Health, strength and big muscles used to be pursued together. If you met one of the early 1900s Strongmen, someone like Eugen Sandow, George Hackenschmidt, or Bernarr MacFadden, you’d see that these men were absolutely obsessed with the quality of the foods they ate and with building superior health. They were also fantastically strong. I’m going to suggest that these men knew a lot more about eating a healthy diet and building muscle than we do now.
In many ways, fitness and athletics has lost its way along with the rest of the nutritional world. Very little of what we eat today is actually real food. Most of it is either highly processed or grown with pesticides and chemicals. What’s worse is that most of us think we’re eating healthy when we actually aren’t. This has been an incredible revelation for me as I’ve peeled back layer upon layer of misconception and misinformation over the years.
Real Health and Real Food
Most of the early strength pioneers advocated lots of raw fruits and vegetables and went out of their way to obtain the highest quality meats, eggs and dairy. Even back then, some were warning against the dangers of processed foods and poorly raised animals. In “The Way to Live,” George Hackenschmidt says: “…nowadays it is difficult to obtain meat from absolutely healthy animals…” This was written in 1908!
If you think about it, superior performance really can’t exist – at least not indefinitely – without a foundation of superior health. When we start talking about eating for “health” though, things start to get difficult. Why? Things have become very fractionated and political in the fields of nutrition and healthy eating.
On Our Way Back to the Future
Primitive is in. “The Paleo Diet” by Loren Cordain has an Amazon Bestsellers Rank of 677, functional movement, kettlebells and odd object lifting are getting really popular. Things like barefoot running and holistic healing are catching on. We’re at a point in our evolution – both as seekers of strength and as a species in general – where our ability to isolate problems, break them into parts and treat them with science has likely become harmful to us. But many of us are getting smarter and moving towards our natural and evolutionary needs as opposed to seeking more science and “advancement.”
We’re at a very important time in history. Technology has become so ubiquitous that, in many ways, it has begun to decrease our quality of life. Of course, mainstream ideas and establishment will tell us that MORE technology will fix the problems caused by technology! But many of us are moving backward so we can find the way forward.
I happen to love technology. I’m not anti-technology except where it comes to food, training and the body in general. Put it this way: What’s more effective, a gym full of the most advanced machines that isolate every body part or a single kettlebell. The kettlebell, of course! Why? Because the kettlebell supports and trains the natural movement of the body and that natural movement has millions of years of evolution behind it. As smart as humans are, the engineers and scientists who develop fitness machines can’t hope to be smarter than a few million years of evolution. It’s just not going to happen.
It’s really the same with food. Our bodies spent millions of years evolving on certain types of foods. They are highly efficient at processing and running on those foods. Just like training, the more closely our diet matches our natural biases and patterns the better.
Which foods are best for our health?
There’s a loaded question. Ask ten experts what the best diet is and you’ll get ten different answers. Ask them when they’re all in the same room and a fight will break out! There are so many diets: Paleo, Zone, vegetarian, vegan, raw vegan. Then there are the diets that are more geared toward athletes: Warrior, Zone-Paleo, Paleo for Athletes and the basic “muscle magazine diets” with lots of supplements, bars and powders.
I’m not going to get into a nutritional debate here. That really doesn’t do anyone any good. Besides, virtually all of the diets above have at least some elements of a good, natural diet in them. What I am going to propose – and I doubt many will argue with me – is foods that are more natural, less processed, are free of pesticides and chemicals and closer to their natural state are better for us than refined, processed, synthetic and chemical laden foods.
The three foods we had available to us throughout our evolution are meat, fruits and vegetables. That’s a fact that anthropologists have proven beyond any reasonable doubt. I am fully convinced after reading literally hundreds of books and articles that a healthy human diet – for an athlete or otherwise – is going to be based on organic meats, fruits and vegetables.
If you want to learn the ins and outs of choosing the right foods and gain some real insight into the absolute mess that is our modern food supply, I highly recommend the CD set “You Are What You Eat” by Paul Chek. I also highly recommend the DVD “Food, Inc.” if you want to see how industrialized and fake most of the foods that are commonly available have become.
