– by James Gregory –
James is the author of Paleo for Fighters
I hesitated to use the word “diet” in the title. US society has bastardized it to the point that it conjures up nothing but the unpleasant: pain, struggle and impossibility. I hesitated even more because it represents a special kind of pain for fighters. “Dieting” is feeling constantly hungry, eating flavorless, fatless chicken breasts, microwaved broccoli and maybe some oatmeal for weeks on end and clawing your way through training camp until you’ve malnourished yourself enough to make weight, fight, and then go on a donuts-fried-chicken-greasy-Chinese-food-tacos-and-soda-and-MOARDONUTS!!! bender until it’s time to roust yourself from your food coma and get back into the gym before you’re 25 pounds over your fight weight—typically a week. So, not that. “Diet” in the sense of just the foods that we eat.
If you read my last article, “Why Fighting Solves Everything,” you’ll know that Muay Thai was part of a change to a healthy lifestyle that helped me overcome an alcohol and cocaine addiction, a change that was truly life-saving. Part of this change, in addition to not dumping poison in my body, was a mission to find exactly what I should put in it. After having nearly killed myself, I really wanted to know what it felt like to be truly healthy.
When I started training, I ate what I at the time, and I think most people in general, would consider healthy: mostly whole foods, a good amount of whole grains, not a lot of junk, but some amount of processed sugar, including sports drinks. I weighed around 180-185lbs at 5’7” and trained as much as I do now, 4–6 days a week. Obviously, I don’t have to tell anyone reading this that Muay Thai is good exercise, so it wasn’t like I wasn’t putting the time in at the gym.
I just felt like there was something missing, something I wasn’t doing right, something that could get me leaner. I’ll fully admit, in addition to wanting to feel and be healthy, I wanted to look better, wanted a six pack. I think vanity can be a natural motivator for anyone, and provided it does not become excessive, possibly a healthy one.
At the time, I trained with a doctoral candidate in paleontology at the University of Pennsylvania. She was the one who convinced me to give paleo eating a go. I was fortunate in the fact that she was a real-life paleontologist, but it wasn’t just that. Emma was (and is) a good example of the benefits of paleo eating: healthy, energetic and lean. This is also the exact combination of qualities you also want as a fighter—the whole idea is to be as lean as possible while maintaining enough energy to train and fight well, lean and strong.
After around three weeks to a month of paleo eating, I got what I had been looking for. I dropped 15-20 pounds, all fat. I kept all of my muscle, had more strength, more energy to train. I recovered faster, my moods were more even, and I started to just get more done and in a better way than before. I evened out at around 165lbs, pretty much what I walk around at now, and have fought at 147 and 155lbs.
I’m just not a naturally lean person, and at the 185 I was at before, even if I struggled to get down to 165 to fight at, I would have gotten creamed at that weight class. Heck I get creamed enough at 147 and 155, lol. I think it is fair to say that, in my case at least, I wouldn’t have been able to fight without the paleo diet. That’s not to say that eating the right foods makes you beat people up, of course not, but it at least gave me the chance to try to.
So, that’s my story. It’s not a sales pitch, although out of fairness, I should say that I do run a paleo recipe website, FastPaleo.com. But my goal in running it is to help other people more than to profit. It’s a social business in that sense, and I still keep my day job. The paleo lifestyle is just something which has really worked for me and allowed me to do lots of things, including fighting Muay Thai, which I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do. Because of this, it’s something I like to share with people. And truthfully, I have seen similar results in many others, including fellow fighters I’ve helped.
I think the best way to do this is to answer questions about The Paleo Diet for Fighters one by one, and allow you to use this article as a reference to refer back to when you need it. I’ve also included some good sources at the end for those who want to study more.
What is the “paleo” diet in simple terms?
The “paleo,” “primal,” “caveman,” or “ancestral” diet is a diet of foods our bodies have evolved to be healthy eating. For more than 99% of human history, we have eaten certain foods. Then, first with grains in the form of agriculture, and later with factory-made food products, we made big changes to what we eat, without giving our bodies time to catch up. The idea with the paleo diet is simply to slow down or even arrest these changes by getting back to eating what we are used to and what it good for us.
What do you eat on the paleo diet?
