Interview: Robb Wolf Talks Paleo, Low-Carb, CrossFit & Caffeine Addiction
Feb 2013 08
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The ability to constantly analyze your beliefs and update or even abandon them when the evidence dictates is a sign of intellectual strength, honesty and maturity. Unfortunately, far too many people in the diet and health arena become attached to pet beliefs, then cling to them with the type of blind faith that would make any religious fundamentalist proud. When confronted with conflicting information or opinions, these people often become reflexively angry and alarmingly vitriolic.

Robb Wolf is a refreshing exception. He’s a successful athlete, conditioning coach, gym owner and best-selling author who has walked the walk and continues to do so. His recommendations are based, not upon Internet chat or his own personal experiment-of-one observations, but scientific research and firsthand observation of the hundreds of people he’s successfully trained over the years.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Robb, and am delighted to share the resultant exchange with my readers. Enjoy!

A: Hey Robb, thanks for gracing us with your most esteemed presence today!

R:Ha! Honour to do the interview. Hopefully I do not bring property values down too much.

A: Robb, before we launch into the guts of the interview, can you give my readers a quick rundown of who you are and what you do?

R: Oh man, a very Readers Digest version, lacking in sentence structure but rich in commas: I’m a former California State powerlifting champ, amateur Thai boxer, did a biochem undergrad which led into lipid metabolism research surrounding cancer and autoimmunity. Unfortunately for me, I nearly did myself in eating a vegan diet…ulcerative colitis, sky high triglycerides and a blood pressure reading of 140/80. All at the ripe old age of 28. In a desperate moment, this concept of a “Paleo Diet” popped into my head. I did a bit of research (this was 1998), and found some indications grains and legumes might be problematic for gut health in a number of people. I tried a Paleo diet, saw a shocking improvement in my health and performance, started sharing this idea with folks, jumped out of research and opened a gym (NorCal Strength & Conditioning), wrote a book, been blogging and podcasting for a number of years now.

A: One of the reasons I wanted to do this interview is because you and I have travelled very similar paths. We’ve both spent extended periods of time on diets that turned out to be far less awesome than their promoters claimed. Most notably, we were once big fans of low-carbohydrate diets, but then cooled off on them considerably as we realized they weren’t all they were cracked up to be. I’ve shared my experiences with my readers, tell us what you experienced in this regard.

Robb-Wolf-NorCal

R: Yeah, I see our path through all this being really similar. So, as I mentioned above, I was really sick at one time. The gastrointestinal problems I had were epic, I had terrible blood sugar control. I was a mess. My first foray into “Paleo” was actually just your standard Atkins, low carb approach. I’m not a religious person but the change in my health that occurred when I dramatically dialled down my carb intake and entered ketosis was so shocking I might have believed there was a God! All the gastrointestinal problems evaporated, I had rock solid energy and cognitive function. I was sold. I read about some cyclic low carb approaches and started tinkering with that and was able to get really lean and have great performance for what I was doing at the time: some weight lifting , Capoeira and gymnastics. I used a low carb approach with clients and the results were fantastic for folks who were metabolically broken. For my hard chargers though…folks doing Crossfit or MMA, I just could NOT get the low carb or even really controlled low carb approach to work. The extremes of food intake did not seem to lend themselves to a really hard training (glycogen predominant) athlete. So my prescription looked pretty mainstream as far as macros, but I definitely saw benefit from getting the bulk of those carbs from “Paleo” sources.

I still really like low carb as a therapeutic intervention for the right folks, and we have a lot of metabolically broken people. But I view it as a tool instead of a panacea.

A: What’s all this talk I hear about you having had a “caffeine addiction”? Did you suffer some kind of adrenal burnout at some point, or is this just another BS Internet rumour?

