Paleo diets for athletes have become increasingly popular over the recent years. For athletes, a Paleo diet can provide optimal use of the fatty acid metabolic pathways. As your body becomes more and more accustomed to a reduced carbohydrate intake, intra-muscular triglycerides stores will increase along with increased efficiency of stored fat breakdown. Liver, blood and muscle glucose stores will be more actively conserved. The net effect of all of these changes will be to keep your blood sugar levels within normal ranges during the day and during exercise; you’ll be a more efficient fat-burning animal.
Many foods are restricted on a Paleo diet for the reason that they were not available to our prehistoric ancestors. These include all processed foods, sugar, salt, grains, legumes, dairy products, coffee and alcohol. Potatoes are also restricted because the varieties available now are genetically and nutritionally altered and are much higher in carbohydrates in comparison to those available in Stone Age period. Some suggest there is evidence that the diet of Stone Age humans (as early as 23,000 years ago and perhaps even as early as 200,000 years ago), did include, in some form, refined starches and grains that are excluded from the Paleolithic diet today. However, cereals and other grains are excluded from a true Paleo diet; Lucky Charms and Corn Flakes – sorry.
Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, most vegetables, mushrooms, fruits, nuts, herbs and spices make up the majority of the diet. Insects too if you’re into that. Honey, dried fruit and natural oils are permitted in very small portions. Some say coffee is okay in small amounts too.
Key Points of a Paleo Diet For Athletes
- Higher intakes of protein reduce appetite and increase metabolism. High protein also prevents loss of lean muscle
- Emphasizes fruit and vegetables
- High intake of essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6)
- May be beneficial for dieters who have difficulty with carbohydrate cravings and blood glucose imbalances
- Protein (19–35% energy); carbohydrates (22–40% energy); fat (28–58% energy)
- 56–65% of food energy from animal foods and 36–45% from plant foods
- More than 70% of the total daily energy (calories) consumed by persons in the United States comes from dairy products, cereals, refined sugars, refined vegetable oils, and alcohol.
Some sources advise eating only lean cuts of meat, free of food additives, preferably wild game meats and grass-fed beef since they contain higher levels of omega-3 fats compared with grain-produced domestic meats. Some Paleo proponents also allow canola oil as part of the diet, (even though this was not available during that era), due to its high level of monounsaturated fats comparable to olive oil. Many also say that since salt was not part of the hunter-gatherers’ diet, it should be omitted, as our metabolism cannot handle salt very well.
The SockDoc take on the Paleo diet for athletes, which has been supported by advising patients on dietary changes for almost 15 years and more recently after a week-long strict Paleo diet at the MovNat retreat, is this:
- A Paleo diet for athletes is a great dietary template to follow if you want to improve your health, fitness, and over-all well being, (as well as lose fat and gain muscle). Ideally I feel it should be the foundation to every person’s diet unless there are food allergy concerns.
- Take it easy on the fish. Fish is not as healthy as it was back in Paleo times. There were no coal plants omitting mercury and other contaminants into our oceans, rivers, and lakes. Contaminants were much, much lower (perhaps non-existent?). Keep the fish, especially the large ones like tuna, to once a month. Smaller fish can be consumed by some individuals once a week. Check out the fish chart below.
- Ditch the canola oil. It’s not the same as olive oil.
- Dairy fats are needed, especially butter. The arachidonic acid (AA) is necessary for neurological development and health (even in the elderly), as well as hormone production, and even necessary to properly deal with inflammation. Though you can get these fats from red meat, it’s much harder to do, especially if you’re getting the leaner, healthier grass-fed beef.
- Salt, in the form of sea salt, should be considered, especially when sweat rates are higher – hot summer days and with prolonged exercise. Healthy diets, devoid of canned food and fast food (where most humans get their salt), can often be deficient in sodium chloride.
- How about grains and other starches? That should depend on your exercise rate and how you feel eating them. Sweet potatoes and possibly even regular potatoes may be advised if you feel you metabolize them well. You can certainly be very healthy without these in your diet, and they should not be consumed every day. Corn, rice, and other non-gluten containing foods should be based off your individual need and preference. Though you can’t call yourself a true Caveman or Cavewoman, pay attention to how you feel when you eat a certain food.
Adjust the diet to your individual needs and habits. More calories should come from fats (avocados, eggs, nuts, seeds, coconut, butter) and less from carbohydrates (fruits, potatoes, honey) if your exercise levels are low. The opposite holds true if exercise is more intense and of long duration.
Racing or training at a high intensity or long duration? – Consider some carbohydrates
During long or hard workouts and races you may want to consider high glycemic index carbohydrates mostly in the form of fluids such as sports drinks or gels like GU. Events lasting less than one hour, and perhaps up to two hours depending on your metabolism, don’t require any carbohydrate. Water should be all you need. A starting point for deciding how much carbohydrate to take in is 200 to 400 calories (50-100 grams) per hour modified according to body size, experience, and the nature of the exercise. For example, if you’re not aerobically fit and training/racing too anaerobically, then you’ll need more carbohydrates because you’re burning more sugar than fat for fuel.
In the first 30-60 minutes after long and/or highly intensity exercise or a race use a recovery drink that contains both carbohydrate and protein in a 4:1 ratio. 80-100 grams of carbs and 20-25 grams of protein is a good average starting point. This 30-60 minute window is critical for recovery and should be your highest priority after a hard workout or race. For the next few hours continue to focus your diet on carbohydrates, especially moderate to high glycemic load carbohydrates along with protein. Now is the time to perhaps eat “non-Paleo” foods such as rice, corn, and other foods rich in glucose as they contribute to the necessary carbohydrate recovery process. If you handle gluten well, then breads and pasta may benefit your recovery. Remember, a Paleo diet for athletes is all very individualized so listen to your body and experiment with different foods. Don’t be an ignorant Caveman – also known as a Jackass in modern times.