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My Paleo Journey

olgak_articles(Note: The first few short paragraphs of this article had been re-used and adapted from a Foreword I had written for a book by Iva Paleckova with her kind permission.)

It took me a while to finally gather my thoughts together to write this foreword. Life was busy with family, a full time job, full time training, side-business of massage therapy, teaching bootcamp to a neighborhood association, coaching runners, and knitting items for my friends as my hobby…Yes, all that, and full-on cooking from scratch! Why do I start like this? Because I was thinking how growing up in a former socialistic country makes a person adapt more to challenges, less questioning how to make things easier and firmer approach of “just do it”. Living in the now-extinct Soviet Union, back 20 years ago, we surely never had niceties of prepackaged food and a variety of vacuum-sealed meals. I never saw a microwave, and we joked that our chickens ran all the way from Far East to Moscow and died their own death – that joke came around when, during G. Bush Senior’s administration, Russia was exported some chicken thighs (we called them “Bush’s legs”). All of us also knew where the food came from – as socialistic farming was hard to find labor, children from age of 10 and older were more often than not spending the first month of school (September) in the fields to help the adults collectively gather the harvest.

And so we all cooked. Cooking was a huge part of my life – daily meals with almost-daily visits to grocery stores (no cars meant no big bags to carry home after work), weekend meals, with something special on a side, and, of course, holiday gatherings. Did we have a table or what?! All of it, often taking 2-3 days to prepare, was freshly made, cut, juiced, baked, boiled, steamed, fried, and neatly organized. Russian tables had always been a huge envy of any visitor – and a sign of a normal life.

I’ve lived in United States for 20 years. I came here when I was 23, and you’d think, with an (adult) half of my life been in this country, I would change my approach to cooking and eating – but I didn’t. I still bought produce and meats, didn’t give in to packages and vacuum seals, and kept chopping and boiling.

But even with that, societal norm sneaks in to your life. It gets busy, and you grab a yogurt and a PBJ for lunch, ham-n-cheese sandwich for dinner, and go as low as cereal for breakfast. And, before you know it, your waist line gets a little wider, your behind doesn’t fit into your favorite pair of jeans, and your cheeks exude your grandma’s wish of a pinch.

All of that – with being a pretty competitive ultra-runner at the level required to travel to multiple high-profile races and run hard! How could it be? What can be wrong if a runner – a runner who accumulates 100 miles a week, with regular speed workouts, hill repeats and back-to-back long runs – eats a couple pasta bowls and a bagel to fuel up? Isn’t it what is recommended by everybody and their coach?

First, that runner gets diagnosed and struggles with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). Then, lactose intolerance, low Thyroid function, and gluten sensitivity. The runner keeps excluding foods, but symptoms keep popping up…

And then that runner reads a book about Paleo. That was winter 2011, I remember it well. By spring 10 pounds come off, and running becomes easier, and tummy aches, bloating, irregularities disappear. But having a family has its own “side effects”, and cooking separate meals gets cumbersome, so mistakes are made, and slowly the return to rice (no gluten, right?) and white potatoes becomes inevitable. And so are 10 pounds, digestive problems and sluggish running…

It took me three tries and two full years to finally make a full switch and adhere to a Paleo diet for good. The only way I was able to stick with it was through following Whole30. I am kind of a believer that half-hearted approach never helped anyone, things like “I’ll cut a little bit of soda and pasta”, “I’ll add on one extra vegetable”, “I’ll throw in occasional faster run”…You know what I am talking about. To stick with anything, you need an “all or nothing” attitude. And you need 30 days to form a new habit.

it-starts-with-food

Enter Whole30. Not only was it outlined by rules, my husband Larry joined in for the ride. And this is where the benefits were so huge, one couldn’t lie anymore! While my “normal” eating habits were close enough to what is considered to be Paleo due to growing up in Eastern Europe, the pancakes-cereal-PBJ-pasta combo was what fueled my sweetheart. So did milk, rice, cheese, ice-cream and various sugary drinks. Boy was it hard for him! But man, were the rewards awesome! Not only did the pounds peel off along with inches and inches (and yes, we ate without reservation how much, only what), other benefits piled up! Below are his own words:

