The Paleo Diet Firefighter and the Expert

An article on the Washingtonian Magazine website describes the activity and food choices made by a female firefighter. Her food choices are fairly typical for a busy person following the Paleo diet on a more or less informal basis. As you will read, a few non-paleo items crept in during the 4 day log of her diet and activity. But they weren’t anything to criticize, really. And since she includes some dairy into her diet she’s more primal than paleo. It’s the comments from the expert that followed that really caught my attention. So here is a little about our Paleo diet firefighter and the expert.


6:20 AM: I wake up at the firehouse and get ready to head home from work. I grab a cup of coffee and add some cream, but work coffee often tastes like someone dissolved a brown crayon in water, so I decide to hold off for better coffee at home.
8:40 AM: Home from work, and coffee is brewed. Make bacon and eggs with apple slices for breakfast. I’m glad I’m getting to eat a good breakfast, because I have an appointment at 10 AM to donate platelets at the Red Cross.
12:15 PM: Donation done! I have one of the cranberry drinks from the Red Cross fridge because I forgot to bring an orange. I try not to read the ingredients.
2 PM: Eat two hot Italian sausages with a sautéed pepper and onion. I kind of forgot when I picked it up that we’re having fajitas (with peppers and onions) for dinner. Oh, well.
5 PM: Dinner is fajitas, so the steak is marinating while I make coconut flour tortillas and fresh guacamole. I grill the steak, and the fajitas are delicious.
9 PM: Enjoy some gingerbread coffee with cream and some almond butter with coconut and banana. I don’t always eat dessert, but I was craving a little something sweet. Oh, and I’ve been pounding lots of water to get my fluids back.

Not sure what gingerbread coffee is. Maybe a ginger flavored coffee? Hm… sounds interesting to me…  Since her activity level is very high eating a banana is not a problem for her, I am certain.


4:30 AM: After a bad night’s sleep I wake up to get ready for work with one thing on my mind: coffee. In fact, given that I drank some last night and slept poorly, it may be the cause of, and solution to, all of my problems.
9 AM: We’re done washing the fire trucks, and I am definitely hungry. Feeling good after scrambling a couple of eggs and having an orange.
10 AM: I succumb to the omnipresent holiday candy and have a Hersey’s Kiss.
1:30 PM: Time for lunch. I have the leftover sausage from yesterday with some greens left over from another meal. Kind of a bizarre mishmash, but it hits the spot.
6:30 PM: My shift made dinner that is “Paleo-friendly”—pot roast (and they didn’t use any flour or corn starch to thicken the juices). I steered clear of the potatoes, except for one that snuck in.
9:30 PM: Damn omnipresent holiday candy! Two more Hershey’s Kisses.

Here again, nothing to frown at. Well, maybe the three Hershey’s Kisses, but it could have been much worse. As for the potato, again, because her activity level is high, the occasional piece of potato is a non issue. I know some Paleo folk have some concerns about coffee though…..

I’m going to stop here with her log. You can click here for the rest of the article. I’m going to look at what the expert has to say about this Paleo diet firefighter’s food log. The expert is Ann Nothwehr, “certified nutrition support clinician with a certificate in weight management”.

“Our diarist’s activity level is fantastic and should support all-around good health. Judging by the physicality of her job and the exercise she describes, our diarist likely has a high percentage of lean body mass. Her BMI of 25.5 is not a good indicator of muscle mass, but she falls within a normal weight range for her height.

“Her eating habits are based on the “primal/Paleolithic” diet, a regimen that includes foods allegedly eaten during the Paleolithic period of history: (grass-fed) meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruit, and nuts, but not grains, legumes, dairy, sugar, salt, or processed oils. Our diarist seems to be using the diet’s principles as loose guidelines, so it would be interesting to know the reasons behind her food choices.

I’ve heard this before and I still do not understand why people assume that Paleolithic people did not use salt. It would have been highly sought after, probably treasured since you’d have to live near the sea to get any quantity of it. But we would have known about it and that it had important value in our lives. Animals seek out salt so why wouldn’t we?

