If you do Crossfit, then you’ve undoubtedly heard of the paleo diet. It’s closely associated with Crossfit, and has become quite a trend outside of the boxes as well, with a slew of paleo cookbooks lining the shelves of your local bookstore. So is this the next great thing, or is it just another fad?
Paleo, according to Robb Wolf, “is the healthiest way you can eat because it is the only nutritional approach that works with your genetics to help you stay lean, strong and energetic!”
However, scientists tend not to agree with this statement. The association of UK dieticians (BDA) ranked paleo second on its list of celebrity-endorsed diets to avoid, topped only by Bear Grylls’s urine soaked diet. The U.S. News and World Report ranked Paleo at the very bottom on their list of best diets.
The problem with paleo is that the science behind it is simply not sound. The reasoning behind paleo is as follows: the human body adapted to the diet of the stone age and since then our genetics have changed little, yet our diet has changed a lot, and this incongruity results in obesity, heart and coronary disease, diabetes, and other diseases found in modern mankind. Thus we should eat the diet our bodies are best adapted to for it to function best.
There are numerous flaws here. Firstly, it is impossible to eat like cavemen, since food today is different from the food they ate in the Palaeolithic-era. We have bred and crossbred and manipulated species in our favour. Cows did not give as much milk as they do today, and tomatoes used to be small berries. In other words, our potatoes are different from their potatoes.
Secondly, even if it were possible to eat like cavemen, we don’t know exactly what they ate. Recent research has found that they ate starchy roots and tubers, like potatoes, a lot more than first thought. Other researchers found 32,000-year-old stones used as grinding tools, with residue of five main types of starches. This means they had flour, and could have made something akin to pancakes or bread.
Thirdly, we lead very different lives than cavemen. Of course, our diet is a large cause of obesity, which is a problem. However, the fact that cavemen had to hunt down and kill their meat, whereas we order it online to be delivered to the front door, probably also has something to do with it.
Fourthly, the idea that our genetics have changed little is debatable. One example of how our genetics changed is lactose tolerance. Since dairy became prevalent, most people have evolved a mutation that causes a gene normally only active during infancy to remain active throughout life. Moreover, a recent study done by the University of Berkley and the University of Copenhagen shows that:
“the Inuit and their Siberian ancestors have special mutations in genes involved in fat metabolism. The mutations help them partly counteract the effects of a diet high in marine mammal fat, mostly from seals and whales that eat fish with high levels of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Those genetic mutations, found in nearly 100 percent of the Inuit, are found in only 2 percent of Europeans and 15 percent of Han Chinese, which means that these groups would synthesize omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids differently from the Inuit.” 
The researchers note that this is very strong evidence that different human populations are adapted to different, particular diets and that, by extension, a person’s genome may dictate a personalized diet.
Finally, just because something is paleo, doesn’t mean it’s healthy. As paleo dietician Amy Kubal points out, everything has been made paleo: “We’ve got paleo treats (cookies, candy, cakes…), paleo granola, paleo bars, paleo bread, paleo protein powder, paleo ketchup and BBQ sauce, recipes for paleo desserts/pancakes/ice cream, etc.” All things the paleo-diet is trying to steer you away from. Sugar is sugar, no matter whether it’s refined or honey. These products mean that people can now eat paleo all day every day, and still have an unbalanced, unhealthy, sugary diet.
So paleo is another fad, right?
Then why are so people so enthusiastic about it? Well because, despite the shoddy science behind it, it kinda works—especially if your goal is to lose weight. Paleo tells you to avoid processed foods and junk food, and cut back on sugar, and to eat fruits and vegetables instead. Anyone will tell you that is sound advice. Especially your mother. It’s what she always told you. However, paleo also tells you to avoid all kinds of other things, like potatoes and rice, which are perfectly good foods.
The zone diet is a restrictive, low-carb diet similar to paleo. Like paleo, it’s popular among Crossfitters, though I’m sure no Crossfitter follows it to the letter. The zone website describes it as similar to “the traditional Mediterranean diet, except that the grains and starches in the Zone Diet are dramatically restricted and replaced by even greater amounts of fruits and vegetables.” This means lots of vegetables, some fruit, low-fat protein from fish and meat, some nuts, and little grain and starch. The diet should be supplemented with anti-inflammatories such as omega-3 and polyphenol.
Zone is not as restrictive as paleo, as no food is banned completely, but it does strongly discourage starch and processed foods. With zone, each meal is balanced and consists of 30% protein, 30% fat and 40% carbs.
Technically, you get 3 meals and 2 snacks a day, 1200 calories if you’re a woman, 1500 if you’re a man. That last sentence is the part I doubt any crossfitter adheres to.
Zone works for much the same reasons paleo does: it encourages you to eat more vegetables and cut out processed foods and junk food, thus cutting back on sugar and salt. What’s distinct about zone is the way your meals are balanced, the so-called blocks. A block is 7 grams of protein, 9 grams of carbs and 3 grams of fat (though fat also listed as half that, to account for hidden fat in the rest of your meal). A meal typically consists of three blocks for a woman, four for a man. This makes for more work in the kitchen, but does ensure that you’re diet is well balanced.
