Antonio Valladares Interview with Karen Pendergrass
Antonio Valladares is founder and president of Burn Sports, a Holistic Health and Performance Coaching Company based in New York City that provides a fitness and nutrition platform combined with stress management. He is a C.H.E.K. Certified Nutrition and Lifestyle Coach, Sports Performance Specialist, Corrective Exercise Kinesiologist, licensed Massage Therapist and Certified Personal Trainer. Antonio talks with Karen Pendergrass of the Paleo Foundation about his thoughts on several topics, ranging from orthorexia, fat shaming, low-carb diets, cauliflower “pizza”, and the Paleo Movement as a whole.
1. What is your background and what piqued your interest in health and food?
I grew up in Miami, an awesome multi-cultural city that gave me exposure to international cuisine, especially Cuban, Italian and traditional Jewish foods. (#Diversityis our strength). We also had Rastafarian friends that owned a vegetarian health food store. I did all types of outdoor sports and martial arts. I became a vegetarian for the next 18 years and went to India a few times to study yoga. In the early 1990’s, I moved to New York City and became a certified personal trainer and licensed massage therapist. Eventually, I started eating meat again and ate paleo/primal (gluten-free) for a decade.
2. How did you first get introduced to Paleo?
Around the turn of the century, I read Cordain’s Double-Edged Sword paper. I was losing my religion at the time and began reading up on evolutionary biology. I was introduced to Weston A Price and Marvin Harris and loved their work. I started eating animal foods again soon thereafter.
3. What causes a person to “fail” at a diet?
I’d say the primary reason is unrealistic expectations. Many people have media-inspired fantasies about what they’re going to achieve. In some cases, people are doing things for the wrong reasons; some are starting diets to conform to this delusional anorectic standard of beauty promoted by media, fashion and diet industries. They are trying too hard for externally-motivated ideas as opposed to being inspired, and having clear goals and realistic expectations.
They also lie to themselves (and their trainers) about what they do. They underestimate eating and overestimate exercise, for example. Many times people attempt a quick fix for a long-term problem, which generally does not work.
If a diet is not flexible enough for their lifestyle/career demands, or if they’re not managing stress well, then eventually they will give in to these real-world demands. If they don’t make necessary changes in lifestyle, or if the goal is not congruent with their core values, then they will eventually lose interest.
Many people eventually ‘fall off the wagon’ because the diet was too restrictive. If the diet is limiting carbs, for example, their body will give them cues (sugar cravings) to eat carbs. If the diet ideology is stronger than their body awareness, they will ignore these cues for a while until they simply can’t. They will then ‘give in’ to sugar cravings, possibly binge and then endure a cycle of abstinence/binge coupled with guilt and shame. Dieting itself can be very dysfunctional and lead to many problems (mental and physical) for many people.
4. What is your favorite thing about the Paleo Diet? What is your least favorite thing?
My favorite thing would be strong support of local foods and sustainable, ethical farming. The main reason I was attracted to Paleo was it had roots in evolutionary biology and anthropology. The framework proposed some interesting hypotheses. However, it seems to have taken a turn towards crass commercialism with hints of extremism, which lends itself to becoming my least favorite thing.
I see many Paleo proponents misrepresenting the science to promote their own personal bias. The wildly exaggerated claims about carbohydrates and oversimplified conclusions about the disease are common. Carbohydrates are an important food source for many people around the world, to demonize them is to expose yourself as myopic and inexperienced.
The most obnoxious element is absolute certainty and dogmatism. We know now (since science is an on going process of discovery) that humans were cultivating plant foods in the paleolithic era. Humans used tools to grind seeds (barley, wheat) in the Middle East about 23,000 years ago and the latest research shows that it may go even further back another 80,000 years (sorghum).
Carbs not only support active lifestyles and athletic performance but weight loss, liver and thyroid function, reduce depression and improve mood.
A science-based approach means that your ideas are open to revision and you would consider the new evidence. Dogmatism ignores the evidence.
5. What is “Fat Shaming” and why is it so harmful to our society?
In a nutshell, fat shaming is bigotry based on bodies that you know nothing about. It’s a bully tactic wherein you attempt to denigrate someone to feel shame, embarrassment, or unworthiness about their body. It’s commonly expressed by joking, mocking or in bullying overweight/obese people and involves insulting rhetoric about their appearance.
Common decency tells us that it is obnoxious and unnecessary since we know nothing about that person’s health, history or genetics. It comes from a place of ignorance and bigotry and it’s often directed at women. The science shows us that this attitude/behavior is not only unsupportive but actually harmful to human health and well being.