Coffee and chocolate seem like modern intrusions into the diet that can be justified to varying degrees. Up to two cups of antioxidant-rich coffee daily may help to prevent Parkinson’s, diabetes, and liver cancer. Dark chocolate’s antioxidants are good for cardiovascular health and insulin sensitivity (the milk in milk chocolate seems to inhibit the absorption of antioxidants). An appropriate dose would be a couple of squares daily….

Coffee is not a problem for the Paleo diet, unless you have a prior sensitivity to caffeine. Our paleolithic ancestors would have made beverages from bark, leaves roots, seeds and berries. Since coffee is a berry, there is no conflict with having some. The same thing goes with chocolate or cacao. These are not modern intrusions.

Beyond the saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium arguments are the many studies showing increased risk of cancer linked to the consumption of processed meats. These breakfast meats go with eggs—lots of eggs—which are problematic in quantity due to the fat and cholesterol in the yolks. I suggest that the diarist get lab work done, including a lipid profile (cholesterol) and having her vitamin D level checked. This will help to get an objective snapshot of the impact that the diet is having on her overall health. (Note that one’s lipid profile will be unnaturally skewed during periods of active weight loss and/or dramatic dietary changes; wait until weight and diet have been stable at least two weeks before testing.)

So here the expert shows that she is still a part of the mainstream medical opinion, that the consumption of saturated fat and therefore cholesterol, is bad for us. We know they are not. Both are in fact important parts of our diet to help with brain function and the building of new cells, among other things.  There have been studies done to show that processed meat is bad for us. We’ve reported on that before, showing that, at least for one study, the information was flawed since it relied on questionnaires, rather than controlled testing. There is no way to know what was consumed in reality. It could also be that the Paleo diet firefighter was eating pastured uncured bacon. In this case the processing would not be an issue at all.  Then the expert harps on eggs, being high in fat and cholesterol. Did she miss the memo? Eggs are a great source of nutrition. They are a great source of omega-3 and vitamin A. In fact Dr Al Sears found that his organic pastured eggs had:

  • 65% fewer carbs than a regular egg
  • 10% more protein
  • 20% more iron
  • 72% more vitamin A
  • 211% more of the vision-sharpening carotenoid called lutein and zeaxanthin
  • 319% more healthy omega-3s
  • 1,664% more calcium (2)

I will allow that the firefighter should get her vitamin D3 levels checked. Many people are deficient in D3 if they don’t spend enough time outside. But she is taking fish oil. So maybe her D3 levels are fine.

“People with an allergy or sensitivity to gluten need to avoid wheat, barley, rye, and oats that may be contaminated with any of the previous three grains. For people without this reaction, whole grains such as whole wheat are good sources of B vitamins, selenium, dietary fiber, and magnesium. Our diarist’s current intake of these nutrients is likely low. Depending on her level of gluten tolerance, she should either adjust her diet to include these nutritious foods or use supplements to avoid deficiencies.

So here is more confusion about grains. If the Paleo diet firefighter, according to the expert, is not eating grains, then she is deficient in B vitamins. Nothing could be further from the truth. If she is eating leafy green vegetables, fish and seafood, poultry and meats these are good sources of B-vitamins without the side effects of grains and legumes. Besides the only thing grains are good for is inflammation.

“…. Increasing the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is an anti-inflammatory tenet of Paleo diets that we can all agree on. I’m happy the diarist gets some outdoor time—summer sunshine can help her vitamin D status. However, at our latitude, our skin makes little, if any, vitamin D from sunshine during the winter. She should add calcium and vitamin D supplements if she is skipping dairy. If she continues to avoid food groups such as grains, she should consider a daily multivitamin. She would also benefit from a fiber supplement or preferably many more vegetables in her life. In summary, I suggest choosing healthy proteins, many varied vegetables and fruits, and vitamin supplements for omitted food groups.”

Again, the misinformation here is that since the firefighter is skipping dairy, the expert thinks supplements are needed. The need for calcium in the diet is over blown. Too much calcium is as bad as not enough. The important thing is the balance of minerals like calcium, magnesium and potassium. In fact, magnesium deficiency is a great risk than calcium deficiency. Here is a terrific article on Mark’s Daily Apple all about calcium. Also overblown is the need for fiber. You don’t need extra fiber if you are following the Paleo diet. Everything flows better…

If the paleo diet firefighter is feeling good with her stressful line of work, then she does not need the advice from the main stream expert. I would hazard a guess that because the firefighter is following the Paleo diet, she may know more than the expert about health and nutrition.