A variety of meats, vegetables, seafood, fruits, nuts, and eggs. Buy the best ones you can afford, in the least processed state possible. My typical day looks like this. I like to fast for most of the morning with water and a bit of coffee. This helps the digestive and enzymatic systems reset, so I am ready to get the most out of my food when I do eat. Everyone is different, but your body has a pretty good system for letting you know when to eat: hunger. Eat when you’re hungry. I usually have a few scrambled eggs, a bit of breakfast meat, a couple pieces of fruits, usually some berries and an orange, and a handful of nuts for my first meal. The combination of fat and protein keeps you feeling full. If you see people eating five and six times a day, it’s typically because they are not getting enough fat or protein: either a carb-based standard diet that excludes both or a bodybuilding diet that excludes fat. Eating five and six times a day makes you get less out of both the calories and nutrition. I would say two to three is as many as anyone needs. I eat twice a day most days, sometimes three. My first meal carries me through training. If training is long, I’ll have a coconut water during and after to stay fueled. Then, my second meal is at night, after training, and it’s a big one. I’ll do a good serving of meat, around a pound of beef or chicken usually, with plenty of fresh vegetables. This is the time to have you carbs. Sweet potatoes or other good carbs, eaten after training, with protein, will act to rebuild and refill your muscles. The old wives’ tale that eating before bed makes you fat is exactly that. You need to put the nutrition into your body to rebuild it, and after you train, a few hours before bed is the perfect time. Sleep is when a good amount of the rebuilding process happens.
What do you avoid eating on the paleo diet?
Factory-processed food products: things like candy, snack bars, snack products, sodas, frozen meals, sodas and sugary drinks.
Grains and grain products, particularly wheat: things like wheat, brown rice, oats, soy, pasta, crackers, wheat bread, brown rice, pretzels.
Is dairy ok to eat?
This is a legitimate area of individual tolerance and preference. Dairy is a “newer” food, and some populations have evolved better than others to benefit from it, for example, lactose intolerance is much more common in east Asia than say Northern Europe. The first piece of advice is to buy good dairy. Raw if you can get it, preferably from grass-fed cows, locally produced (farmers markets and CSAs are good sources). The best way to tell if it is for you is to take it out of your diet and then put it back in. If you feel good, go with it. If you get acne, increased mucous, indigestion, aches, allergies, or other unpleasant side effects, lose it. Green vegetables are actually a much better source of calcium than dairy anyway, so there is no reason you have to eat it.
I thought grains were healthy?
The short answer is that the very large majority are not. The basic reason is that they have things that keep animals (us included) from digesting them well, so that the plant can procreate. What these things do, on the whole, is attack the stomach lining, and make what nutrients the grains do have unavailable to the body. They thus cause chronic inflammation, which is the start of a host of degenerative diseases and poor health in general. Wheat in particular also raises blood sugar tremendously, which is not a good idea on a regular basis, and can be a contributor to weight gain, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Most grains have essentially evolved to be bad for animals to eat. This means they result in systematic inflammation and nutrients leached from your body—the only redeeming thing is carbohydrates, which we can get easily from things that are good for us.
If you want to read more about exactly what is bad about grains, wiki Lectins, Gluten, and Phytates. For a good article on the topic, check here: “Why Grains are Unhealthy.” For a good book on the dangers of wheat in particular, check Wheat Belly. Check the next question for good carbs to eat.
How will I get enough carbs without grains?
Easily. There are a couple common misconceptions, namely that complex carbohydrates are the only kind of carbohydrates, and that they fill you up better and burn slower. Muscle glycogen, the primary source of energy for our muscles, can be gotten from fruits and vegetables as well as from grains. Fruits and vegetables are in fact a superior source, as they both do not contain the bad things that grains do contain, and as they also have things that are good for us, like vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Specific examples include plantains, sweet potatoes, yams, raisins, dates, bananas, mangos and many more. These are also packed with vitamins, minerals and electrolytes which grains simply don’t offer. Here is a good list of paleo carbs from a great paleo site, Balanced Bites: “FAQs: What are dense carb sources on a paleo diet?”
Are there any special food exceptions for fighters?
