Should You Eat Like A Caveman?

Just because our prehistoric ancestors ate a certain diet, does not mean it is the best diet for our performance as an athlete.

Quantitative Genetics

When I was in school, I took a class in genetics. Actually, I took many classes in genetics, but I want to focus on one in particular. There is a field of study called quantitative genetics and it’s a fascinating look into they way genetics works on a large scale. You may have heard of the term, heritability, which comes from this discipline within the world of genetics.

Anyway, my first class in quantitative genetics was taught by a fantastic professor who knew how to make her students think. She said something within the first few weeks of class that scared the crap out of me. She said something along the lines of

… with all the possible combinations of DNA resulting in defects, it is truly amazing that we are alive.

Really? From a statistical point of view she may have been right, but to think that I could drop dead at any moment from a chromosomal aberration or a deleterious mutation was pretty scary. What she said makes sense within the context of the laws of evolution that govern species survival.

Ancient Diets

Some people talk about eating like a prehistoric cave dweller. Presumably, that’s the diet that helped shape humans’ ability to hunt, gather, reproduce, and survive. Evolution favored the human that survived long enough to reproduce. I guess the “paleo” diet advocates believe that a prehistoric diet will help them be healthier and live longer.

I don’t deny some of those claims, but a diet that favors survival of the species does not mean it will help a 56 year old qualify for Kona. I don’t want to insult anyone or say anyone is wrong for adopting a paleo or keto diet. The results of some scientific investigations suggest they have merit. However, I do wish to offer a perspective which I have yet to read or hear in the popular media.

As a prehistoric creature, the human must have eaten a diet that promoted a certain level of health to allow it survival in very difficult times. But evolution only cares about survival to reproduce. It doesn’t care that you want to live to 100. It doesn’t care that you want to finish a triathlon. In fact, it doesn’t care if you have a body like Arnold Schwarzenegger (I’m talking Arnold from 40 years ago). It doesn’t matter that everyone lived a short life. The only winners were the ones who reproduced the most.

The Modern Human

Any genetic combination was allowed to survive as long as it lived long enough to reproduce. Most of us today competing in triathlon are much older than any of our prehistoric ancestors. Most of us have already reproduced and most of us have already proven our worthiness of survival (in the eyes of evolution). It doesn’t matter if modern medicine has intervened in our survival, because that’s part of evolution too.

My point is that we can’t justify a diet’s merit toward triathlon performance based on its relation to the diet of our prehistoric cousins. I’m not saying we need to eat processed foods, but I am saying that we are doing things with our bodies that prehistoric evolution never had to deal with: almost all of us are living longer.

So What Is Best?

Modern humans have to deal with choices like never before. Strawberries in January? Mangos in Arizona? A complete meal in a box? Low carb? High carb?

We are never going to know which combination of foods will allow us to express our absolute best performance on race day, but we can definitely find out which ones hold us back. It all comes down to trial and error with a disciplined approach.

Training for triathlon is not only about heart, muscle and mind. It’s also about training the gut. Of the three sports nutritionists I recently interviewed, all mentioned this concept and expressed how important it is. And after five weeks of training under the guidance of a nutritionist, I believe it.

Here’s What You Can Do

The key to finding what works is to know your choices, start with one of them, then follow a disciplined method.

  1. Practice your daily nutrition and record your observations. How do you feel? Did you get diarrhea? Did you have more energy? What else is noteable?
  2. During training days practice prerace meals, bike fueling, run fueling and record your observations. Did you get water belly? Did you have GI distress? How much were you able to consume (kcal, ml, g, etc).
  3. When something doesn’t work, what could you have done differently to make it work? If you can’t think of anything or you don’t have a coach forcing you to try again then move on to another option. Otherwise, try to make it work.
  4. Above all, be consistent just like you are with the rest of your training and record everything.

That’s about all I know on that subject. Until next time…