When Worlds Collide (In a Good Way)
A few years ago I had the great pleasure and privilege of reading “Muscle Smoke and Mirrors, Volume I” by Randy Roach. Randy painstakingly researched and documented the history of bodybuilding and strength training – Physical Culture as it was called in the beginning – from the late 1800’s to the 1960’s. This volume, the first in a series of three yet to be completed, is over 500 pages. When I say painstakingly researched and documented I mean it!
Roach put particular emphasis on the diet and health practices of early strongmen and physical culturists. Now, here’s where it gets interesting: the early Physical Culturists were eating diets that were vastly different from what we’re eating today in the name of strength and building muscle. What’s more, they were eating diets that would be considered very healthy by current non-fitness writers.
As I said in the beginning, early strength pioneers were meticulous about eating good, fresh whole foods that were free from chemicals and man’s tinkering. Further, this was long before there were protein supplements and other nutritional “advances.” Early strongmen ate little more than meat, raw dairy, eggs, fruits and vegetables. Some, like Bernarr MacFadden were vegetarian and ate only fresh raw fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds and limited amounts of fresh organic dairy and eggs. McFadden was also a proponent of regular fasting. There were no protein powders or bars or much of anything in the way of supplements available for these men and they were probably better for it. One of the very few supplements consumed back then was – ironically enough – Cod Liver Oil. Cod Liver Oil is still one of the best supplements you can take today.
When I found “Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors, Volume I,” I had already been studying health and healing with diet for about five years. What fascinated me was that the diets of the early bodybuilders and strongmen were virtually identical to the diet that would be prescribed for health by many of today’s top diet theorists!
Think about it: In the early days of strength and weightlifting – before there were big glossy magazines, hundreds of different supplements and multi-million dollar marketing budgets – the strongest men and women in the world were eating a fundamentally healthy diet free of processed foods and chemicals. And their diets were simple and consisted of just meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables. And everything was organic and there were virtually no supplements.
Three nutritional pioneers you’ve likely never heard of
In the early 1900s when Physical Culture was growing and thriving, some pioneering work was being done in nutrition as well. Randy Roach and Paul Chek have done a great job detailing and documenting the work of many of these pioneers. Three of the most prominent were Weston A. Price, Francis Pottenger and Vilhjalmur Stefannson. Complete exploration of their work is well beyond the scope of this article but there’s a point in bringing them up. Many would argue that these pioneers were well on course for understanding what constitutes a healthy diet for humans. And most of the early physical culturists were – knowingly or unknowingly – following the recommendations of these men.
In brief, Price, Pottenger and Stefannson advocated a diet higher in animal fats, organ meats like heart and liver and raw or minimally cooked foods. Pottenger and Price were big on raw dairy and all three excluded all forms of processed food and sugar. They advocated little or no grains and Stefannson was a proponent of a ketogenic diet (like the Atkins Diet or Mauro Di Pasquale’s Metabolic Diet). Regular, intermittent fasting showed up in the work and research of these three as well.
Now, if these guys are so smart, why has no one heard of them? And isn’t a high fat diet bad for you? I’ll tread lightly on these points because they’re so politically loaded. What I will say is that there was a lot of research being done on these topics a long time ago. Our currently established ideas about “healthy” diet are, according to some, politically and financially motivated. My advice is to do some investigating and make up your mind for yourself. Check out the work of the three men above and check out some of the references at the end of this article.
We’ve over-complicated things
Like many things in the modern world, we’ve over-complicated things in our pursuit of “advancement.” There are so many arguments about food, health, nutrition and diet that it’s extremely difficult to make sense out of anything. I thought long and hard about how I could make dietary recommendations in a short article like this and keep the article unbiased, helpful for virtually everyone and avoid adding more fuel to the “What diet is best?” mess going on today.
In keeping with the above goals, here are some bullet points that summarize aspects of a healthy diet, bridge the boundaries of time, area of focus (health, strength, building muscle, etc.) and have appeared in enough different books and sources to indicate that they are enduring and have a basis in fact. At least some of these points show up in the diets of all of the strongest people I’m aware of:
- Eat organic foods whenever possible – Organic is VERY important and it’s not just the absence of pesticides used during farming:
Organic also means that the product is not genetically modified. Did you know that many non-organic fruits and vegetables are now modified to generate their own pesticides? You’re probably not washing that off! I leaned this from Paul Chek’s “You Are What You Eat.