R: OH! I tried to commit suicide by caffeine intake! We had opened the gym in Chico which was growing like gang-busters (we were picked as one of Men’s Health “Top 30 Gyms in America”). I was working 6am-10pm every day, blogging, travelling the weekends doing seminars all over the world, doing my own training…I wrote a New York Times best selling book…I did a lot of cool stuff but I seriously hammered myself in the process. One day I realized I was drinking 3-5 pots of espresso per day (I use one of those Bialetti stove top espresso makers…the 9 cup variety…). I was counselling my clients on the importance of sleep, food and stress control and I was the worst example you could imagine on the stress and sleep side of things. I did some testing and my ASI indicated a stage 2 adrenal fatigue (elevated cortisol in the PM, low in the AM, DHEA-S going down). I went off coffee (no joke, I had auditory and visual hallucinations for a few days) and cut back my schedule. Three to four months of tinkering and my ASI came back bullet proof. I like to think of this as a good “learning experience” as I encounter people all the time doing similar things that I did.

I know some of the internet trolls like to hold my old coffee intake up as an example of the failure of my nutritional approach, but the failure was in me not taking the advice that I’d helped so many people with.

I opened a gym and do the writing and whatnot in an effort to help people, but the ironic un-intended consequence was that it became very hard to manage my own health and fitness. Over time I’ve learned balance and when to push stuff off my schedule instead of adding more just because a project looks like an interesting opportunity.


Comedian Bruno Lucia on caffeine.

A: When I started realizing low-carbohydrate diets definitely had their pitfalls and that some of the most cherished tenets of low-carb were in fact nonsense, a whole bunch of people from that segment of the dietary arena got their panties in a bunch and started saying all sorts of nasty things about me. Have you attracted any such hate from people pissed that you abandoned the “low-carb cause”? Or was I the poor bastard who had to go first, cop all the initial crap, and ensure subsequent renegades like yourself had a far less rocky path to travel? [Laughing]

R: Honestly, I think you helped refine folks’ aim when they decided to try to take my head off on this topic, thanks!

It’s funny, for years I’ve talked (via the podcast mainly) how low carb has incredible value for the metabolically broken, but is likely a disaster for the athletic crowd, particularly the very glycogen dependent activities like Crossfit or MMA. I never received ANY push back from that but recently I wrote what was intended to be a two-part series on “My thoughts on Low Carb and Paleo”. The vitriol I received from this was jaw dropping. Friends I have in the blogosphere forwarded emails to me from irate people who were calling me a sell-out and asking how I’d been duped! All I said in Part 1 was that there are and are not appropriate places for low carb. HOW that is selling out is beyond me. So, the two part series became three parts with Part 2 just being a curb-stomp on my part towards the people who either have terrible reading comprehension OR a religious like attachment to low carb as a panacea for all situations.

The precipitator for me writing this piece was an email from a high level Crossfit Games finisher (female) who contacted me with essentially the following email: “Hi Robb. I’ve been doing a ketogenic diet for 3 months. My performance has tanked, I’m always cold and I lost my cycle…should I up my fat?” I lost my shit momentarily, told her to get a TON of carbs back in the mix, and to never, ever do something new with her food without running it past me first. Two weeks later she was back up to her old PRs. Luckily. I think a constant problem we face is we have a lot of sick, broken people who DO benefit from LC, at least initially. So, the largest signal going out into the world is “low carb is good.” When athletes go looking for a performance boost they see testimonials of people who were sick, but now doing great on LC. So, these athletes get in and give it a shot…inevitably finding the same type of results most people do on this program. It’d be nice to get people to understand these macro shifts are a tool and that all tools are not appropriate for all situations. I suspect we have lots of job security in this unfortunately!

And for the folks reading this I know they will ask if I’ve read the Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance and the answer is “yes’. I even like it (Anthony, I know you have written on this). I am very intrigued by the research in LC/ketogenic performance. I think there might be an application here for activities that last looong time (days, tens of hours). But I have NOT found this methodology to be at all helpful for things like Crossfit, MMA, BJJ, soccer etc. If the activity is of sufficient intensity to demand significant glycogen I just have not seen any type of ketogenic approach work for these glycogen dependent sports. In Part 2 of the series I wrote, I laid down a challenge: If you are a coach who has produced a better resume than I have and use a strictly ketogenic approach, let’s compare notes. But if you do not have a better record, let’s can the internet pontificating until we have something solid to discuss.