I have been a sugarholic deluxe! I’ve been drinking sodas since I was old enough to walk, literally. Even have pics of me with a soda bottle in my hands when I was a toddler. I haven’t had any non-naturally occurring sugar (I cut out dairy too, btw), besides what is in the few pieces of fruit I eat each day for three weeks now. It was tough, real tough! I wanted a coke, big stack of pancakes with lots of syrup, a mocha (do you realize how much of that syrup from Starbucks they put in a latte or mocha???), a teaspoon of “raw sugar” (guess the name is supposed to make you think it’s healthier?) in my tea, an occasional Snickers bar or Peanut M&Ms, a Slurpee, or PB&J (my all-time fav!). My mood swings have stopped. My mid-afternoon doldrums at work are gone. My mental acuity is drastically heightened. No more strong hunger cravings an hour, or two, after a meal. I don’t miss the sugar. Ok, I confess, I do miss it a little bit. But, the benefits I’m seeing outweigh my desire to indulge. Will I eat something with sugar again? Sure I will, especially if some red velvet cake balls mysteriously showed up on my doorstep. But, sugar won’t be a staple item in my diet like it has been for my entire life.

As for running – that was unbelievable. Even with little to no training (due to various reasons) the speed had improved and the endurance never hindered! Talking about “distance runners need simple carbs”!

olga-paleo-journey

Pre-Whole30 and day 40 of Paleo focused living (Removed 8 pounds with a body fat decrease of 4%. Larry removed 20 pounds.)

I can assure you it is not easy to post your own photos for the world to see. But after having done so on my own Facebook page and my personal blog, and seeing that these photos and my (and Larry’s) story had inspired at least a couple dozen folks to follow it – and receive the benefits – I am feeling better opening up to a wider audience.

So, let’s review in short some things:

The No List

  • Processed foods
  • Grains
  • Legumes
  • Soy
  • Added Sugar
  • Dairy
  • Alcohol
  • White potatoes
  • Vegetable oils

The Yes List – We eat real food!

  • All animal proteins
  • All vegetables, except as listed above
  • All fruits (in moderation)
  • Quality fat sources: coconut products, olives and olive oil, avocados
  • Nuts and seeds (in moderation)

What to expect to happen?

First week, if you are a real sugar-junkie, will be pure misery. Cravings are overwhelming, and from what Larry has been telling me (and what I witnessed) it took every ounce of willpower to not give up. Back off your running in quantity and quality and take it easy on yourself! Do some yoga, keep yourself busy, and be generally VERY prepared to hit real foods when the craving comes. Are you hungry enough to eat broccoli? If the answer is “no”, then you are not hungry at all! Think about short-term satisfaction versus long-term benefits! Focus! One step at a time!

By Day 16 or so – you might start feeling amazing right about now! Goodbye cravings, lethargy, crankiness… hello Tiger Blood! This must be “the magic” everyone is talking about. Your energy is skyrocketing. You’ve continued to kick those cravings the curb. Hey, look at that—your workouts, runs, bikes, or sports performances are finally getting stronger! On a weird side, if you go for a very hard workout or longer run/ride, you very well may feel a tingling sensation in your most-working muscle groups, sometimes elevating into real pain that stops you from going on, and lasts for potentially few hours afterwards. Don’t be alarmed, take a deep breath, back off, come home, hydrate, have some electrolytes, and eat a sweet potato!

Whole30 stuff call it “the Winning Stage” – read their words on that:

In the brain: big changes are easier. You’ve probably already tried to live by the “everything in moderation” principle, right? But moderation is really hard for the brain to manage when you’re trying to form a new habit. (This is especially true when some of the things we’re trying to eliminate have a serious mental hold on us… like sugar and carbs.) The Whole30 is a big, radical change—but one that is far easier for the brain to grasp than moderation. Why? No more decisions. Whew! The brain has a hard time with uncertainty, and when faced with too much, it tends to revert back to what it’s always done—the path of least resistance. So every decision (should I eat the cookie, should I have a second glass of wine, should I go for the healthy chicken breast or indulge in the pizza?) means… uncertainty. And for your brain, too much of that means you go back to old, unhealthy food habits. The Whole30 takes that uncertainty away from you. We tell you exactly what kinds of foods to eat, and we say you should eat NONE of these other, unhealthy foods. No decision-making required; if it’s on your ‘no’ list, you simply don’t indulge. And that makes the brain happy, which makes your transition to healthier habits easier.

In the brain: bye-bye, Vegas. Those foods you used to eat—the processed, sweetened, fattened-up, salty, nutrient-poor, carb-dense stuff—was providing your brain with levels of stimulus and reward the likes of which can never be found in nature. (Twinkies, Bloomin’ Onions, and chili-cheese-fries don’t exactly grow on trees—more likely, these flavors were created in a lab somewhere.) This kept your brain “hooked” on these over-the-top sensations: what we called “the Las Vegas strip in your mouth” in It Starts With Food. Removing these foods allows your taste buds (and brain chemistry, and hormones) to reset, allowing you to once again appreciate the natural flavors found in fresh food, and helping to eliminate cravings for foods that promise over-the-top flavor sensations, but deliver no nutrition, satiety, or satisfaction.