The truth is that beauty and health come in all shapes and sizes. Also blatantly obvious, if fat-shaming worked, there would be no more fat people. Science also tells us that being overweight is not nearly as dangerous as many believe.
If the people doing the fat shaming were actually encouraging people’s health, they would be more useful in helping people lose weight. It’s my opinion, however, that people who fat-shame have no interest whatsoever in health.
6. How do you feel about Robert Lustig’s assertions that sugar is toxic?
Lustig was a great scientist at one point, but these days his inner thespian seems to be cashing in on celebrity culture with a sensationalist, oversimplified agenda. His claims are light on content but heavy on alarmism. That might be the greatest problem in all of the diet industry’s delusions.
First, isolating one item (fructose) and labeling it the enemy works for gaining devotees, but ultimately is an exercise in futility. There is no single food or nutrient responsible for the rise in obesity. Human health and metabolism is rather complex. Singling out fructose doesn’t make much sense anyway since it doesn’t really exist in foods in an isolated state.
Also, claiming sugar is toxic makes no sense since some of the world’s healthiest and leanest people eat plenty of carbs. The claim also defies human evolution since we’ve been seeking out and relishing the deliciousness of honey for almost two million years. Eating sugar is in our DNA.
Lustig uses a rat study to prove his main idea and proselytize with fear-based rhetoric and theatrics (ethanol without the buzz). Feeding rats an unrealistically large amount of fructose, that no one would ever eat in the real world, is sure to cause health problems, but it’s also totally irrelevant.
7. The predominant Paleo paradigm is to eat our fruits and not drink them. Do you think there are any unintended consequences to this mindset?
Possibly, but not definitely. Some people can go overboard with liquid calories, but not everyone. Fruit juice, like OJ, is delicious. Delicious foods and drinks are easy to overdo. Like anything, if you manage it properly and it fits into your plan, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with fruit or fruit juice.
It’s delicious, nutritious and absolutely can be part of a healthy diet. For example, OJ has minerals, vitamins and every organ in the body uses the sugar for energy. There are some studies that show it helps reduce blood pressure and inflammation in the gut.
Smoothies and shakes are also delicious and similarly can be part of a healthy diet, especially for active or athletic people. In my opinion, people who are fruit phobic seem to be more ideological with a profound fear of eating for pleasure. I strongly encourage anyone with a strong anti-carb bias or fruit phobia to take a beach vacation to the tropics. Eat the food, especially guava, papaya, and mango, take some surfing lessons and learn to relax a bit. You might even come back leaner.
8. Do you think the Paleo Diet inherently fosters an orthorexic-type of eating disorder, or is that par for the course with any diet?
I think its par for the course for most diets. It also seems that some people are predisposed to orthorexic or OCD tendencies. However, a diet explicitly based on food avoidance that labels food as ‘clean’ lends itself to issues of puritanism and makes it easy to become orthorexic.
If you have a list of good and bad foods, and a plethora of reasons to avoid foods, then it’s quite easy to become neurotic. When being healthy becomes stressful, or you find yourself preaching to your family, it’s time to re-examine your food-belief systems.
I’ll quote a friend and mentor Eric Lepine, medical translator and exercise physiologist, who clarifies some relevant points:
“Issues arise however when orthorexic social eating disorders ensue from following too strict guidelines (whether this is food group based, macronutrient based), all according to a Science™-based “because of evolution” concept that, upon rigorous scientific inquiry, doesn’t hold up. I’m talking about silly notions such as “sugar” is toxic, or “humans aren’t adapted to grains” and so on and so forth.
If anyone can actually manage to define for us “paleo” across all temporal, geographical and ethical possibilities, then we’ll talk. Otherwise, we’re dealing with epistemological arrogance, nothing more…”
Alan Aragon also addressed these issues recently:
“Excluding grains, legumes, dairy, nightshades, all added sugar, alcohol, etc, etc, etc, is fundamentally faddish since it narrows the nutrient spectrum & boxes people into yet another restrictive cage. The healthiest people on this planet do not follow that template. Strict food avoidance when the food can be enjoyed & tolerated is a setup for disordered/dysfunctional eating. Being flexible & science-based is the way to go.
If someone enjoys grains, dairy, & legumes, and can tolerate them just fine, proactively avoiding them to follow the ‘rules’ of a fad diet is just plain dumb.”