Yes, a couple in particular that typically aren’t “paleo” for most: white rice and white potatoes. Now I know, we are conditioned to think that any white carb is bad, but we have to evaluate them on their merits, and take into account fighters needs. White rice removes the husk present in brown rice, where most of the “antinutrients” are. So the toxicity problem is mostly solved. We’re left with concentrated carbs. If we had to lose weight, or when we’re cutting weight, this would be a no-no, but we need energy to train, so white rice is in. Again, best after your training, say with Thai food or sushi. White potatoes follow almost exactly the same logic: if they don’t bother you (some notice a bit of joint inflammation from them, so experiment) they present a good (and cheap) energy source, also with tons of potassium. Again, after your training is best: as paleo expert Robb Wolf noted, there is something to meat and potatoes making you strong after all. These are two things you want to look for quality for when buying. Go organic as both conventional rice and white potatoes can be tainted with pesticides and other chemicals. For more info, check: “Meat & Potatoes: Back on the Menu.” I still wouldn’t pick either white rice or white potatoes as a main energy source, but as one of many, on balance, they can be a part of our diet.
What is the difference between paleo and “gluten-free?”
“Gluten-free” is incomplete. It only removes one, albeit particularly bad thing, while leaving the rest of the diet unaddressed, not offering a systematic answer to the question of how we should eat. It is still possible to have a very bad diet that is gluten-free, so while paleo does indeed remove gluten, it also tells us what we should be eating to feel good and be healthy.
What is the difference between paleo and “low-carb?”
Carbohydrates, if eaten in excess, particularly in their refined forms like breads and pasta, and combined with other poor health habits, can lead to systematic inflammation, the cause of many diseases, as well as unhealthy weight. But, carbs, provided they are the right ones, aren’t necessarily bad, particularly for those as active as fighters. In this way, paleo is not “low-carb” by default. It depends on your goals. If you need to lose weight, reducing carbs may be essential. Carb control, done correctly, can also assist in effective weight cutting, which we’ll talk about below. But fighters need energy, and good carbohydrates are the most efficient source. So, for fighters, the paleo diet shouldn’t be low-carb, but rather include sufficient carbs to fuel our intense training sessions. See above for good carbs to eat.
I thought fat was bad?
This, combined “healthy whole grains,” is perhaps the most destructive piece of health misinformation ever. Your body needs fat for cell function, bone health, organ health, hormonal function, immunity, and to feel full. Fat and protein are the two essential macronutrients, without which, you die. Not that you should, but you could never eat another carbohydrate again and survive. The reason this wrong message developed and persists is complicated and multi-faceted. There was some very bad science aggressively promoted by a scientist named Ancel Keys around 50 years ago, the agricultural lobby ran with it as grains are easier to package and market, and from the very year “low-fat, whole grains” became the official government dietary recommendation, obesity and chronic disease skyrocketed. On a very common sense level, saying that something we will die without and have eaten since we started to exist is now bad for us, should give us pause. If you really want to read in detail, Gary Taubes Good Calories Bad Calories is the definitive book on the subject.
As soon “low-fat” became the official government recommendation in 1977, obesity and extreme obesity began to rise.
What’s wrong with energy drinks?
Three things specifically: artificial ingredients, processed sugars and cost. A typical energy drink will have loads of synthesized chemicals in it, with the “energy” part typically coming from caffeine and processed sugar. The latter we really don’t want. It’s toxic for our bodies and supplies no other nutrients. The former is again good in moderation. So, what are some natural alternatives? If we want caffeine, green tea and coffee are great alternatives, both healthier and cheaper. And since we said that good carbs and natural sugars are good to fuel our workouts, that leaves us with another great option, and one that is already used in Muay Thai training: coconut water. In addition to the natural sugars, the electrolyte balance of coconut water is as perfect as it gets for rehydrating. For our three-hour long sessions on Saturday, I make sure to get a coconut water to stay fueled. It is a little pricier than tea or coffee, but you’re getting quality nutrition for your body, and that’s the best investment you can make.
When should I eat carbs?
