Rob Wolf, a former research biochemist specializing in lipid metabolism, has gained a cult following with his nutrition seminars and weekly podcast, The Paleolithic Solution. Wolf follows in the footsteps of Paleolithic Diet founder Professor Loren Cordain and focuses on the practical implementation of Paleo nutritional concepts to support fat loss, build muscle, and improve athletic performance.
On the lifting side, Wolf is as physically formidable as the cavemen he talks about. He's an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, a USAW Olympic Weightlifting coach, a former amateur kickboxer and a former California State Power Lifting Champion.
Wolf has worked as review editor for the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism and is also the author of the Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet, due out in bookstores on September 10th.
Let's start by talking about your background. Before you opened your gym, you were studying biochemistry. What made you decide to move from the lab to the gym?
Well, I knew I loved nutritional biochemistry after doing lab work for 5 years, but I also really enjoyed coaching. I was not sure which one I liked more, so I started a grad program in nutrition and opened NorCal Strength & Conditioning.
Six months later, I loved coaching people so much I couldn't stay out of the gym. But the grad program was, well, not so much fun. CSU Chico's Nutritional Sciences program is 100% USDA Food Pyramid and the coursework made me want to lobotomize myself with a blunt #2 pencil.
I felt like the annoying kid at Sunday school who always asked a bunch of humanistic questions that pissed off the clergy. So, I focused on the gym and it's been really successful. We were picked as one of Men's Health's "Top 30 Gyms in America."
Impressive. So for those who may not know, what exactly is the Paleo Diet?
From a scientific perspective, the Paleo Diet is a reconstruction of what's thought by evolutionary biologists to be our ancestral diet. This diet intends to work with our genetics to help us be fitter, stronger, and healthier.
So what do people following the Paleo diet actually eat?
The cornerstone of the diet is protein, in the form of meat, seafood, and foul; preferably grass-fed meats and wild seafood. Find something that had a face and a soul, kill it, and bring its essence into your being.
Fat sources include a nice mix of mono, saturated, and polyunsaturated fats. Modern sources would be olive oil, coconut oil, and fats that we can derive from nuts and seeds and of course, fish oil.
Carb sources include loads of multicolored seasonal fruits and vegetables, and tubers like yams and sweet potatoes after hard training sessions.
Why would anybody want to eat like that?
Our genome, the genetics that make us who we are, evolved over a two to five million-year period as hunter-gatherers. It's now understood that departures in nutrition and lifestyle away from the hunter-gatherer life increases our likelihood for diseases such as cancer, diabetes, neurological degeneration, and autoimmune disorders.
Who's the Paleo Diet for, exactly?
It's for anybody. What I've seen recently is improvement in elite level athletes, whether we're talking tri-athletes, MMA fighters, or NFL football players. The Paleo diet brackets the athletic realm very well.
Does it work for the sick and the aged?
The Paleo diet has shown remarkable promise for metabolic derangement, neurological degeneration (including Parkinson's, Huntington's, and Alzheimer's diseases) and autoimmune disorders. We have clinical data on the reversal of osteoporosis and the related problem of sarcopenia (muscle wasting).
How can the Paleo diet work for so many seemingly unrelated conditions?
The bottom line is that the underpinning of all these diseases is inflammation resulting from a diet and lifestyle at odds with our Paleolithic genetics. The Paleolithic approach is like shotgun art: you blast all angles of the inflammation spectrum. From hyperinsulinemia to managing n-6/n-3 fatty acid, to decreasing intestinal permeability due to grains and legumes.
This allows the complex cellular signaling pathways related to prostaglandins, cytokines, and leukotrienes (to name a few) to come back into a healthy and optimized state. This is good, whether you're trying to build muscle or avoid cancer. That's the geeky explanation anyway, but at the end of the day it just works.
That's impressive. But why should the physique-minded Testosterone reader give a damn?
That's a great question. Frequent Testosterone contributor Dan John has written about the need to evaluate information less from a perspective of intellectual "masturbatory delights" and more from a perspective of "How does this benefit me?" In this case, Testosterone readers are usually concerned with being strong, built, and lean. With a Paleo diet, we consume plenty of protein for growth and maintenance, control insulin, balance essential fats, and reduce gut irritation.
This improves digestion and absorption and if you want to get big, does it not make sense to actually absorb your nutrients instead of shitting them out? The net effect is improved nutrient partitioning (energy goes to muscle, not fat) leanness, and decreased inflammation.
Bigger, stronger, and healthier; what's not to like?
How does a Paleolithic dietary approach accomplish these body composition improvements?
