Paleo vs Atkins Diet
I’ve personally watched at least 40 people make dramatic body transformations by changing their nutrition to a Paleo-style plan and incorporating one or more of the Beachbody programs that we coach people through. I wholeheartedly recommend this nutritional approach (NOT diet) because it works. It’s important to understand what eating Paleo is all about, the key concepts behind it, and how to compare Paleo vs Atkins.
Key Concept: Blood Sugar and Insulin
Carbohydrates are essential sugars. When you take in carbs, your blood sugar rises. The basic measurement of how fast it rises is referred to as the glycemic index of a food. It’s basically a measurement of how dramatically and how fast a food is going to cause your blood sugar to rise. High blood sugar is a toxic condition, so the body responds by generating insulin. If it didn’t, you’d die. Insulin gets a bad rap, but it is an essential hormone whose job is to convert glucose (carbs) into glycogen and store that glycogen in your muscles and liver. Glycogen is your first line of energy when exercising, so it is easy to see how to fuel your body for exercise or to recover from hard efforts. Ingest some carbs and raise blood sugar and allow insulin to do it’s job.
Now, this is all a nice neat and very efficient system – until we start to give the body more carbs than it can handle. The muscles in the liver have limited storage capacity. Once they are full, the only place the body can stash these converted sugars is in the fat cells.
Here’s a short video that illustrates what happens when the body’s insulin response is overstimulated. Eventually, the body can’t keep up and the result is Type 2 Diabetes. Excess insulin production has a number of tragic and unnecessary side effects.
“High insulin levels wreak havoc in many ways. Cholesterol and triglycerides become oxidized and inflamed, initiating the process of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Appetite hormones get thrown out of whack, causing you to continue eating when you should feel satiated. Fat cells stay sensitive well after muscles cells have become resistant, so the excess sugar and other calories wind up as stored body fat. Melatonin/serotonin cycles get messed up, making you feel groggy and cranky in the morning, and craving sugar in the evenings. Becoming insulin-resistant can directly lead to metabolic snydrome and type 2 diabetes.” (From Mark Sisson’s 21 Day Total Body Transformation).
So, now that we understand how insulin works and what it does, we can see that the goal should be to keep your blood sugars under control in order to avoid insulin production. You can do this by eating foods with a low glycemic index, so let’s focus on that.
Eating Paleo and P90X or Insanity
If you are active, you need carbs. This is how the Primal Blueprint is distinguished from the Paleo plan. Mark Sisson has formulated an exercise regime that requires very little carbohydrate intake. It has relatively little high intensity cardio, so it doesn’t require as much in the way of carb intake for glycogen production. Accordingly, the Primal Blueprint plan is high in fat, moderate in protein, and low in carbs.
A Paleo plan is typically going to be a more even with fat and protein, but still low in carbs. If you are like me and you like to do programs like Insanity, then you need carbs to give you energy and help your body recover. That’s why, as much as I quote Mark’s work, I don’t eat “Primal.” I cite Mark because his information is easy to understand and critically important. But, I have to modify his nutrition plan to fit my life.
Everyone has to take concepts and find a way to make them work for their body. The more active you want to be, the more carbs you need. This process involves a lot of trial and error, but I highly encourage you to find what works for you.
I can get all the carbs I need from fruits and vegetables. Fruits are higher on the glycemic index, so I’ll limit my intake of fruit and try to eat “nature’s candy” primarily before and after working out. That way, I get the benefit of that higher glycemic index carbs at a time when they are absorbed and converted into glycogen at a faster rate. Throughout the day, I eat vegetables, which contain carbohydrates and lots of micronutrients [minerals and vitamins]. I don’t need grains to support my chosen fitness program. I can get everything I need from fruits and vegetables and leave all that processed crap that comes in boxes and bags behind.
Paleo vs Atkins
In theory, the Atkins diet isn’t really that different than the Paleo plan. However, it is in the practice of Atkins where we find the greatest difference. If you read literature on Atkins, it talks about limiting carb intake, shunning grains, etc. It even recommends that you eat fruits and veggies. The problem I see is that people putting it into practice eat nothing, but steak, eggs and bacon [or similar protein/fat-based foods]. I’m not saying those foods are bad for you. They are staples in my house. What I am saying is that you do need carbs if you’re working out [see above].
When I talk to people that are new to the Paleo plan, they often complain that they don’t have much energy or that they don’t feel all that great. If they are doing something like P90X, they get extremely sore. The culprit is usually a lack of vegetables. When those people start to add vegetables to their diet, they start to feel better, they have more energy for their workouts, and they recover faster.
I also feel that Atkins really places no emphasis on the quality of the foods you eat. The Paleo lifestyle is, in large part, about eating high quality and nutritious foods – organic vegetables, grass fed beef, locally grown foods, etc. There is an emphasis on the quality of the food you eat that doesn’t seem to be present with Atkins, particularly it’s low carb snack bars.
In addition, people overlook the importance of Omega 3 fatty acids in this whole picture. There are a lot of good reasons to take Omega 3’s. Brain and heart health are the most often cited. The interplay between Omega 3’s and Omega 6’s is often overlooked. Omega 6’s are found in most vegetable oils, most fake butter substitutes, beef that comes from grain-fed cattle, and in a whole host of other processed foods. What happens when you start eating low quality food? You disrupt the balance between Omega 3’s and Omega 6’s in your body. The most notable side effect of this imbalance is inflammation. I used to suffer from inflammation on an uncontrollable level. I had to stop playing basketball because I could not get through it without an hour of ice and 1,000 mg of Advil. Once I started eating high quality foods, and taking an Omega 3 supplement, that all stopped.
A few important takeaways. First, focus on eating low glycemic index foods to keep your blood sugars under control and limit insulin production. Second, understand that you do need carbs if you’re working out, but you can get all you need from fruits and vegetables. Use higher index fruits pre- and post-workout. Third, eat high quality foods. Fourth, take an Omega 3 supplement to offset that Omega 6 imbalance.
Like many things in life, simple is not always easy at first. Don’t be too hard on yourself. A sandwich is not going to kill you. If you have one, don’t beat yourself up. Just understand what’s happening with your body. When you change your eating habits, you can turn your body from a sugar burning machine to a fat burning machine. The machine works on either fuel, but the results are dramatically different.
I hope the information I covered here – including a comparison of Paleo vs Atkins—was helpful. I’m always here to help you in any way I can…for FREE.