Stone Age Diet For The Space Age Athlete
Apart from training, nothing affects athletic performance more than diet.
The body’s cells require proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and water for health, energy, and growth. Chronically eating a diet that is deficient in any of these nutrients compromises your capacity for training and racing and increases the risk of becoming sick. Most athletes are aware of the importance of good nutrition, but many don’t know what to eat for fitness.
So, what should I be eating?
Loren Cordain, Ph.D., Professor of Exercise and Sports Science at Colorado State University believes that the answer is found in the distant past when Mother Nature shaped our ancestors with the hard facts of evolution. He points out that todays endurance athletes already have a lifestyle that closely resembles that of Stone Age men and women of 25,000 years ago. His studies show that these prehistoric athletes probably burned more than 3,000 calories a day, dealing with the rigors of existence in a demanding environment. The men would often spend much of the day tracking and hunting animals and would then carry the carcass back to camp. Cordain estimates that they may have ran up to 10 miles in a day, most of it with a 25-pound load. The women were also active as they carried children while finding and hauling fruits and vegetables back to camp. Life was physically difficult by today’s standards.
The humans evolved to meet the challenges of their environment.
Dr. Cordain points out that the evolved genetic changes still shape our dietary needs today some 2 million years after man first appeared as a separate genus in the anthropological record. He believes that since evolution is a slow and steady process requiring thousands of years to produce even the smallest change.
Our ancient genes are still best adapted to a Stone Age diet, although we live in the Space Age.
We long ago developed the mechanics, chemistry, and gut to process the foods that our primal ancestors ate for millennia, and these haven’t changed significantly. So, what our Stone Age ancestors ate is what we should eat now. They ate a simple diet consisting primarily of meats and organs from wild game, fruits and vegetables. Nuts, seeds, berries, and eggs were also eaten.
There were no grains or dairy products
Substances to which many humans still have adverse reactions. Animal products accounted for most of calories, perhaps 40 percent to 50 percent, but the saturated fat content was much lower than what we see in most meats now. These animals were not fed long corn in feedlots, their growth was not enhanced by drugs, so the meat was way different from what is currently found in the local supermarket. For example, today a cut of USDA prime beef contains 560% more saturated fat than the same amount of meat from wild game such as elk, which is similar to what our ancestor ate for millions of years.
Stone Age people ate less carbohydrate than is commonly recommended now…
and what carbohydrate they did eat released its energy slowly with the exception of the odd honey finds. They ate no foods that were calorically dense but nutritionally empty like many of our sugar-rich foods of today. Their foods were fresh and high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Their primary drink was water with occasional herb or berry teas. Despite not having a food pyramid to tell them what to eat, they didn’t suffer from the diet- and lifestyle-induced diseases we now experience like heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and some types of cancers. It appears they might have actually died in their 30s or 40s, usually from accidents or acute illnesses for which there were no cures. While we don’t know exactly what long-term effects their diet might have had, we do know that many people still follow a Stone Age diet and existence in remote areas today. These people live into their 60s, 70s, and even 80s.
Todays common lifestyle diseases do not plague these modern-day Stone Age humans.
It seems that by eating nutrient-dense foods to which they are fully adapted and by having an active and generally low-stress lifestyle, their bodies are in harmony with their environment. With the birth of farming and the gradual shift in diet towards more cereals came higher infant mortality rates, a reduced lifespan, iron deficiency, loss of physical height, bone disorders such as osteoporosis, and dental cavities.
In 10,000 years, and even less in most parts of the world, agriculture reshaped human diet and health.
While a hundred centuries may seem long, it’s really not in the context of nearly two million years of our special lifetime. If man’s existence were represented by 24 hours, farming would have been around for only the last eight minutes, far too little time for our genetics to adapt. Our popular high-carbohydrate diet with its emphasis on starch and sugar is even newer, having been around for only a few decades, milliseconds on our 24-hour clock. Modern athletes have bodies meant for a diet different from what most eat now.
So, what should you eat?
The short answer is to eat primarily from those foods that your ancestors have eaten throughout most of the last two million years. This includes lean meats, preferably from wild game or free-ranging animals, fish, poultry, shellfish, fresh vegetables, and fruits in season and close to their annual, natural state, and in small amounts nuts, seeds, and dried fruit. Those foods that are newest should be eaten in the smallest amounts, especially those that are highly processed. This will provide you with a simple and nutrient-dense diet to which your body is fully adapted and enhance your capacity for demanding training.
Food For Fuel
While the human genetic code has changed very little, dietary recommendations change often. In the mid 20th century, endurance athletes were advised to avoid starchy foods such as bread and potatoes and to eat more vegetables and meat instead. In the 1970s, a dietary shift away from protein began with an increase in carbs, especially starchy grains. The 1980s brought concerns of fat in the diet, and low-fat and fat-free foods boomed, with an accompanying increase in sugar consumption.
Now, the pendulum is swinging back the other way, with the realization that certain fats are beneficial and that some carbohydrates in large quantities negatively affect performance.
The crux of your daily dietary decisions is a relative mix of the four macronutrients you consume: protein, fat, carbohydrate, and water. How much of it you include in your diet has a great deal to do with how well you train and race.