Running & Paleo – Are Grains Bad?!!

sarah cuff Carb-Loading for Runners, Food for Runners, Grains, Legumes 1 Comment

I was asked recently, “What’s up with all the hoopla was over grains – you know, the Paleo way?” The person asking had slowly transitioned over to a primarily vegetarian way of eating because it felt best to her. To hear she should possibly stop eating something that comprised a majority of her diet (not to mention begin eating something she’d phased out) was understandably distressing.

grains1The question of Paleo – specifically, should we be eating grains and legumes – is one I’ve been wanting to tackle for a while now. Intuitively, cutting out all grains and legumes just didn’t feel right. I’m a nutritionist after all. This Paleo thing – it initially appeared to me like a kind of revised Atkins, although possibly even more strict! (Atkins lost it’s popularity shortly after the death of its creator in 2003.) Ah, low carb. It’s always felt like a bit of hot topic. A bit of a controversial one. I feared addressing this issue would result in me banging my head up against a wall in pure frustration.

To get started I rounded out my own resources and of course the ever useful world wide web (what ever did we do in the days before google?), by purchasing The Paleo Diet for Athletes: The Ancient Nutritional Formula for Peak Athletic Performance by Loren Cordain and Joe Friel. I was to be warned my intuition may well have served me correctly, as the authors state on page 171, “…they (nutritionists) almost certainly would brand this diet unhealthful, if not outright dangerous.” But nevertheless upon first glance I got really excited.

The Paleo diet embraces a whole foods way of eating, to the extent that it recommends getting rid of all refined, packaged and processed foods. Yes!! It recommends buying only meat that is organic and pasture fed (not grain fed). Double yes!! It’s a proponent of excluding oils such as canola, soy and corn from our diets and bringing our omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio back into a healthful balance. Awesome! And it even admitted that, “immediately before, during, and after a workout or competition, certain non-Paleo foods should be eaten to promote a quick recovery”. Okay, I like this honesty.


A Paleo Diet Food Pyramid

The first bit of the book reads like any sports nutrition guide, although only a brief version – and in it’s being somewhat incomplete came across to me as being somewhat inaccurate in places, or at the very least underscores the danger of oversimplifying an extremely complex process. For an example, please click here. You could say that tipped me off.

Régime paléoAs I kept reading, things continued to unravel. They blatantly dismiss vegetarians, throwing in catty digs throughout the book (not smart – for starters look up cancer survivor Kris Carr or champion ultrarunner Scott Jurek), they preach their word like the bible (a dangerous thing to do, as “a single extreme view is invariably wrong“), and believe it or not they put chia seeds on the “Modern Foods to Avoid” list (listen, don’t mess with my chia seeds – don’t care if Fred Flintstone ate them or not). In the end, the only two reasons I could find in the entire book on why we should not be eating grains (and legumes) are these:

1. Thou shalt not eat grains and legumes… Because you can’t cook them without fire. And fire the Paleolithic peoples did not have.

2. Thou shalt not eat grains and legumes… Because they contain anti-nutrients and are a net acid-yeilding food.

Let me address those two concerns.

1. No Fire? Really?

Actually, they probably did have fire. And… If you’re ignoring grains and legumes because you can’t cook them without fire, tell me this. Why do 80% (70 of 86 to be exact) of the recipes at the back of the book use the stove or oven? Shouldn’t everything be eaten raw? The meat, there’s a lot of meat – should you not be eating it raw to be true Paleo? Ew, gross! That last statement (ew, gross) is purely my own opinion.

Supposedly the Paleolithic people existed from 1.5 to 2.6 million years ago (early Paleolithic) to maybe 10,000 years ago (upper Paleolithic). It’s actually estimated that fire was introduced to the Paleolithic people as early as 300,000 to 1.5 million years ago, becoming common in the Middle Stone Age (250,000 years ago). Head swimming in the enormity of these numbers yet? Mine is. Let’s just say that most of the years that the Paleolithic people existed they did indeed have access to fire. But who really knows. I’ve watched Survivor, and they can make fire pretty fast with a few sticks, ha! Ha.

Survivor game players eat mostly beans and rice... And yet lose weight... ;)

Survivor game players making fire… btw, they eat mostly beans and rice… And yet most lose weight… 😉

Anyway, the authors do admit that fire existed 250,000 years ago, but they claim grains did not become staple foods until 13,000 years ago, according to fossil records. Thank goodness for the fossil records.