The Paleo diet is effective because it works with our genetics instead of against them.
No offence, but that sounds an awful lot like Paleo ad copy.
Well, think about your genetics like this: We are the result of our mom and dad having a drunken tryst. Well, this is true for some of us, but you get my drift. After this amorous rendezvous by our parents, we arrive on the scene about 9 months later. If we sequence that mixed bag of genes that mom and pops gave us we have what is called our genome or genotype.
The story does not stop there, however. Even before birth, our genetics begin receiving signals from the environment which influences how the genes express themselves, and this results in what is called our phenotype. A great example of phenotype is a picture of two identical twins that Professor Art De Vany posted several years ago. (See photo at right.)
One is a distance runner, the other a sprinter/thrower. Same genes (genotype), remarkably different environmental stimulus (different training and likely different food choices), and consequently a different phenotype. The Paleo diet causes a phenotypic expression of health and wellness. You can do cool shit when you're healthy and vital.
And this relates how to the aspiring bodybuilder?
If somebody is looking to gain as much muscle and be as lean as they can, we need a high protein intake (at least 1g protein per pound of bodyweight), good insulin management, good n-3/n-6 fats, and a healthy digestion. The Paleo diet takes care of all this in one fell swoop. We keep systemic inflammation low, maintain good insulin sensitivity, and improve digestion so we absorb more of the nutrients we take in (keep it, don't poop it).
Bold claims. What's the evidence behind it?
There's not a lack of research in the area; it just depends on what topic you're interested in and how much detail you want to get into. I could provide enough research that it would solve any Testosterone reader's insomnia problems as well or better than a ZMA & Z-12 sandwich.
You can start by looking at work by Boyd Eaton, Loren Cordain, Staffan Lindberg, Frits Muskiet, and Pedro Bastos. They've produced mountains of peer-reviewed material on the Paleo diet and evolutionary medicine.
There are a number of caveman-inspired diets out there. How is Paleo different from the rest?
I'd have to see a specific example of what caveman diet you're talking about, but in general they're all fairly similar. They tend to center on a lot of protein from eggs, fish, meat, chicken, and foul. Carbs from fruits, vegetables, roots, and tubers like yams and sweet potatoes. They tend to uniformly limit or exclude the Neolithic foods including grains, legumes, and dairy. Certain people will allow dairy, but it really depends on whom you're talking to and what kinds of comparisons you're trying to make.
I've heard you claim that grains are irritating to the gut. Was agriculture just a huge mistake?
This may sound counterintuitive for people to consider, but in biology there's different survival and reproductive strategies. Some plants use a fruit, which is what I call "give a little, get a little." A critter eats the fruit and deposits the seed in a fragrant, toasty-warm, nutrient-dense package some distance away from the parent plant. Biological success!
In the case of grains, however, the reproductive structure of the grain is the part we normally eat, and it's a very nutrient-dense structure. It's got protein, carbohydrates, and fat in it, and would be quite a prize for most organisms to eat.
That being the case, grains have developed chemical defense mechanisms to prevent them from being eaten. These defenses include lectins like gluten in wheat, zein in corn, and avenin in oats that are high in the amino acid proline, and it makes these lectins tough to digest, allowing them to make their way through the digestive process intact.
Once in the intestinal lining, they attach to the microvilli of the intestines and trick the body into transporting the lectin into the body. This creates an immune response that damages the intestines and sets the stage for inflammation, impaired digestion, and autoimmunity.
We all can think of people who eat grains and seem quite healthy. Do they have this effect on everyone?
Different people are susceptible to these lectins to different degrees, but it's easy to track the effects of grain intake through blood work, even if you don't think they're a problem for you. Grains employ several other items in their chemical weapons arsenal including protease inhibitors and anti-nutrients. In total, these defense systems cause damage to the gut lining and bind valuable nutrients like B-vitamins, calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc.
If we look to anthropology we can see a very clear demarcation in our ancestors: our Paleolithic ancestors tended to be as tall or taller than modern western populations. When our Neolithic ancestors shifted the bulk of their diet to "starchy" cereals they lost an average of 6-9" of height, while suffering from bone malformations and related problems.
All these problems are a response on the part of the grains to avoid being eaten by other organisms.
Okay, I can hear people passing out and aspirating their Metabolic Drive so I'll leave this topic for now. Just keep in mind; grains do not use the "give a little, get a little" survival strategy like fruits. The appropriate term for grain survival strategy would be "bugger off."
Is there anything you think people should eat differently than cavemen?