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3 Responses to The Paleo Diet Firefighter and the Expert

  1. Laura Huggins January 12, 2012 at 8:35 am

    Hello! I am the diarist. First of all, thank you for featuring my food diary in Paleo Diet News, that is awesome!

    I wanted to address a couple of the questions that popped up during the analysis of my diary (I didn’t want to bore readers of Washingtonian with nitty gritty details). The gingerbread coffee was just coffee with gingerbread flavored ground beans, no sugar just some added spices to make it holidayish…I’ve definitely eliminated the (as Robb Wolf says) “Crappucino” from life. I don’t usually eat Hershey’s Kisses, in fact I haven’t had any chocolate since before the New Year. I think I succumbed to the firehouse being a cornucopia of holiday sweets - brownies dropped off by citizens, cakes and cookies brought in by coworkers families, fudge. You name it, a firehouse will have it during the holidays, and I think popping a couple of those things was my way of staying away from the stuff that everyone else was eating.

    We have moved to uncured bacon at our house, and we buy many of our sausages and meats at the Amish market, so hopefully our Amish friends are minimally processing their stuff. I’ve also eliminated diary since the New Year, and I’ve found that I enjoy black coffee, and have started using ghee and coconut oil for cooking. I can’t say I’ll never have any dairy, but I learned that I can live without so much of it.

    My B12 levels are GREAT eating Paleo/Primal, in fact, I used to require B12 shots when I was still eating Standard American Diet. I initially became interested in Paleo when I learned about it through the Crossfit affiliate I was using at the time and discovered that it might actually benefit my Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis (it has by the way, I may be able to reduce my Synthroid dosage, as my labwork has improved tremendously.) My lipid profile is much improved on Paleo, with a huge reduction in bad cholesterol, increase in (good) HDL, and a huge decline in triglycerides.

    I will say that my Vitamin D was a little low on my last set of labs, but I am now supplementing, and when spring time rolls around I have plans to stop using sunscreen every time I set foot outside (while being careful not to burn myself) to aid in raising my levels and hopefully getting enough to ditch the supplement.

    Hopefully this answers some of the questions!

    Thank you again and GREAT analysis!

    • Lila Solnick January 12, 2012 at 12:21 pm

      Hi Laura,

      Welcome and thank you for comments!

      The gingerbread coffee sounds really good! Since you are Paleo I was sure you would not use sugar. And I am sure many of us fell “victim” to the holiday treats that abounded. You did better than me if all you ate were three Hershey’s Kisses!

      The studies done of the problems with eating cured meat never separate out the other foods that are eaten along with the meat. So if someone is eating bacon for breakfast they would probably also have toast or cereal or other carb which can cause problems. That you are now getting uncured bacon and other meats from the Amish market means that you are getting a high quality product. The difference between CAFO meats and pastured is like night and day.

      From what I’ve seen among Paleo folk, dairy is a matter of tolerance and preference. If you feel better by eating less dairy, that’s fantastic. The ultimate goal here is to do what is best for yourself.

      I KNEW that your B12 levels would be good. Just eating as you have been corrects so much. I find the concept of eating grains to get B vitamins to be as troubling as eating margarine because it has no cholesterol. Ugh! That your Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis has improved to the point where you can reduce the Synthroid dose is fabulous. And that your lipid profile has improved so much is fantastic too. I just love stories like this!

      Vitamin D3 deficiency is an issue we all deal with if we live away from tropical regions. It is especially troubling for dark skinned people. They are the most likely to be deficient and the most likely to suffer from diseases cause by D3 deficiency. But you are on top of it. I recently read somewhere (and I wish I could find the article!) that people who eat paleo burn less or not at all. Basically it’s some nutrient that we are getting or using more efficiently. So definitely, ditch the sunscreen!

      Thank you so much for taking the time to reply!


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