A: I think you might be waiting a long time for a valid response to that challenge! Anyway, enough of low-carb, let’s talk about the subject of “Paleo” nutrition. You’re well known as something of an expert in this area, and have even written a book on the subject – The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet. What I’m going to do is give you my thoughts on the subject of Paleo nutrition, then get you to tell me what you think. So here I go:

When I first came across the Paleolithic diet paradigm a dozen or so years ago, I thought it was a breath of fresh air. Instead of being some screwball diet based on some chubby celebrity doctor’s irrational musings, it seemed to be based on both science and commonsense. Unless you are a creationist, it’s hard to argue with the concept that human beings evolved eating certain foods, that we adapted to those foods over hundreds of thousands or even millions of years, and that foods introduced relatively recently into our diet are more likely to cause us health problems. This would explain why foods like meat are rarely known to cause allergic reactions, whereas foods introduced far more recently into the human dietary repertoire – such as cereal grains, dairy, and even seafood – are far more likely to cause allergy/intolerance issues. And it also helps explain why the refined and heavily processed foods that started appearing in our diet with the advent of industrialization cause us even more grief: We simply didn’t evolve to extract optimal nutrition from nutrient-depleted foods, and our physiology was not prepared for the rapid spikes in blood sugar caused by the abundance of refined high-GI carbs. With this kind of a backdrop, the Paleolithic paradigm seemed to me to be a promising avenue for helping people formulate a healthy diet.

But then dogma took over. Rather than being used as a springboard from which one could begin to determine the foundations of a healthy diet, the Paleo paradigm started to take on cult-like characteristics. When people started saying stuff like “I don’t take amino acid supplements because they didn’t exist back in the Paleolithic!”, then I knew I was witnessing something much more akin to religion than science. To me, it’s flat out stewpid to say you’re not going to eat or do something simply because the “cavemen” didn’t do it. The cavemen didn’t ride carbon-fibre bicycles or listen to Teenage Bottlerocket, either. If you’re going to recommend me not to eat a certain food or not take a certain supplement or even avoid exercising in a certain way, I need a valid science-based reason, and merely reciting the fact that that food or activity was not consumed or performed a million years ago is not a valid reason. Saying I should avoid coffee or squash, as Ray Audette did in Neanderthin, for no other reason that it cannot be eaten raw and therefore was (allegedly) not eaten during the Paleolithic era is every bit as irrational as saying I shouldn’t wear a certain brand of sneakers because Elvis didn’t wear them. I mean, no disrespect to the King, but so what?

First of all, humans have had access to fire for hundreds of thousands of years, and we know they were using it to cook food. And observation of hunter-gatherer societies in more recent times found cooking was a universal trait. Cooking not only helps neutralize many otherwise troublesome elements in food, it also often increases the palatability and digestibility of foods that can also be eaten raw. Not only has this not harmed our survival, cooking may have in fact provided us with huge advantages. The increased consumption of nutrient-dense foods like meat and tubers allowed by cooking may have facilitated the reduction in gut size and concomitant increase in brain size that sets us apart from almost all other primates. It also allowed us to greatly broaden our dietary palette and migrate to areas where we otherwise may not have survived if we were forced to rely solely on raw foods. I won’t belabour the point, but the evidence overwhelmingly indicates the whole “if you can’t eat it raw in the wild, you shouldn’t eat it at all” argument is a load of bollocks. [By the way, any readers who want a great exploration of this very topic should check out Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham]

Then there’s the difficulty in knowing just what Paleolithic humans did in fact eat, which allows the various dietary sectarians to move in and try and hijack the whole paradigm to suit their own agenda. The low-carb shills claim Stone Agers lived on a diet of fatty meats and little else, while the “plant-based diet” crowd – that is, people who are too ashamed to admit they’re vegans [laughing] -claim primitive humans lived on a diet of fruits and nuts.  I guess the latter jokers also figure the monthly B12 shots these active Stone Age fruitarians needed to avoid becoming anaemic lion chow was delivered by some bloke from the future in a black DeLorean or something.

