I’m guessing you’re reading this post because you’re attracted to Convict Conditioning’s simple philosophies on how to get in the best shape of your life. You’re a “back to basics” sort of person whose goal is to gain a naturally lean, muscular, healthy physique that is functionally strong.
In the same way that you need only simple equipment and a simple approach to working out Convict style, you don’t need an overly complicated approach toward a diet that helps get you the health and strength you’re looking for. Keep it simple and centered around whole, natural foods as the article discusses below.
But first, a little historical background …
In the beginning …
Scientists estimate that anatomically modern humans (homo sapiens, like you and me) first arrived on this planet approximately 200,000 years ago. For the better part of our existence as a species, we were eating only what we could catch, kill, or pick off the land: berries, veggies, animal meats, etc. It wasn’t until around 12,000 years ago (give or take a few thousand years) that our ancestors discovered agriculture. Some started domesticating plants and animals, settling into permanent communities and replacing wild meats, fruits, and veggies in favor of grains and animals that could be grown/raised on farms.
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Fast forward now to the post-World War II era. Thanks in large part to the numerous advances in technology and chemical engineering this war had brought humankind, the 1950’s and 1960’s saw an explosion in new developments like synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and petroleum-based plastics and chemicals being used in farmlands and kitchens across the world. Advances in canning and preserving technologies – necessary things for soldiers who must use field rations on the battle field – also trickled into civilian supermarkets and enabled an ever-greater variety of heavily processed foods to be cheaply and easily available to the general public. All these new advances made foods cheaper to produce than ever before. But were we really healthier and better off for all these food science innovations? Or had we developed technologies that, while making food cheaper and more easily accessible, may have slowly been killing us?
Sorry for the history lecture, but I wanted to set the stage for the things I’m going to discuss in this article. I’m a history teacher by trade, not an organic chemist or a nutritionist, who might be ten times more qualified to discuss the difference between the ingredient sodium hexametaphosphate and potassium aluminum silicate. One thing studying early history has given me, though, is knowledge that an organism does best when it behaves according to the way nature designed it. In simple terms, that means we humans should eat and move the way we evolved to do. If the Coach says the pull-up is one of the best exercises because our bodies evolved to do this sort of motion, it stands to reason that our bodies will thrive best on the foods planet Earth NATURALLY provides, and not the man-made garbage we’re producing so much off nowadays.
Below I am gonna outline basic principles of Calisthenics Diet, but if you are looking for a full on program to follow, check out Renegade Diet.
Here we go:
Principle #1 – Eat Natural
Controversies may well always abound over whether artificial ingredients, food additives, and pesticides are
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healthy or unhealthy. Some argue that it depends on the TYPE of chemical you’re considering, as well as the AMOUNT of said chemical you’re ingesting. Me? I’ll let scientists continue their seemingly never-ending debates about which ingredients are OK to consume and which are not, but I’ll follow the safe route and avoid them all as much as possible in favor of eating REAL FOOD. The stuff that grows on the ground, on a tree, or comes from an animal. The stuff that only lists one ingredient on the package. The stuff we humans have been eating for tens of thousands of years.
How many times have food manufacturers promoted alternatives – mostly aimed toward the weight loss market – that promise to be healthy substitutes for things like fat and sugar? As recently as 1996, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – the agency in charge of telling Americans which drugs and foods are safe to consume – allowed for the fat substitute Olestra to be used in place of oils in things like chips. Soon, people discovered it “negated the body’s ability to absorb essential vitamins” and gave side effects including “cramps, gas and loose bowels.” Despite this, the ingredient is still legal in the USA. In 2010, Time Magazine called it one of the world’s 50 worst inventions of all time, yet it’s still included in a variety of processed foods.
While this is perhaps one of the more extreme examples of an undesirable food additive, I’ll play it safe and stick with nature-made foods. Yes, you will hear about the occasional e. coli-infected spinach or beef recall, but even these are the result of contamination with man-made industrial pollutants and dirty water sources (e.g. sewage), not a problem with the food itself.
The takeaway point: Read the labels on everything you plan to buy. Shoot for foods that contain as few ingredients as possible (I personally shoot for five or less). Keep the words of fitness legend and bodyweight calisthenics master, Jack LaLanne, in mind: “If man makes it, don’t eat it.”
Principle #2 – Eat Produce, Organic when Possible
When was the last time you ever heard about someone overdosing on celery or dying of eating too many raspberries? These stories are not exactly making headline news! We evolved to eat fruits and veggies in abundance. These foods are absolutely loaded with all sorts of essential vitamins and minerals your body needs not only to build quality muscle, but also to regulate its every function. Small wonder every medical agency routinely talks about the anti-disease and general health-promoting benefits of nature’s wonder drugs.
So we know fruits and veggies are good, but let’s go one step further. Whenever possible, eat organic produce. Quite simply,
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these are foods that have been grown (or raised) on farmlands and pastures free of synthetic chemical pesticides, food additives, or antibiotic agents for at least three years. You can read a more complete definition about what being organic means here. Again, there is debate as to how healthy/unhealthy pesticides and other man-made chemicals are, but why not play it safe and avoid them altogether if you can?