The best time to eat carbs is actually after you train, and with your protein. This has to do with how carbohydrate energy is used in your body. When you have carbs, or sugars in say fruits, the sugars in them—carbohydrates are just more complex sugars—are released into your blood stream. This causes your body to produce insulin, a hormone which removes the sugars from your blood stream and directs them to be used in your body. When you overload the body with sugars on a regular basis, you can break this process, leading to “insulin resistance” and type 2 diabetes. Insulin secretion is a complex process, but we are concerned with the two things it can do with sugars: store them as fat, or direct them to refuel and rebuild muscles. If we have say some mashed sweet potatoes and coconut water after we train with some ground beef or some chicken, the carbohydrates will be driven to repair our muscles while restocking them with muscle glycogen, which will power them for our next training session. Bodybuilders refer to this as the “anabolic window.” If we instead have a bunch of power bars and Gatorade before we train, our bodies will more likely direct them to be stored as fat. The message is clear: eat the majority of your high quality carbs with protein after you train to both recover and refuel. I find one or two pieces of fruit with my first meal help me stay focused and feel good, but the majority of carbs should come after training.
What kind of supplements should I take on paleo?
I think a good general rule is that natural foods are superior to man-made foods. Supplements isolate only the nutrient that we understand, typically have a very long shelf-life, and are unregulated in the United States. So by definition, you typically get something that is incomplete, old, unregulated—and expensive. As such, the answer to “Can I get something better in a food?” is almost always “Yes.” I don’t take any energy products because coffee and green tea are better, healthier and cheaper. I don’t take fish oil because I don’t have a problem buying a piece of fish every week. I don’t really take vitamins because I eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. I don’t buy protein powder because there are better and tastier natural alternatives (meat!) and as a fighter, I’m looking to stay lean, so there really isn’t any reason to try to sneak in extra protein in liquid form.
I suppose I think it’s a good idea to avoid energy supplements in general—why buy an unregulated stimulant when you can drink a cup of coffee or green tea that’s better for you and cheaper? Vitamins I think on par don’t hurt. If you are eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, you probably won’t need them, but I think it also doesn’t hurt to do a daily multivitamin a day or a bit of B complex or C. It is possible to develop a D deficiency if you aren’t getting enough sun, so there certainly can be certain cases where supplementing can make sense. I think fish oil can certainly be something to consider. The Omega-3 fats in cold-water fish like salmon, and in grass-fed beef are critical to joint health, which is doubly important in a high-impact sport like Muay Thai. If you can’t afford to buy cold-water fish like salmon or grass-fed beef, a good fish oil might be a smart supplement.
What about caffeine?
I have to start by saying that I love coffee. That being said, I think caffeine is a true double edged sword. Drunk in moderation, say a cup or two of morning coffee and maybe tea in the afternoon, caffeine can improve performance, boost metabolism and fat loss, and reduce depression. Coffee and green tea both have strong antioxidants with a range of health benefits. But drunk in excess, caffeine can lead to anxiety, poor sleep and resulting chronic fatigue, and actually weight gain from excess stress hormones including cortisol. I would say be aware of how caffeine affects your body and respect your limits. A nice cup of coffee a couple hours before training may get you motivated, sharp, and allow you to get more out of your training. Six or eight cups a day may leave you full of anxiety, which is already a concern given the stress fighters face, overtired, and make it more difficult to stay lean. I would also repeat that avoiding factory-made energy drinks is probably smart: natural sources like coffee and green tea are both better for your body and much less expensive.
Pros and cons of coffee consumption: moderation is key
Didn’t cavemen live shorter lives than modern man, aren’t hospitals good, and what about agriculture fostering civilization?
These are some of the classic straw man arguments against the paleo lifestyle. The short answer is to the first question is “Yes.” But the full answer is “Yes, because more babies died at birth.” There were many different Paleolithic cultures, but the general understanding is that people of the past faced more intermittent, yet more extreme stress—like say hunting a large animal—while modern humans face more constant, lower-level stress, like worrying about paying the bills and being stressed for eight hours a day at work, or worrying about fighting someone for others’ entertainment 😉 We have to think about quality of life: did the invention of agriculture, and all of our modern conveniences that followed, including packaged food, actually make us happier and healthier in an everyday sense? The idea of the paleo lifestyle is not to try to recreate Paleolithic life, but preserve the parts of it that are good for us, namely eating real food, getting enough sleep, and doing what we can to reduce stress. I think in that way, the essence of paleo is tough to argue with.