As for the low-carb shills, there is no evidence to support the notion that humans universally ate a low-carb diet. I remember someone sending me a link to the blog of a certain low-carb doctor who waxed lyrical about carbon radioisotope analyses, and how they showed humans ate significant amounts of meat. But that hardly demonstrates they ate a low-carb diet – it just shows that along with the plant foods they consumed they also ate animal flesh. Isotope analysis tells us little about the exact amounts of protein, carbohydrate and fat the long-deceased owners of the analysed bones ate.

The truth seems to be that the Paleolithic diet varied widely according to location, and observation of recent hunter-gatherer societies provides strong confirmation of this. The closer people lived to the equator, the more plant food and hence carbohydrate they would have eaten. The further north they lived, the more heavily they would have had to rely on protein and fat due to poorer year-round availability of edible plant foods. An extreme example of the latter would be the Inuit, who had no access to tubers, mangoes and pineapples, and hence had to rely on a diet comprised almost entirely of fatty marine foods. So my advice to people when presented with a commentator who claims Stone Agers all ate a similar diet in terms of macronutrient composition, is to assume that commentator is either clueless or a hopelessly devoted dogmatist.

And there’s a further spanner we can throw in the Paleo works: Namely, that “evolutionary recent” foods aren’t necessarily bad for us, or at least not all of us. Granted, if you are celiac, then you sure as heck have no business eating gluten-containing grains. And there is a growing volume of published research showing many people have idiopathic gluten sensitivity, meaning that while they are not true celiacs they still suffer adverse symptoms in response to gluten ingestion. But many people appear to do just fine eating gluten-containing grains like wheat, even on a daily basis. Bread, for example, is a staple of the Sardinians who have an unusually high frequency of centenarians (Sardinia has the highest per capita number of male centenarians in the world). Should they give up bread based on trendy Western diet dogmas? Personally, I’d recommend people forget their dogmas for a moment and listen to what the Sardinian centenarians have to say, because these are people who have actually achieved the much sought-after goal of robust health and long life.

And then there’s the fact that not all grains contain gluten. Rice, for example, is a low allergenic food and the Japanese certainly don’t do too badly in the longevity stakes on a diet in which rice constitutes a prominent staple.

And don’t get me started about dairy. OK, I’m already started, so let’s run with it. For some people, even a tiny amount of milk necessitates they frantically make a beeline for the nearest restroom in order to avoid what we can politely term an intra-garment colour change. Yet others can drink a litre of milk daily with no evident ill-effect. And while I’m no fan of epidemiological studies, they overwhelmingly show no increase in CVD or overall mortality with milk consumption. In fact, the opposite appears to be the case. If milk was as deadly as some folks make it out to be, you’d think years of determined data dredging would have been able to ascertain as much. But it hasn’t.

What people seem to forget is that humans might not have globally adapted to foods like wheat and dairy, but partial adaptation appears to be well underway. Scandinavians, who were the first to start consuming dairy some 10,000 years ago, almost invariably retain the lactase enzyme into adulthood, which allows them to efficiently digest lactose. Africans and Asians, in contrast, tend to retain the lactase enzyme at a very low rate.

When it comes to gluten-containing grains, the trend is for increasing incidence of celiac disease as one radiates out from the Middle East, which is where grain cultivation first began in earnest some ten thousand years ago.

So it’s not entirely correct to flatly state the human body is not equipped to effectively process grains or dairy – in many instances, it clearly is. And even in people who do have difficulties with these foods in a minimally processed state, things like fermentation/culturing  of dairy can greatly enhance digestion and tolerability by partially breaking down otherwise troublesome proteins and sugars. Removing the outer husk of cereal grains removes much of their anti-nutrient content which is why in societies not subject to the nonsensical whole-grain brainwashing people went to great lengths to mill their grains.