2. Anti Acid Foods… Or Something Like That

Now, about the anti-nutrients and net acid-yeilding properties. Yes, it’s true grains and legumes contain anti-nutrients (ie. aflatoxin in peanuts, phytoestrogens and lectin in soy, phytates in general). However, so it is with most foods. The authors forgot to mention this little fact. If I wanted to, I could come up with at least a couple reason why every single food out there is ‘bad’. Yep, even berries, spinach, swiss chard, collards, parsley, almonds, cashews, cocoa and black tea (oxalates). Nuts (phytates). Eggplant, tomatoes, bell peppers, paprika and hot peppers (alkaloids such as solanine). Broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, mustard, kale, rutabagas, kohlrabi, turnips, peaches, radishes, spinach and strawberries (goitrogens).

It is also somewhat true that grains and legumes are net acid-yeilding. However, oops – the authors forgot to mention that meat is just as or in some cases even more net acid-yeilding than grains and legumes are. Ah well, nothing like leaving out important facts. In fact, some grains and legumes are not acid-yeilding. For example, millet, quinoa and amaranth are reportedly net-alkaline. For the record, meat – especially beef and pork – are some of the most net acid-yeilding foods out there.


So after submersing myself into the Paleolithic world (by way of literature only… even though some will argue you’ll never embrace it until you actually try it) for one whole week, my head is pretty banged up. It has indeed been frustrating, yelling at the book asking it various questions such as why is coconut and olive oil allowed when obviously the Paleo people would have had no such processed oils back in the day.

That said, I do think that there is something to the underlying principle behind Paleo. Some people swear up and down that following a Paleo diet makes them healthier and happier. In fact, I have a client who cut out legumes and grains to finally lose those last few pounds that she’d been struggling with. There is a scientifically plausible reason for this – metabolic vulnerability.

I believe it’s possible that some of us are metabolically vulnerable. In other words, it may be that some people cannot metabolize starchy carbohydrates well. South African professor of exercise & sports science at the University of Cape Town, author of the book Lore of Running and marathoner Tim Noakes makes the argument that the metabolism of every human is not the same – those with carbohydrate resistance are unable to metabolize carbohydrates, even while the person next to them thrives off of grains and legumes. His compelling argument is captured below.

I absolutely believe that we have been overeating carbohydrates, especially the processed  and packaged carbs for way too long. A lifetime of eating this way can lead to serious health consequences. So if you’re up in the air trying to decide whether or not to cut out grains… Ask yourself if it intuitively feels right to try it. If you just can’t lose the extra weight (even though you feel you’re doing everything right) or you’re suffering from health concerns, the order in which I’d suggest experimenting is this:

  1. Try cutting out every single processed product from your diet.
  2. If that doesn’t do the trick, additionally try cutting all wheat out.
  3. Further to wheat, try cutting out all gluten (spelt, kamut, barley, rye).
  4. Lastly, if still having problems, cut down on healthy whole grain carb portions (lentils, quinoa, millet, rice, beans, etc) and eat more vegetables.
  5. Finally, if you’re still having issues, try cutting out all grains and legumes.

In the end, we are as different as we are the same. Everyone will land in a slightly different place when it comes to what works for them. My job is to help you find yours. Personally, as a runner and athlete, I want my options just a little wider when it comes to choosing carbohydrate fuel sources and maybe I’m lucky in that I am able to eat my grains (with the exception of wheat) and legumes.

By the way, it appears that humans (Aztecs and Mayans) began eating chia seeds about 3500 years ago – a staple food for these people. Chia got its name from the Mayan word for strength. And we all know from Christopher McDougalls Born to Run (2011) what fantastic, strong and healthy endurance athletes (the Tarahumara runners) these little seeds helped to build.


So… Are grains bad? Should you go all caveman? Nah, probably not. However, please do avoid the processed stuff (which does include the majority of wheat products and every bagel I’ve ever come across). Listen to your body. And have lots of fun using quinoa, millet, spelt, kamut, oats, rice (if you’re not sensitive to grains of course)… And chia seeds – eat lots of chia seeds!

Happy running 🙂

Sarah J Cuff, RNH, PTS

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