OK, so there are a few reasons, the first of which is cost. Typically, organic produce will run you about twice as much as its conventionally grown cousins. The best way to cut down on this cost is to buy it in bulk. In the last two years or so, bulk retailers like Costco have increased their selection of organic produce tremendously. I can now buy a 1.5 pound bag of organic baby kale for just over what it would cost me to buy two bunches (1/4 pound each) of conventionally grown kale. I buy 90% of my organic produce at Costco, as they carry reasonably priced organic beets, apples, bananas, carrots, celery, spinach, kale, and several other items.
The second issue is availability. Maybe you don’t live near a store that has access to many varieties of organic produce. If this is you, buy what you can organically, and stick to conventional produce otherwise. As the University of Illinois reports here, it’s still far better to eat (well washed) produce containing pesticides than to forego them altogether. Try buying organic varieties of things that you have to eat the skin on (such as apples, peaches, lettuce leaves, etc.), and buy conventional varieties of things that you’ll throw away the skin/peel (melons, bananas). You can also check out the Environmental Working Group’s list of the top best/worst produce items in terms of pesticide residues. This health research and advocacy non-profit is also a great resource to learn more about how to eat healthier in general.
The takeaway point: Eat organic produce when possible, especially when you have to eat the skin/peel of the item. If you can’t buy organic, eat conventional produce, but be sure to wash and scrub it well.
Principle #3 – Eat Meat, Organic, Wild, and Grass Fed
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It makes sense that if humans should eat and do what they evolved to eat and do, the same should be said about the animals we eat! Sadly (from a nutritional and ethical perspective), this is not often the case. For example, cattle in commercial feedlots are often bulked up on a diet of grain (which they don’t naturally eat – cows eat grass). They’re given growth hormones to further fatten them. Finally, given their unhealthy diet and the crowded facilities they live in, they’re pumped full of antibiotics. Sound appetizing? It will sound even less so when you look at this sometimes funny, often very scary video of inhumane, filthy feedlot conditions.
Not surprisingly, animals not exposed to this sort of treatment seem to be nutritionally more beneficial for the humans who eat them. As explained in this CNN article, grass-fed beef may contain more beneficial fats and vitamins than grain-fed beef.
Fish, too, are not immune to the effects of man-made pollutants and practices. You may have heard how our oceans contain toxins and waste, perhaps most famously mercury, which find their way into the fish we eat. Nevertheless, it seems as if eating wild-caught fish (fish caught directly from the ocean) instead of farmed fish (fish raised in sometimes crowded and unhealthy “fish farms” similar to feedlots) may be healthier. Wild-caught fish tend to be higher in Omega 3 fatty acids and proteins, both of which are key ingredients in the Convict’s muscle-building quest.
So instead of de-beaked chickens, artificially fat cows, and commercially-raised fish, stick to eating animals that have been living the way nature intended: feeding on grass (cows), roaming (chickens), or swimming free (fish). As with organic produce, eating these kinds of meat will be more expensive. So once again, stick to buying in bulk where possible (Costco once again has a great selection of organic/natural meats). Or, substitute some animal-based proteins for plant-based ones, such as beans, almond butter, hemp, and chia seeds. You don’t need enormous amounts of protein to build muscle and be healthy the way some fitness magazines and supplement companies try to make you believe to scare you into buying their products.
The takeaway point: Eat animals that have lived the way nature intended. To cut down on costs, buy high quality animal meat in bulk and eat more plant-based protein.
Principle #4 – Grains and Dairy?
Recently, there’s been lots of media attention given to things like gluten sensitivity and lactose intolerance. Some people promote whole grains (including the gluten protein they contain) and milk (with its lactose sugar) as nutritional powerhouses, while others claim they are bad for your health and promote inflammation. The naysayers’ arguments make some sense based on evolutionary logic. After all, we weren’t consuming cows’ milk or grains until the Agricultural Revolution some 10,000 – 12,000 years ago, so maybe our bodies never evolved to handle these types of food well. Just look at this recent Dr. Oz episode about how seemingly common gluten sensitivity is nowadays.
There are many alternatives to milk
To the question of whether gluten and dairy are friends or foes, I have no definitive answer. I personally eat both bread and milk regularly and have zero problems with them, but I know several others who must steer clear of such foods or else suffer bloating, pain, and lack of energy.
My suggestion then is to heed Coach Paul Wade’s words, repeatedly echoed throughout both of his books: Be your Own Coach. Although he advises this as it relates to designing your own workout programs, I extend his advice into the world of diet. Try cutting gluten-rich grains (products containing wheat, barley, and rye) and dairy out of your diet for 30 days, then see if you feel better than before. The bottom line is you can still get all your carbs, proteins, fats, and vitamins from non-gluten, non-dairy sources – such as meat, veggies, potatoes, and rice – so cutting out grains and dairy from your diet will not have a detrimental effect on your training or your health.
There will likely always be some controversy surrounding what ingredients, types of meats, and synthetic chemicals pose a danger to human health. It can drive someone absolutely crazy to worry about every point health article X raises, let alone how health article Y (released only one week later) contradicts the claims made by X! That’s why I try to keep things simple and eat mainly foods produced as nature designed them.
Eat fresh, eat natural, eat whole, and you’re bound to see impressive results in your fitness and all-around health.
What tips do you have for healthy eating? How do you eat healthy while you travel? How do you eat healthy on a budget?
If you are looking for a more solid plan to follow, check out the Renegade Diet! I have been following it for a while and the results just been awesome:
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Mike Escobar is a teacher, fitness enthusiast, and martial artist. Exercise and nutrition are two of his biggest passions. He holds a second degree black belt in a mixed martial arts system and a blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.