What’s the deal with salt and sodium?
Salt and sodium get an unnecessarily bad rap as unhealthy, and should actually be actively included in the diet of most active people, particularly fighters. There is a lot of data to show a correlation between high sodium intake and poor health, but high sodium intake is one characteristic among many of unhealthy people, and correlation is not causation. It comes down to the fact that most people in the US both eat a lot of sodium and are unhealthy, but the first doesn’t necessarily cause the second.
Sodium is an essential nutrient in human beings, an electrolyte that regulates blood volume and pressure, as well as cellular and nervous system function. It is important that we get enough of it, and I make sure to use a good sea salt on my food. Naturally occurring salt has tons of trace minerals our bodies need, and works to balance blood pressure. The important thing to remember is that electrolytes need to be in balance. If you are drinking tons of water without putting any sodium or potassium in your body, it can actually make you feel fatigued. It is important to stay both well hydrated while maintaining your electrolyte balance. So, in addition to a good sea salt like this Celtic Sea Salt, make sure you get enough potassium from these potassium-rich fruits, conveniently also a good source of quality carbohydrate energy: bananas, cantaloupe, honeydew, raisins, mango, kiwi, oranges, pears, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, avocados asparagus, and white potatoes. And yes, stay well-hydrated.
Should I learn to cook?
Absolutely, but it’s easy. Cooking can seem complicated, or like something you’re not used to, or like too much time, but it really doesn’t have to be any of those things. I would say 90% of the everyday food I cook involves simple cutting of meats, fruits and vegetables with a chef’s knife, putting oil in a pan, waiting for it to get hot, and then moving the stuff around in the pan for 5-10 minutes. You really can do it.
In fact, this type of simple cooking is exactly what you should be doing to keep you eating the right healthy, paleo foods and not junk foods and processed foods. Simplicity is the key to consistency, and the skills required should take only a couple times cooking to get a grasp of, and then you have a tool for life. Just try it! Get a simple recipe, and try cooking it. If it doesn’t come out right the first time, no problem! Try again—a lot of cooking is experimentation.
Hamburgers you form with your hands and put it a pan. Chicken stir fry: pretty much the same thing as the salad except now you just have to heat a frying pan and move the stuff around. Salads with a protein on top should be super simple. Think of it like learning technique in the gym, except that all you need are the day-1 basics. Take a week or so of practice and you will have pretty much all the skills you need. You can cook a lot of these easier dishes in quantity, and have enough portions for several days. For all the guys out there that think the kitchen isn’t a manly place for them to be, all I’ll say about this is cook your lady a nice home-cooked meal, then get back to me.
What about cholesterol, isn’t meat going to clog my arteries?
Somehow, almost everyone doesn’t know what cholesterol is, but is sure it’s bad for you. Our flawed conventional wisdom is based on research that saw cholesterol where things like heart disease were occurring, and blamed it for the disease. This would be like seeing firemen at a fire, and concluding that they must have lit the house on fire. Cholesterol is produced by the body to repair it—our bodies’ own way of fixing itself. And the cholesterol present in foods (dietary cholesterol) is not directly linked to the cholesterol present in our bodies (blood cholesterol). The proteins and fats in meats are actually the precursors that help our bodies fix themselves. It’s also not really clear how much relevance cholesterol testing even has: there are many otherwise healthy populations with high cholesterol, and plenty of heart disease victims with low cholesterol. What is clear is that wrongly saying that high is bad allows drug companies to sell $30 billion of statins that make people sicker every year, but that’s a bigger problem. If you want to learn more, again check Good Calories Bad Calories and The Great Cholesterol Con.
How do you cut weight on paleo?
One of the biggest benefits of paleo is how it will help you to make weight easier. It will still be work, but it won’t be as tortuous, and you will be stronger than when having to cut weight on a standard diet. You’ll achieve the goal of weight cutting—to be as strong as possible at your fighting weight—and be able to focus more on the fight. The starting point will be way easier in that you will already be leaner to begin with.