In the body: fat adaptation. Your body has been so used to running on sugar for energy, because that’s what you gave it. (And the body can only effectively use one fuel source at a time, so when sugar is plenty, fat takes a backseat and accumulates.) For the last two weeks, you’ve been telling your body, “Hey—you don’ t need sugar! I’ve got plenty of fat on my body and in my diet, so run on that!” And slowly, your body is listening, by increasing fat-digesting enzymes, and “training” your mitochondria (your body’s energy powerhouses) to start burning fat for fuel. This means that in between meals, your body has a chance to keep your energy levels (and blood sugar) regular by utilizing fat for fuel—something it simply couldn’t do before.

In the body: gut healing. Some of the foods you used to eat were provoking inflammation in the gut, and maybe even promoted “leaky gut,” a condition in which the lining of your small intestine became more porous than it should be. This allowed stuff to get where it does not belong, which ramped up inflammation elsewhere in the body. Your intestinal lining is just one cell thick, so damage or death of that one cell can create “microperforations” or tiny holes in your intestinal lining. Normally, those would heal themselves quickly, but in the face of three (plus) meals a day of gut-irritating foods, you were creating damage faster than your body could repair it. Now that these foods are out of your diet, your gut is able to start repairing itself, creating a sound intestinal barrier that keeps good things in until it’s time for your body to absorb them, and bad things (like bacteria, viruses, and incompletely digested food) out.

In the body: decreased inflammation. When stuff is allowed to get where it doesn’t belong (like when your intestinal lining is compromised), this causes your immune system to ramp up everywhere in the body, to deal with the ensuing chaos. This up-regulation of the immune system everywhere in the body is called “chronic inflammation,” and plays a role in just about every lifestyle-related disease or condition, from acne to asthma, depression to tendonitis, arthritis to high blood pressure. Now that you’re no longer eating foods that provoke inflammation, your immune system is able to calm down (resulting in a reduction of symptoms) and focus its attention elsewhere (resulting in improved health and healing). As a result, you may notice that your “stuff,” whatever that may be, is already feeling better. Yay, healthy immune system!

Remember that building new, healthy habits takes time. And patience. And dedication. And awareness. But when those good habits finally stick, and you’re able to function in healthy-mode practically on autopilot, that’s where the life-changing really happens. So keep up the good work, and let today’s post help you reinforce those new good habits you’ve been creating since day one.

So, how does it work, you ask?

Cardiologist, and New York Times best selling author of Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health, Dr William Davis says:

“It’s not just every runner who has a problem with wheat, but every human has problems. And it is not just about gluten. Let me explain.

In the 1960s and 1970s, efforts to increase the yield of wheat via a variety of genetic techniques resulted in the creation of an 18-inch tall high-yield, “semi-dwarf” strain that boosted yields by up to 10-fold. But the changes introduced for increased yield resulted in changes in many other genetic and biochemical characteristics of the plant.

One protein that has undergone extensive change is gliadin. In addition to causing mind “fog,” addictive relationships with food, and appetite-stimulation, it is a highly inflammatory protein. Research at the University of Maryland, for instance, demonstrates that gliadin opens the normal intestinal barriers to foreign substances in the intestinal tract and thereby leads to inflammation of many organs, including joints. This is at least part of the explanation for why wheat consumption is associated with autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditism.

There’s also wheat germ agglutinin. In addition to causing direct bowel toxicity that can be experienced as acid reflux or bowel urgency, it also gains access to the bloodstream and inflames joints, causing joint stiffness and pain.

Then there’s amylopectin A, the “complex” carbohydrate unique to wheat that acts more like a simple sugar like sucrose, sending blood sugar sky-high after just 2 slices of whole wheat bread. High blood sugars cause an irreversible change to the proteins of the body called “glycation.” The proteins of the cartilage of your joints, such as knees, hips, and back, undergo glycation, making cartilage stiff and brittle, leading to cartilage erosion and, eventually, arthritis.

That’s just a sample of what modern semi-dwarf wheat, the creation of genetics research, can do to humans, runners included. So it is no surprise that, by eliminating wheat, you felt better in a number of ways. The key: No human should be consuming this product of genetics research, else you pay a substantial health price. Because runners are among the healthiest of people, given their devotion to exercise and health, elimination of wheat is among the most powerful strategies to adopt for overall health and performance.”

