycemic natural carb sources like fruit.
Also, fruits vary widely in how much sugar and calories they contain as well as how they digest. Bananas and mangos work great for me and apples and melon don't digest well for me at all. I restrict apples and melon because they don't work for me as an individual.
SlimKicker Team: A lot of people grew up with the notion that whole grains are better than refined grains. For people who are used to eating grains, what are some substitutes you would recommend?
Adam: None really. I do talk a little about alternative grains in my book and things like soaked and sprouted whole grain breads. At this point, I'm of the opinion that virtually all grains should be avoided unless you're talking about a rare treat or indulgence.
Some people get really crazy about making "Paleo" substitutions for wheat with all kinds of grain-based carb sources. They throw around all sorts of justifications and stuff about how there was some stone bowl found somewhere in Africa by archeologists that had traces of grains in it that were 30,000 years old or something.
Be that as it may, Paleo people ate almost no grains and, in the modern world, grains make a mess out of just about everyone's digestive system.
My girlfriend and partner Michelle lived with a tribe of Aborigines in Australia for a few months when she was in college for Anthropology. She always tells the story of how they had beg these people - in the interest of science - to show them how they made "bread." The Aborigines didn't want to because it so labor intensive! They finally convinced them and it took like 12 hours to make one tiny little cake from some kind of seeds.
She said it was dark by the time it was done and they each only got a tiny little sliver of this little loaf. The point being, no hunter-gatherers would ever have eaten much grain if they could help it. It's only technology that's allowed us to eat things like grains, nuts, seeds, etc. in any great and unhealthy quantities.
My bottom line is to just avoid grains and dairy. Getting into all sorts of substitutions and alternatives is more time consuming and potentially damaging than it's worth.
SlimKicker Team: Social pressure is also a huge obstacle for most people as well. We may want to eat Paleo, but our families and friends may not. Worse, they can often be a hindrance, and poke fun at us for choosing an 'extreme' diet. What advice would you have for these people?
Adam: You have to follow your own path. It's not easy, but the truth is that Paleo is "normal" eating and all the modern crap the majority eats is what's truly weird, extreme and foreign.
Two blog posts I've written that address this issue of motivation and social pressure towards eating unhealthy foods and living an unhealthy lifestyle are here:
SlimKicker Team: I know you're into CrossFit. I know a lot of people find it intimidating. For someone who's been a couch potato, and unfit, how would you recommend they start exercising before moving into something vigorous like CrossFit?
Adam: I actually think that CrossFit is a fine place to start - with the caveat that you're training at a GOOD CrossFit gym and have highly competent trainers. I've seen CrossFit work miracles on sedentary and highly overweight people when properly applied. The biggest issue I see for those who get hurt in CrossFit or move into it too fast is that they're victims of irresponsible or ignorant coaching.
I did an "Intro to CrossFit" series for MyFiveFingers.com that included a video interview with my friends Melissa and Kirk Reed and girlfriend Michelle Connelly who are all coaches at CrossFit 203 in Danbury, CT. There are also videos of a class there that show Melissa's instruction style as well as how they scale the exercises and workouts based on the skill and fitness level of the individuals. That series and the videos from CrossFit 203 talk about how to start CrossFit safely no matter what your experience or fitness level.
The article with the videos is here: CrossFit - Perspectives on Coaching.
SlimKicker Team: Tell us more about your book and what you do as a writer and coach.
Adam: My book, "The Paleo Dieter's Missing Link" is an eBook that's over 150 pages. It goes into detail about aspects of Paleo that either aren't aren't covered in the other Paleo books out there or aren't covered in a way I feel is best for people who are living Paleo day in and day out.
My goal was to present Paleo not as a restrictive diet that you do for a short time to loose weight or for some other goal, but to present it as a lifestyle that is extremely healthy and as a "living" diet that will evolve and change in implementation over time as a person's body, health, training and lifestyle evolve.
Above all, I emphasize the concept of individualization within a diet and guide the reader to learn to make their own decisions with respect to diet and learn how to listen to their body to make better food choices.
As a writer, I'm working on a number of Paleo and health related books for Kindle. I have a Paleo Lifestyle book that will be out in Kindle late summer/early fall of 2012. I'm also doing a lot of writing for Paleo Magazine.
As a coach, I'm mostly doing joint seminars with my partner and girlfriend Michelle Connelly (ChalkAndChi.com). We've been teaching on topics including Paleo diet, Paleo lifestyle and foundational movements for CrossFit, Olympic lifting, Martial Arts, etc. She also does a great "Flexibility for Athletes" program based on her experience in Yoga, CrossFit and Olympic lifting.
I have a handful of one on one clients here in Connecticut that I train also. Most of my work with them is fundamental and foundational movements with Kettlebells that can enhance their training in a chosen sport or training activity.
We were just recently at a local Whole Foods Market talking about Paleo and Gluten Free and have been spreading the word about Paleo eating for health and as a lifestyle as far and wide as we can.
SlimKicker Team: Thanks a lot for answering our questions, Adam!