Phase 1 Shift to Paleo: Start here if you are starting paleo new
Start by working all processed sugars and all grains out of your diet. Don’t try to do it all at once. Work away from any processed sugars first. Honey and Stevia are excellent and natural replacements. Begin to work out grains, including pasta and bread. You will need to replace these with fruits and vegetables for carbohydrate energy, and in the earlier stages, paleo carbs potatoes are good as you get used to the transition. Use the list of paleo-approved carbs above as a reference. Aim for near zero processed sugars and grains by the end of this period. This phase can be uncomfortable—some people even get “carb flu” from the transition—but this is where the majority of the leaning effects of paleo come from, you are removing foods that spike insulin (high-glycemic foods) and lead to fat storage. Working out grains and processed sugar also helps with systematic inflammation and should help you recover faster from training. It also helps with mood as you eliminate the blood sugar spiking and crashing effects of processed sugar and grains, particularly wheat. Get plenty to eat, and eat portion sizes you are used to. I personally have one or two smaller meals throughout the day with fruits, lighter proteins like eggs, fish, nuts and then a larger meal of mostly meat and vegetables at night for recovery. This phase is not a “diet” in the sense of calorie restriction, just a switch to better eating principles. You may notice an adjustment period of two to three weeks, after which most people feel much better. Following is a “Cheat Sheet” of paleo principles to make things easier.
- Eat a variety of meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts, eggs and healthy fats including animal fats from well-raised animals, cold-water fish, olive oil, avocadoes and butter if you tolerate it
- Don’t eat processed sugars
This includes “organic” sugar and artificial sweeteners. Never drink soda. Some honey and stevia are ok
- Don’t eat grains or legumes
This includes soy, brown rice, corn, wheat, and any grain products like pasta, breads, or cereals, as well as legumes (beans). *We make one exception for some amount of white rice, described above.
- Don’t eat processed vegetable oils
This includes canola, corn, soybean, peanut, and cottonseed oils, to name a few
- Don’t eat any factory-processed foods
If it comes in a box, most likely you shouldn’t eat it
- Eat dairy only if it is from grass-fed animals and you digest it well
- Plan one or two cheat meals a week if it keeps you on track
Also try to “treat not cheat” by indulging in fancier paleo foods occasionally
- Get a full night’s sleep in a dark room every night
- Drink lots of water, while minding electrolytes (sodium and potassium)
- Don’t drink much or any alcohol, and avoid caffeine late in the day
Phase 2 Stay Consistent With Paleo: Your Default Stage, Until Three Weeks Out. You should always be 10-15% of your body weight away from your fighting weight
The transition in Phase 1 is the hardest part; Phase 2 is all about being consistent with the paleo principles. One thing here is to identify challenges and cravings, and then be real with them so you can maintain consistency. A good example is drinking. Don’t deny yourself completely if it’s something you enjoy (mental health and having fun is important too), but realize too much will sacrifice results. So maybe have 2 days out of the week you drink, one where you keep to wine, and then one when you can do whatever you want. Make it a ritual and something you look forward to. If its sweets or desserts, there are lots of ways to “paleoize” them like using honey instead of processed sugar and nut flours instead of wheat flour and still have them be really good, and that in addition to planning them will keep you on track. If you really crave a non-paleo food, again plan out your cheat so it is deliberate and something you look forward to. Many people call “consistency” 80/20 with paleo, so if you are able to be consistent 80% of the time, you’ll get the results without going crazy from being too strict. You may very likely find you really like it. I really don’t crave any non-paleo foods anymore—it just feels so good and I can eat whatever I really want to. Many feel similarly.
Phase 3 Clean it Up, Strict Paleo: Three Weeks Out
You simply want to go 100% paleo in this stage. So no cheats, no paleoized treats, only enough carbs for training, no booze. Don’t neglect the critical importance of sleep and rest either. It will be much easier to be leaner if you are well-rested, as well as helping you get through training and feel less stressed. I really try to make an effort to nap and get to bed early this close to a fight.
Phase 4 Ketosis and Calorie Cutting: One Week Out
This phase is closest to what many of you may typically think of as “weight cutting.” The first difference is that we aren’t going to do it as long. Cutting calories and carbs for too long will only make us weak, the opposite of what we want. We want to make it last just long enough to trim down to fight weight, and not long enough that our metabolism catches up and starts slowing things down.