What do you have to remember as a long distance runner?

You are NOT cutting off CARBOHYDRATES! You are cutting off SIMPLE carbs, and still consuming PLENTY of carbs that are actually good for you! Ask Timothy Olson (recent blog post on the subject) or Matt Hart, country’s best runners, they should know!

Here one of the folks (Peter Defty) involved in a discussion on the Ultra List shared a little more scientific perspective:

High Protein/Low Carb diets are not truly restricting carbs because excess protein is converted into glucose.

As counter-intuitive as it sounds for optimal lean body mass/protein uptake protein is best assimilated into lean body mass in a High Fat, Moderate Protein, Low Carbohydrate environment as their macro nutrient profile percentages. Usually this requires a person to get themselves into Nutritional Ketosis (not starvation ketosis or ketoacidosis). During initial adaptation it is wise to either back way off or not exercise until the carb withdrawal symptoms have dissipated.

However, what I have observed with endurance athletes is that once “fat-adapted”, they can bring some level of carbohydrates back into their dietary mix “strategically” and, in virtually all athletes, take in carbs during extended periods of physical activity as long as they do not take a slug of carbs at one time.

People concerned with the cardiovascular effects of such a diet should carefully research and critically analyze the information out there especially if they have an issue or family history…..this being said, at the cardiovascular research level (not the average clinician) the idea that saturated fats and cholesterol laden foods are the cause of heart disease has been pretty much debunked and the direction the research is heading suggests it is the constant over consumption of concentrated forms of carbohydrates, including many fruits, and the inflammation and metabolic havoc this causes which are driving
heart disease.

More info:

What does it mean in normal terms?

You can run, your body has enough fuel, you can have gels and coke during your races and that will not negate your efforts of adhering to Paleo lifestyle, and you can celebrate life events and be “social” from time to time in moderation! Isn’t that great?!?

As you get healthier – and leaner – the running DOES become easier. I hope I won’t offend anyone by saying, carrying a few extra pounds of fat that does not play any role in you progress forward is difficult. It’s more difficult to get up the hill, to turn your feet quicker, to sweat less, and to last longer. Once you’re lighter (in the correct way, without losing your muscle mass) – your running becomes faster! No, you can’t simply get lean and not work hard to get better, but you still get better – and have more will to work harder! And most importantly, running “easier” is so much more fun even if you choose to run “slower”!

So, I’ll wrap it up quickly with few words.

First of, I will NEVER say that Paleo is the ONLY way to live and eat. There are more than enough people in this world who prove that Vegan, Vegetarian, Raw, and even Frutarian are the ways to go for them. But, despite such seemingly huge difference (hello? Meat or no meat?), the important COMMON denominator is that we all eat REAL food and cook from scratch!

Secondly, cooking is NOT difficult.

Here are photos of a couple delicious meals I have made.

paleo-food-olga2

paleo-food-olga1

More of my paleo food pics.

If you picked it up from the first paragraph, my life is pretty intense, but it never crosses my mind that cooking takes extra time, or that health can be jeopardized for the sake of 20 minutes. Yes, 20 minutes – check out plenty of recipes in books and on free-roaming websites!

Paleo cooking and eating is NOT boring, nor is it “same two things over again”. The combination of vegetables and spices create amazing dishes for any taste buds! You have to sit down and eat mindfully with people you love (or by yourself, but still paying attention), are satisfied longer, have more even and lasting energy, look better, feel great – and whatever you’re training for, whether body building, or, yes, running a marathon, will be fueled correctly and bring wonderful results!

- Olga King

About the author

Olga King Olga King (Varlamova) has picked up a second wind of running at the beginning of her fourth decade. With the success of being a self-proclaimed “freight train that never stops”, she has finished over 100 races at distances from the marathon and beyond. For more information on Olga, check out the About page where you can see some of her health and coaching related projects.

13 Responses to “My Paleo Journey”

  1. on 12 Apr 2013 at 11:54 am Julie

    This article was perfect timing for me, thanks Olga! I have been going through my own Paleo journey as you know and am starting to see the benefits from it. As you and Larry said, it’s VERY hard the first couple of weeks. And now that I eat this way, I’m shocked when I look back at how much “not real” food I used to eat. It’s real food all the way now, baby! My doctor recommended Paleo to combat my digestive issues and gallbladder issues. When even regular medical doctors start recommending it, you know there is something to it.

    Thanks again, great article!

  2. on 12 Apr 2013 at 12:01 pm Erin

    I love this Olga! I am very inspired by your drive & commitment….have yet to stick with a whole 30 of Whole30. I need to jump in with both feet!!