Even though we're trying to use this caveman framework to make informed choices, it doesn't mean we throw the baby out with the bathwater. We definitely keep an eye on information that's coming out of modern sciences to augment what we're up to. Creatine is a great example: creatine definitely improves performance, although you get a lot of it through red meat consumption, there seems to be performance benefits for people who supplement with creatine.
When do you think dairy is indicated?
Dairy is great if you place a premium on muscle/weight gain. My go-to approach for a mass gain protocol is simply "Paleo plus dairy." There are all kinds of people recommending the same approach; I think EliteFTS is calling it the Mountain Dog Diet. Former NFL lineman John Welbourn has seen remarkable results with his football program combined with Paleo + Dairy.
So for building muscle, no grains, no legumes, just Paleo and milk?
Yeah, and here are the reasons:
- Lots of protein. You need that stuff to grow.
- Good insulin control. Partitioning growth into muscle, not your fanny.
- Good n-6/n-3 fats. Reduce inflammation.
- Good digestion. Absorb it, don't poop it.
- Big calories. You still have to eat big to get big.
Let's use John Welbourn as an example, a 300-pound, 8% body fat NFL lineman. He's tinkered with just about every kind of protocol you can think of. He's worked with heavy hitters like Mauro DiPasquale and he feels the Paleo plus dairy approach has worked better than anything he's previously tried. He feels better and finds it very easy to gain muscle mass.
So no potatoes?
You can do white potatoes, cautiously. There are some gut-irritating constituents in potatoes that can be removed by simply peeling them. White potatoes would be better than most grain sources in my opinion, but from a nutritional density standpoint they just don't have a lot to offer. I would lean more towards yams, sweet potatoes, turnips, and stuff like that. You get much more nutritional bang for your buck with those options than you do from white potatoes.
Well, it's kind of like sprouting cat turds. You start with something that's not really good food, you process it in a way so that it's a little bit better, but grains, sprouted or otherwise, suck when we compare equal caloric amounts of grains versus fruits and veggies. But if you want to sprout cat turds...er, grains, go for it.
If you're living in a third-world country and the best option you have is to eat grains because that's all that's around, then by all means sprout them. But if you're in a situation in which you're trying to optimize performance, health and longevity, then you're an idiot to do this.
Ouch, strong words! Back in the day, you were a big proponent of the Zone diet. What made you move from the Zone diet to more of a Paleo approach?
I would never characterize myself as a Zone guy. While I was working for Crossfit, I had to tow the party line as Crossfit holds the Zone up as the epitome of sports nutrition.
I do like elements of the Zone but it goes down some really wacky rabbit holes. The notion that everyone runs best on 40-30-30 macronutrient ratios or that it's more important to weigh and measure crap foods versus free eating quality chow is just crap.
So you think the Paleo diet is more effective than the Zone because of food quality?
Look, I've worked with thousands of people, and most do better at higher protein and fat levels than the Zone advocates. And when we consider autoimmunity and the connection food quality has on this disease process, it's not possible to weigh and measure your way out of lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, but we're documenting the reversal of these diseases with a Paleo diet.
The interesting thing about this however, is although the Crossfit intelligentsia still push the Zone, the vast majority of the Crossfit community follows a Paleo approach that looks nothing like the Zone!
Prof. Loren Cordain's book, The Paleo Diet, was released in 2001 and is still currently in the Top 20-30 in health/diet books, but Enter The Zone is nowhere to be seen. Why? People figure out what works best regardless of what hyperbole is spewed at them.
Let's talk about your book. It's coming out in September?
You bet. The Paleo Solution is due out on September 10, but people can pre-order it on Amazon.
The material is an outgrowth of my work as a biochemist and a coach working with thousands of people. I've worked with just about every conceivable situation, and answered an insane number of questions. The Paleo Solution answers those questions while providing the scientific framework for folks to understand 'why.'
What kind of material do you cover?
Readers will understand digestion, how protein, carbohydrate and fat influence hormones, and how this plays into fat loss, health or disease. They'll understand the significance of dietary fats whether the concern is performance, health, longevity, or making your fanny look good in a bikini. I also go into how lifestyle factors such as sleep and stress influence the hormone cortisol. I even get into basic blood work and what things people should ask their doctor to include to better assess inflammation and health.
The book includes a detailed 30-day meal plan and a beginner exercise program. The exercise program is geared to the beginner or someone who is quite de-conditioned but the nutritional info would be helpful for anyone regardless of background.
Sounds exciting! Thanks for doing this today Robb!
It was my pleasure.