My Experimentation with the “Alternative” Diet

By Seiji Ishii

I have been involved in athletics and health promotion my entire adult life. My college education and elite coaching preached that the ultimate diet for athletes was high carbohydrate, moderate protein, and low fat. I competed at very high levels with this menu, and recommended to all my clients, assuming that science and medicine had proven this to be the dietary formula.

Eight years ago, I began researching “alternative” diet philosophies, partly spurred by my career ending health problem insulin resistance. (Warning: treat athleticism and health/wellness separately! I could still race bicycles at a high level, but I was unhealthy and NOT well.) Insulin resistance is a dysfunction where the body stops responding to the surge of insulin which, in healthy people, reduces the elevated blood sugar caused by eating. This malfunction can lead to an array of health and performance problems such as type II diabetes, dysglycemia, chronic fatigue, hormonal issues and more. I started digging around due to sinking thoughts that at least some of my problems stemmed from the dietary guidelines that I considered the gospel of athlete nutrition.

Video explaining insulin resistance: https://youtu.be/mNYlIcXynwE

I came across a dietary philosophy called the Paleo Diet. The theory is that our bodies could not have evolved in the relatively short period between the agricultural revolution and now, meaning that we should still be eating similar to Paleolithic man or caveman. Evolution theoretically takes a very long time, and since the advent of farming, grains, bread, pasta, dairy and all the other food marvels of the current times, the mindset is that we are not yet equipped to process those foods. Our bodies may have an adverse reaction to eating these items. The proponents of this ancestral way of eating claim heart disease, diabetes, etc. could be caused by insulin resistance, and possibly reverting to “caveman” foods could improve not only health but athletic performance.

Although the theory of not having enough evolutionary time can make sense, it was nonetheless tough for me to accept after a career of practice, education and preaching the high carb, low fat “athlete diet.” The Paleo diet is almost the opposite. Eat like a hunter-gatherer: meats, fish, veggies, fruit, and nuts. High protein, moderate carbohydrate and by today’s standards, high fat (animal sources at that!). Depending on what version of the diet I study, sometimes there is no distinction between saturated and unsaturated fats and cholesterol may be ignored altogether. You can see why this dietary theory goes against so much that has been taught and pounded into all of our heads in the last 30+ years. (Remember the food pyramid?) Again, this dietary philosophy has been challenging for me to accept let alone do and preach.

Instead of just continuing the endless research (which I still do almost daily), I decided to experiment on the only voluntary subject that would do it for free: me. The results were mind-blowing. I lost 15+ pounds over the course of two months, and all measurable signs of insulin resistance disappeared within three months. The host of other markers of my failing wellness resolved themselves within six months. There was an adjustment period with regards to my training, but in the end, it was an alteration that needed to happen for me to enjoy the sports I still enjoy today, at a level that is still satisfying, at the age of 49. After nine months of strict Paleo-style eating, I modified the diet to include more carbohydrates in and around exercise, and this formula has worked wonderfully for the last seven years.

I am not saying that the Paleo diet is the universal answer for all athletes. What I am saying is that there are alternatives to the historically preached high carbohydrate, low-fat route and that you should research and experiment for yourself if you feel your current diet is not optimal. How you feel, how it affects your health and how you perform will ultimately determine which dietary philosophy works for your particular situation. Every metabolism, physiology and yes, tastes, are different and there may not be an answer that even works for the majority of athletes. Explore, learn and find out for yourself what works the best for you. Do this while you are still in your growing and learning stages of your athletic career so you can take advantage of any findings. You never know, a change from the status quo may be the best change you make!

Resources on the Paleo diet:

The Paleo Diet for Athletes, by Loren Cordain, Ph.D. and Joe Friel. Also, see www.thepaleodiet.com.

The Primal Blueprint, by Mark Sisson. Also, see www.marksdailyapple.com.

The Paleo Solution, by Robb Wolf.

Tons of other books and websites are out there; I just haven’t gotten to all of them yet!