Anyway, mini-rant over – heck, I’m supposed to be interviewing you here, not myself! [Laughing] Seriously, wasn’t meaning to be a rude sod, I just had to get that out and it took a wee bit longer than what I originally forecast. So anyway, tell me whether you agree, partially agree, or disagree with what I’ve just said?

R: I know controversy sells…I know  a massive internet shit storm of me calling you an uneducated bozo would create a clear demarcation in which we could have the “Colpo Camp” and the “Wolf Camp” would be fantastic for traffic and buzz…but I can’t find much to pick at with your rant. Just to clarify for the reading impaired, I agree with pretty much everything you wrote.

One of the failures of people like myself in the early days of the Paleo movement was to better articulate that Evolutionarily Novel Foods are a POTENTIAL pathogenic item. Just because a food is new to an organism does not guarantee that said food is deleterious to health and survival. I have always talked about this stuff from the context of potentialities but I forget people do not think for themselves and you need to provide crystal clear explanations of material. Even then some of the folks will tell you to bugger-off as you may be making BBQ from their sacred cows. Coffee, tea, olive oil are all “new” and it’s hard to find anything but good about them in the literature (assuming one is not consuming them in jackasstic quantities like I did with coffee). This is where the Evolutionary Template is best used to make some hypothesis generation and data interpretation easier, but this CANNOT be the place we stop. Ignoring all that we get form molecular biology would just be foolish. I’ve fought like crazy to diffuse this cult-like tendency but people love black and white answers.

If I had any bone to pick with the above it would be the stable isotopic information, but even that is just a point of clarification. We can (with pretty good certainty) reconstruct what fraction of plant or animal an organism consumes (even if the animal material is terrestrial or aquatic). The basic plan of expansion of humans globally saw a heavy reliance on big game UNTIL we killed all that big stuff, and then were forced to start diversifying our take with more plants and small critters. The important thing is in this transition we do NOT see the loss of health, decreased stature etc that typifies the transition from HG to agriculture. So, one could make the argument we likely consumed a LOT of meat at various points in our past, then we transitioned to more plant material as areas were hunted out…but this does not appear to have affected health or survivability in the least. Even in contemporarily studies HG’s we see a massive spread in macro intake, but a consistently healthy population.

A: Believe it or not, I forgot to mention something in my earlier mini-rant. Yes, I’m serious [laughing]. If you are a highly active person, then following a strict Paleo regimen can drastically limit your choice of carbohydrate foods. We both agree a low-carbohydrate diet is not conducive to optimal athletic performance, especially in endurance-based activities. But it would get real monotonous real quick eating nothing but sweet potatoes and bananas as your carb sources day in and day out. Cereal grains like rice and refined, yeast-free wheat products like pasta are a cheap, tasty and convenient way to allow an athlete to meet his often enormous carb requirements. And mixed with vegetables and antioxidant-rich spices and condiments like tomato sauce, these foods can also serve as a delivery vehicle for large amounts of healthful nutrients. Which no doubt explains why they are a regular staple of many athlete’s diets. What say you?

R: The only nit I’d pick here is I’m really nervous of gluten, especially if the individual has any type of autoimmunity or systemic inflammatory issue. I think a 30-60 day elimination diet can ferret this out and if folks do not seem reactive to gluten in the slightest, go for it. If you feed me gluten you will end up decommissioning any bathroom I get to after the meal, so it’s a no-go for me, and I’ve seen a lot of people really benefit from the extra effort of avoiding gluten.  But again, this is some easy self experimentation that will winnow out the genetic differences within just a few months.

You make a good point (to me) with the above that grain products in a subsistence diet scenario are a dodgy idea. Anti-nutrients will take an already low quality food and make it worse. BUT! If we have access to all the wealth of modern commerce, can add significant amounts of meat, veggies, sea vegetables etc…so long as we are not experiencing gastrointestinal irritation from a given food, it seems pretty easy to offset a relatively low nutrient quality item like white rice, with meat and veggies.