Start by working the paleo carbs out of your diet. This will effectively force your body to use stored fat for energy (“ketosis”). In my experience, we can only do this for so long before our metabolism slows to compensate, so that’s why a week out. Past that you will just feel tired and weak. The first couple days will feel like POOP. About three days in your body will shift to burn fat, but it will still not feel great. The only thing I find helps is unsweetened tea. Some say supplementing glutamine helps with carb cravings. Also begin to work out all red meat from your diet. This will get rid of more excess water weight held from the creatine in the red meat and help you get leaner. Cut your calorie intake by around one third on the first day. The easiest way I have found is to simply go by portion size.
I wait until as late in the day as possible to eat my first meal, and if possible, make it about an hour before training. Go by whenever is the latest you typically eat before training—everyone is a little different. I typically have eggs, some nuts and salad, maybe one small piece of fruit like an orange or kiwi. Then I wait until as late as possible at night to have my second meal. This one should be much larger, and focus again focus on lots of protein and veg. You should still eat bigger at night to keep your metabolism up until you eat again the next day, maybe one small fruit but no substantial carbs. A typical day’s meals during this phase for me is as follows. Modify the times based on your own schedule.
Meal 1: Around 2PM: 3 eggs, 1 kiwi, salad, some nuts
Meal 2: Around 8PM (two hours before bed): Lots of protein such as chicken, fish, pork or eggs. Lots of veg, particularly green veg like broccoli or spinach.
Water throughout the day, tea is good, some coffee. No coconut water, as you want to avoid the sugars. You have to be careful with too much caffeine though, as it can weaken your immune system, which is already stressed from the reduced calories, as you don’t want to get sick. Same for alcohol.
If you are training doubles, you may want to add another small meal after your first session, as two meals a day may just not be enough calories for two training sessions.
Your metabolism will adjust in around three to four days, slowing to compensate for the reduced calories, at which point you will want to eat one day’s worth of regular portions, including one big meal, still within the above paleo guidelines, including one or two servings of good carbs like fruit, to reignite your metabolism. This helps with mental health too as the dieting stress is relieved for a day. You’ll feel better and be able to start losing again without gaining any weight, because it is still only one day of food. I typically do this the Friday before the last Saturday fight training (our long day) before my fight, that way I have energy to train. Then go back to reduced calories for the remainder of the seven days.
Phase 5 Hydration to Dehydration, Sodium Elimination: 3 Days Out
Three days out from weigh-ins, start to make an effort to stay “extra” hydrated. Bring a gallon jug of water around with you and drink up. Your body will become used to the extra hydration. You want to eliminate sodium before your good last workout before the fight—this is typically 48 hours from weigh-ins for me. This will cause your body to sweat excess water weight, but, do it too long and your metabolism will adjust and you will actually retain water. More is not better. Don’t worry too much about the naturally occurring sodium in food. Worry instead about not adding any salt, and any food products like say canned tuna fish or pickles that contain added salt, or say things like shellfish that have seawater. The naturally occurring sodium in most foods is nominal compared to added salt.
Stop drinking all liquids 24 hours before weigh-ins. There is some individual variance here. I am a great sweater and stop drinking the night before and have no problem. Others need the 24 hours. Start with the 24 to figure yourself out. I have my last meal whenever I stop drinking, so for me this is the night before. At this point, the only thing that matters with food is trying to make sure you’ve pooped before weigh-ins. Do not do enemas, colonics, or anything else out of the ordinary. It’s just going to make you feel bad and it’s not worth the weight of the poop.
One trick I have found is, after you stop drinking water, on the day of weigh-ins, do sips of coffee every couple hours. This does two things: it fools your body into thinking it is still being hydrated, which keeps you sweating and peeing, and it should also help you to poop and clear your bowls. You can also swish but not swallow water in your mouth.