9. For Type II Diabetic Paleo adherents, do you think a low-carb approach is optimal?
We know low-carb diets work really well for some people, in some circumstances, but it certainly is not the universal magic solution that is being promoted. Low-carb diets can work for obese and some diabetics; even with diabetics, we know that other diets work just as well. People could use carbs therapeutically, but may have to examine their beliefs first. To quote leading nutrition expert Alan Aragon:
“…the current evidence does not consistently support the supremacy of low-carb dieting for treating type 2 diabetes. In fact, in a recent systematic review & meta-analysis, the diet that performed best for weight loss and glycemic control (although not to a statistically significant degree) was the Mediterranean model (up to 55% of total kcal from carbohydrate), not the low-carb (20-60 g/day) model. And keep in mind the vast majority of subjects in the studies were overweight & obese.” Alan Aragon
“Dietary behaviors and choices are often personal, and it is usually more realistic for dietary modification to be individualized rather than to use a one-size-fits-all approach for each person. The diets reviewed in this study show that there may be a range of beneficial dietary options for people with T2D.”
We also know fruit may be protective, so instead of calling fruit ‘little bags of sugar water’, people could look at evidence that fruit can be supportive in diabetes and weight management.
Effect of fruit restriction on glycemic control in patients with type 2 diabetes—a randomized trial.
“We recommend that the intake of fruit should not be restricted in patients with type 2 diabetes.”
10. What blogs or pages do you frequent for information?
Some of my favorites include: alanaragonblog.com, weightology.com, gokaleo.com, examine.com, 180degreehealth.com,wholehealthsource.blogspot.com, huntgatherlove.com, sciencebasedmedicine.com, impruvism.com,evidencebasedfitness.net, bboyscience.com, strengthandconditioningresearch.com, conditioningresearch.blogspot.com and cracked.com.
11. Who do you respect within the Paleo Community?
Anyone who is thoughtful, and not alarmist. I like the work [Karen Pendergrass] is doing with environmental issues, that’s very important, yet few Paleo people discuss it. Stephen Guyenet is still my favorite.
12. What areas do you think the Paleo Movement as a whole could improve in?
The Paleo movement needs a lesson in ethics. There are now religious fundamentalists and commercial opportunists claiming to be experts in ancestral health while selling diets that are not ‘ancestral’ in the least bit. Racist and sexist Paleo ‘experts’ are given a platform and no one bats an eye. Yet, when you tell people it’s OK to eat rice, people lose their shit and call you a shill.
The Paleo movement needs troubleshooting honesty: If someone is not doing well on your detox or diet, the solution is not to ‘Paleo harder!’. The simple solution is to examine what they are doing wrong, which in many cases is insufficient carbohydrates or not enough calories.
The Paleo movement needs better fact checking: The popular claims that sugar is ‘toxic’ or humans are not adapted to grains are patently false, yet promoted widely in Paleo circles. The unreasonable and unsubstantiated fear of carbs, a food group that the vast majority of humans on planet Earth eat without consequence, is absurd. The claim that sugar is akin to street drugs is so ridiculous, that anyone claiming this should not be taken seriously.
Some ‘Paleo’ fool recently proclaimed that Mexican food is inferior and that the solution to obesity in Mexico is to mimic his high fat/low carb diet; yet he himself is obese and has a lousy lipid profile. This is a thought disorder.
The Paleo movement needs to become Bullshit Proof. Charlatans have hijacked the concepts for self-serving purposes and take advantage of people’s ignorance. Snake oil salesmen should be exposed because they misinform the public, promote unnecessary food restrictions and sell products you don’t need.
The Paleo movement should disassociate itself from these people if it wants to maintain any sense of integrity. Carl Sagan is known for saying “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. It seems like Paleo dieters could use a lesson in critical thinking skills:
It’s analogous to punk rock in the 90’s. At first it was authentic with original thought and creativity; then it became corporatized, watered down for mass appeal. I suppose there’s still some hope, but it takes hard work and skepticism to find legitimate, unbiased information.
13. What question did I not ask that you feel deserves to be answered?
Great questions, I think we covered most of the bases. There is one point I’d like to make. If Paleo wants to prevent becoming a caricature of itself, it needs to stop competing with veganism for expertise in food analogs and re-examine this cauliflower fetish.
There is no such fucking thing as ‘cauliflower pizza’. Apparently many Paleo bloggers have never been to New York City. For the record, cauliflower is a neolithic food and cauliflower pizza is exclusively a processed, industrial-age food.
For more information about Antonio Vallardes, visit his websites: burnsports.com and healthyurbankitchen.com. Interview with Antonio Vallardes by Karen Pendergrass.