  3. on 12 Apr 2013 at 12:35 pm M

    Nice post, thanks for sharing! I’m always encouraged when I see other endurance athletes following these eating plans – gives me some confidence that I’m sort of on the right track, even though I’m not on your athletic level. Wishing you all the best.

  4. on 12 Apr 2013 at 1:01 pm olga

    Thanks for the comments! A reminder I didn’t stress enough (if at all) in the story: the condiments basically all have added sugar in one form or another. Watch for salsa, bbq sauce, hot sauce, mustard, mayo, even pickles and so many other things – it’s amazing where food industry manages to put corn syrup and sugar substitutes! Be especially careful eating out, and may be hold on to going out for those first 30 days while body re-sets: seemingly healthy and compliant sweet potato fries are coated/soaked in corn sugar before being fried (obviously not in an olive oil either). If a salad dressings comes already pre-mixed (even if it says: only olive oil and vinaigrette) – count on it having sugar!

  5. on 22 Apr 2013 at 1:11 pm Brandon Ostrander

    Hi Olga,

    I’m always curious as to why beans and legumes are always on the “no” list?

    Do you know the science or explanation?
    I figured that you cannot get any more natural than beans.

    As for feedback, this is a wonderful and inspiring article.
    I, for the most part adhere to this diet in some form.

    My only real achilles heal is cereal. I cannot kick it.
    It’s not like I munch on Lucky Charms, but I have a serious soft spot for Puffins (from Babera) in Almond Milk!

  6. on 22 Apr 2013 at 1:25 pm lori enlow

    great write up! I have gone this route for about 2 years now, since being diagnosed with diabetes. AMAZED at the difference and how terrible I feel on the rare occasions I slip. Love it! Anecdotally, my husband and I met with a dietician to try and help our daughter with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis about 2-3 years ago. My husband showed up to the apt with a sack of donut holes and a pint of milk. The paleo nutritionist about had a stroke. You would have thought he had brought in a dead animal. He hasn’t had milk or donuts since and has followed a course very similar to your husband’s. Nice re-affirmation of the difference diet makes.

  7. on 23 Apr 2013 at 9:57 am olga

    Awesome to hear, Lori!

    Brandon, the book does explain it, you gonna have to read it – I gave it to a friend. If I remember correctly, it’s a seed/grain by definition which part is eaten? Don’t quote me on that.

    At the same time I say, if you’re vegetarian, and legumes are basically you main source of protein, go right ahead, why not? It’s the Whole30 that tries to shake up the hormonal response, once it’s over, just stick to REAL stuff and get away from anything that processed – and flour, sugar, and yes, Puffs – are processed:)

  8. on 23 Apr 2013 at 3:39 pm Brandon Ostrander

    Thanks for the feedback Olga!

    You do a valuable service here on Endurance Buzz.

  9. on 23 Apr 2013 at 6:48 pm David Hanenburg

    We are definitely grateful for Olga’s sharing here on EB! She always has some perspective to share, which will often assist or at least cause us to think about our own journey in this sport. Hard not to like that. :)

  10. on 01 May 2013 at 9:46 am Haley

    Olga, great article! Love to hear other peoples Paleo stories, especially runners!

  11. on 11 May 2013 at 10:48 am Sandy

    Olga,
    thanks for spending the time to post this. it has hit me at a crucial time in my life and has motivated me to try the Paleo and get back to ultras. best wishes to you.

    I think the legume “ban” has to do with a protein called lectin that seeds produce whose one function is as a defense to prevent animals from eating them. The amount of lectin decreases as the seed germinates – so sprout those seeds first!

  12. on 04 Jun 2013 at 1:50 pm olga

    Sandy, thanks for the great explanation! I must have read it, and then dropped it into the abyss of memory:)

  13. on 13 Nov 2013 at 3:05 pm Andrea

    Olga,
    Great, great article! I have been mostly paleo for about 16 months now and it has cleared up all of my stomach issues while running – yay!

    By “mostly paleo” I don’t mean I eat non-paleo foods all the time in small amounts, but rather that at least half of the time I am strict paleo and the other half of the time I have occasional non-grain, non-gluten foods like chocolate, corn tortillas, full-fat dairy. :-)

    I’m so glad to hear about other ultra people’s success with real food diets, whether paleo or not. Keep it up and one day I’d like to meet you out on the trails.

    I have been writing about all kinds of things that touch upon health care, paleo food, running, and being a chick-ultrarunner, if you’d like to take a read: http://andreaworks.wordpress.com

    Cheers!

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