However, depending on your body and goals, a very different balance of protein, fat and carbs may be more effective. These three groups are your macronutrients, or macros for short. Bodybuilders use these macros all the time as the foundation for their diets, and as their goals shift from weight gain to fat loss or simply maintenance, the percentages shift accordingly. In zone, the percentages are set it stone. That means that although I’ve been scrawny and skinny my whole life, I get to eat the same amount of fat as someone who seems to gain weight simply by watching Masterchef.
If It Fits Your Macros (or flexible dieting)
If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) is the simplest and least restrictive of the diets discussed here. The principle is simply calories count.
Eat fewer calories than you burn, you’ll lose weight. Eat more calories and you’ll gain weight.
The macros, as mentioned before, are protein, carbs and fat, though IIFYM lists fibers as an extra macro. Usually considered a micro, they feel it should be a consideration and therefore included it in their macros.
So how does this diet work?
The website iifym.com has a handy calculator. Based on your gender, height, age, and level of activity, you calculate your baseline, or daily required calories. You then choose whether you want to lose, gain or maintain your weight. And hey presto, there’s your macros. Now you know exactly how many grams of protein, carbs, fat and fiber to eat, and how many calories that makes.
Throughout the day, you’re free to eat anything you want. All you need to do is keep track of what you eat and make sure that at the end of the day, you’ve hit your macros. That last part can be tricky at first. Though tracking macros has become easy thanks to apps on your phone, you’ll need to read labels and figure out what to eat and how often, so that you’re not left with a late night snack that needs to be 30 grams of protein and no fat.
The upside to this diet is that you’re tracking exactly what you eat and are sure to get all your nutrients. Also, since nothing is off the table, it’s a diverse diet. This is at the same time its downside: how healthy this diet is, is wholly dependent on your own self-discipline. You could eat chicken and chocolate all day and hit your macros. This, of course, is not the idea. Ideally you eat whole foods: meat, fish, vegetables and fruit, and rice or potatoes. If you have any macros left, you could snack some chocolate, or eat a little yoghurt, that’s up to you. What foods to include or exclude, like dairy, is something you can figure out and decide on you own.
Which is best?
The best diet fits your lifestyle, your body and your goals. Don’t avoid specific foods because they’re not allowed. Rich Froning doesn’t avoid dairy. No, you’re not Rich, but you’re also not your lactose intolerant friend. If you don’t feel any worse or different when you drink milk, there’s no reason to avoid it. Cheat meals are fine, just not every day. Trust me, that slice of birthday cake won’t affect your Fran time, unless you wolf it down at 3, 2, 1, go!
Use your common sense. We all know junk food is bad, hell it’s in the name. And we all know vegetables are good for us, and so are fruits and nuts, and we know too much of something is never a good thing. Yes, diet is important and nutrition is a large part of fitness, especially if you’re competitive. However, eating a precise number of goji-berries or quinoa every day won’t make you a great athlete. Hard work will.
Don’t believe me? Here’s some diets from world class athletes.
Robert Oberst, second strongest man in America, sticks to mostly clean foods: spinach, rice, turkey, eggs, and any form of meat. He eats 6 meals a day, which total between 15,000 and 20,000 calories.
John Welbourn, former pro-NFL player and now of Crossfit Football, recommends protein from poultry, fish and meat (anything that runs, flies or swims), fats in the forms of animal fat, olive oil and coconut oil, carbs from roots, tubers, veggies and white rice, and dairy (milk, full fat yoghurt, raw cheese).
Kai Greene, top bodybuilder, eats chicken and fish, vegetables, sweet potatoes and rice, and eggs. He eats his meals every 2,5 to 3 hours.
Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (who I’m assuming you want to look like) eats fish, chicken, eggs, lots and lots of veggies, sweet potatoes and rice, oat meal and salad. Seven meals in total make up 10 pounds of food and about 5,000 calories.
In other words, they eat food. Nothing special or fancy, but regular food. Just a lot more of it than most people.
 University of Chicago Press Journals. “Paleo diet: Big brains needed carbs: Importance of dietary carbohydrate in human evolution.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 August 2015. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/08/150806133148.htm
 Lippi, et al. “Multistep food plant processing at Grotta Paglicci (Southern Italy) around 32,600 cal B.P.” PNAS. 6 August 2015. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/09/02/1505213112
 ‘How to Really Eat Like a Hunter-Gatherer: Why the Paleo Diet Is Half-Baked.’ Scientific American. June 3, 2013.
 ‘Paleo’ diet works if you have Inuit genes’. UC Berkley. Futurity.org. September 21, 2015. http://www.futurity.org/inuit-diet-genes-1007932/
 ‘Just because the label says paleo doesn’t mean it’s healthy.’ Robbwolf.com May 3, 2015. http://robbwolf.com/2015/03/05/paleofication-just-because-the-label-says-paleo-doesnt-mean-its-healthy/