A: That last point is a very important one: If you look at these long-lived societies where rice and bread are staples, those carbohydrate-rich staples are rarely eaten in isolation, or with sugar-rich spreads. They’re typically served up with nutrient- and antioxidant-rich vegetables and, if you’re in the Mediterranean, often a good dose of olive oil or fat-rich cheeses. All this has the effect of both negating the otherwise low micronutrient content of the grains, and the fiber and fat also tempers their glycemic effects by lowering the overall glycemic index of a meal.

Okay, totally changing the subject: You were once involved with Crossfit, and I think it’s no exaggeration to say you parted on unfriendly terms with the organization. From what I understand, you felt they were too focused on the whole super-gonzo-insane-intensity aspect at the expense of things like progression, periodization, and teaching beginners the fundamentals of proper lifting technique. If that’s a fair representation of your beef with Crossfit, then I know for a fact a lot of people would wholeheartedly agree with you.

R: Yeah, and honestly it’s a heart-breaker for me. I think CrossFit is fantastic in its idea of basic Olympic lifting, gymnastics and sprinting, mixed together in a super fun environment. Our gym still runs off this basic kernel, but I noticed folks made much better progress after a thorough screen, intro classes and then progression in lieu of scaling. If an individual cannot deadlift properly, is there REALLY an argument for the person to do power cleans in a workout, even if the PC is performed with a broom-stick? IMO, that’s an easy answer. That battle has largely been won by this point in that the better coaches and facilities have either adopted this approach or figured it out on their own. We’ve fielded a 3rd place Crossfit Games affiliate cup team, and 6th place and 17th place individual finishers using this approach. Using common sense and progression does not make people pussies, it actually accelerates their progress. This reminds of the approach Mat Thornton of Straight Blast Gym uses to teach BJJ and MMA. A safe progressive environment benefits not only the genetic beasts, but also your average person who is actually the cornerstone of any successful gym.

Robb-Wolf-NorCal-SCA seminar in progress at Robb’s gym, NorCal Strength & Conditioning. Like all good trainers, Robb is a stickler for proper technique.

A: You’re a new father – congratulations! Kids are a gift, they really are. But with the good you must take the bad, and we all know every newborn comes pre-programmed to utterly destroy its parents’ eating, sleeping and training schedule [laughing]. Any tips for parents-to-be on how to keep their diet and training together when a cute little crawling/crying/pooping machine appears on the scene?

R: Oh, man! Well, you have to be willing to triage…your day is going to be full, what is the MOST important stuff you need to get done? For me, I started training in a “Grease the Groove” fashion. I’d do either chins, back squats and HSPU, or DL, ring dips and body rows. I’d alternate day to day and whenever I had a chance to hit a set, I’d do it. Some days I’d get 8 sets, some days 1. But in this way I did not need to carve out a block of time to train. I’d also mix in a 400 meter run or 500 meter row in the same way. You will not win any world records off this, but it kept me reasonably fit and sane, without making my wife want to kill me for splitting for an hour to train. As to food, I used the slow cooker almost daily. I’d cook breakfast for the following day while I cooked dinner…I just had to plan ahead. An unintended benefit of having a new daughter is I fritter away MUCH less time online. I get my shit done, got into the real world and enjoy being a dad. I actually get more done now even though I have “less” time.

A: Robb, thanks again for doing this interview, you’ve been a great guest and I think anyone who cares to shove their pet diet dogmas aside for a moment could learn a lot from what you’ve shared with us today!

Anyone who wants to check out more of Robb’s work or listen to his podcasts can do so at: http://robbwolf.com/

The Kindle version of Robb’s book The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet can be downloaded within minutes right here.

Those interested in training at Robb’s gym can check out the NorCal Strength & Conditioning website here.

Anthony Colpo is an independent researcher, physical conditioning specialist, and author of The Fat Loss Bible and The Great Cholesterol Con. For more information, visit TheFatLossBible.net or TheGreatCholesterolCon.com

Copyright © Anthony Colpo.

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