Organic produce and meat is not irradiated. Also according to Paul Chek, most conventionally produced meat and most produce is irradiated with radiation greater than 500 times the power of an X-ray to kill bacteria and other organisms. You’re not washing that off in the sink either.
- Avoid commercially and industrially farmed meats and fish – There is much to say about this topic. Not only are industrially farmed meats and fish entirely unhealthy for humans, the conditions the animals live under are barbaric. Arguments about eating animals or not aside, humanely raised animals are better for humans and the animals on every level. Watch “Food, Inc.” and see what an industrial farm looks like and what really goes into commonly available meats.
- Supplement with Fish Oil and/or Cod Liver Oil – my friend Robb Wolf (www.robbwolf.com) has written extensively on this topic and explains the differences between the two and when to choose one over the other.
- Health food does not come in a package. Nothing that comes to you prepared is healthy. I remember talking to a vegetarian last year who rattled off all the “healthy” things she ate like: green shakes in a can, bottled juices, imitation soy meats and all sorts of nut milks. I don’t even know if she ate any real vegetables – and I didn’t stick around long enough to find out! If it doesn’t go bad in a week or less, it probably isn’t good food. The one exception to this that I can think of is yogurt or kefir – as long as the milk comes from a good place.
- If you choose to use dairy products make sure they’re organic, from animals fed their appropriate food and consider using them in their raw form. There are plenty of arguments for and against dairy products. I’ll stay clear of that argument and simply suggest that you seek out LOCAL sources of dairy from humanely kept animals if you choose to use dairy. There is a large volume of data that suggests raw – meaning not pasteurized or homogenized – dairy is much better for health. There is also a valid argument for consuming dairy cultured (yogurt or kefir, for example). Obviously, this rules out virtually all milk based protein powders as they come from industrially raised animals and are processed. For more on the milk issue try www.realmilk.com and read Jordan Rubin’s discussion on goat’s milk in “Restoring Your Digestive Health.”
- Eat only properly raised meats – If you choose to eat meat, eat only meats that were raised organically (no hormones or antibiotics and organic feed), have lived unconfined or “pastured” and were fed their natural diet throughout their lives (cows fed grass as opposed to corn or other grains, for example).
- Higher fat is probably better – This is another really controversial topic. There is plenty of empirical evidence that suggests higher performance and better health can be obtained with a higher fat diet. Some will even suggest a higher content of saturated fats and even animal fats. The CrossFit community has done a lot of work with this. Many CrossFitters have tweaked the basic Zone diet fat prescription (standard is 30% of calories from fat) by increasing the fat dramatically and found health and performance gains.
- Avoid sugar and processed carbohydrates – Virtually anything you read on building optimal health, wellness and performance will recommend avoiding sugar and processed carbs. Interestingly, these things are about 100 times more prevalent in foods today than they were even 50 years ago.
- Short fasts are probably healthy and can help keep you leaner and digesting better – Ori Hofmekler wrote extensively about short fasts and periods of overfeeding and underfeeding in his outstanding book “The Warrior Diet.”Fasting was part of many early strength pioneers’ regimens and has been a mainstay in religious and health practices for centuries. Personally, I do a lot of intermittent fasting and feel it has benefits.
Where do we go from here?
Nutrition is always a loaded and controversial topic. My hope is that I’ve stimulated your thinking and provided solid resources for further exploration. There are MANY counter points to everything I’ve said. I can say, however, that I’ve studied this topic for a very long time now and I’ve seen enough trends and connections emerge that I’m confident what I’ve said here will at least put us on the right track toward building muscle and better health. I highly recommend that everyone start learning about food, diet and health and pursue as many different avenues and sources of information as they can.
Recommended Reading, Watching and Listening
“Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors, Volume I” by Randy Roach
“Food, Inc.” DVD by Robert Kenner
“You Are What You Eat” CD set by Paul Chek
“The Paleo Diet” by Loren Cordain
“The Way to Live” by George Hackenschmidt
“Restoring Your Digestive Health” by Jordan S. Rubin and Joseph Brasco
“The Warrior Diet” by Ori Hofmekler
“The Paleo Solution” by Robb Wolf
About the Author
Adam Farrah is an IKFF Certified Kettlebell Teacher and CrossFit Level 1 trainer. He’s recently launched this website and blog (www.practicalpaleolithic.com) to bridge the gap between theory and practice in training and living closer to our genetic and evolutionary requirements.