The next step is to sweat. There are two ways to go about this, either the sauna or the hot bath. You should be looking to end up with around 5-10% of body weight to cut here. Everybody is different, but cutting too much runs the risk of making you weaker, whereas not enough and you might as well be fighting at a smaller weight—find your sweet spot. For me, if I have to make 147, I’ll be looking to start at around 155 in the sauna, around 5%. The other thing I would strongly recommend is to do the sauna as close to weigh-ins as possible. I have heard of people trying to cut water weight even days before the fight. This is really not a good idea as dehydration is both the most exhausting and simultaneously most short-term part of the weight cut. Sweat it out as close to weigh-ins as possible, make weight, and put the nutrients right back in to stay strong.
Phase 6: Day of Weigh-Ins
Following weigh-ins, the first goal is rehydration. I like to do coconut water with fresh-squeezed lime juice first. Then I will have some fruit, and find melon, particularly watermelon, and pineapple. Have regular water as well. Go slowly, gradually putting back in both water and electrolytes. Then move on to food. Some like to do soft foods like baby food, a smoothie or protein shake here, which I think can be a good idea in this case, particularly if your stomach is sensitive. If you are fighting day-of, this is where I would stop. Maybe have some nuts and dried fruit, but you don’t want to really eat a huge meal before you fight. You want to stay a little hungry and sharp.
If you are fighting day-after, once you have laid down this base of hydration and liquid/fruit calories and start to feel hungry for real food, go for it. BUT, stay within the paleo guidelines. This is the last time you want to cheat, save that for after the fight. Eat a balanced, full meal, but one that is going to fuel you and make you strong. Don’t gorge yourself. Keep eating as you are hungry, within paleo guidelines. I always find that I stop wanting to eat around 3-4 hours before the fight, as the nerves start to creep up. Bring lighter stuff like fruits, nuts, berries, coconut water, and have caffeine as you normally would.
But what about donuts? Can I still have fun eating?
This is about happiness, and happiness includes fine lines. I truly feel that if you eat well, eat paleo, most of the time, you will feel happier as you will be sound physically and get more out of your training, which everyone here loves. That being said, most of the time can leave some room for fun and cheat meals, and fun is important to our mental health, which is just as important as the things we put in our bodies. If you’re not pre-fight, 80/20 or 90/10 can be a really good deal for many. As my trainer and friend Justin “The Purple People Eater” Greskiewicz says, “Do what you’re supposed to 90% of the time so you can do whatever you want the other 10.” I’ve found happiness in balance.
I’m lean already and what I’m doing is working, so why should I care?
The idea is that this is one more tool to help make you a better fighter. If you are happy doing something that already works for you, I can understand wanting to stick with that. Like I said, for me, it wasn’t that way. I only have a handful of fights, but there’s a good chance I wouldn’t have any if I never found paleo. Many athletes make it to even the highest levels of professional sports without any consideration of diet, and nutrition is really only just starting to be considered as a legitimate “performance enhancer.” My feeling is that it is only going to help you. If your body is made up of the things you put in it, then it’s only going to perform as well as those things.
Even if you are naturally very lean and don’t have difficulty making weight, the paleo lifestyle will help you with both recovery and injury prevention. The former will help you feel better faster and train more. The latter will help you lengthen your career. I see so many serious joint injuries in otherwise young and healthy athletes, and can’t help but wonder to what extent proper nutrition could help prevent them.
I rarely take the time to criticize people’s work, but I would specifically caution against reading The Paleo Diet and The Paleo Diet for Athletes. The former is a bit dated, and understanding has improved since its publication. In both books, and especially the latter, my understanding is that compromises were made on the science at the request of the publisher to make the books more marketable, and some of the advice is not good. The Paleo Diet for Athletes offers advice that both isn’t exactly paleo and is geared mostly toward endurance athletes, neither of which help us.
Paleo Food/Recipe Blogs
There are many I like, although I’ll share mine first. We are a paleo recipe sharing site, so the recipes are shared by individuals and bloggers, providing good ideas for other sources.
If you have any questions, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: Unfortunately, I am legally compelled to tell you that nothing in this article should be taken to constitute professional advice or a formal recommendation by any certified nutritionist, physician, or therapist. All images herein used for explanatory and educational purposes only.
—James Gregory is an amateur fighter, student at Coban’s Muay Thai Camp, published author and professional translator, and Owner-Operator of the paleo recipe sharing site, FastPaleo.com.