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You are here: Home HPRC Blog The Paleo Diet: Implications for the athlete

The Paleo Diet: Implications for the athlete

published: 11-02-2011 Journal entry icon

The Paleo Diet, also known as the Paleolithic or Caveman Diet, is based on the notion that by consuming what humans ate during the Paleolithic Era—wild animals, plants, eggs, tree nuts, vegetables, roots, fruits, and berries—we will be healthier, have lower disease risk, and live longer. Hunters/gatherers during that time had to rely on what was available and had no agriculture. But what are the implications of this type of diet for the athlete, let alone the average individual?

Foods that were grown and introduced after the Agricultural Revolution (roughly 10,000 years ago) are not allowed in the Paleo Diet. That means dairy and dairy products, grains, and legumes (beans, peas, and lentils) are excluded. Proponents of the Paleo Diet believe that we are “genetically programmed” to follow the diet of the hunters/gatherers. A specific book has been written for athletes who want to follow this diet, which accommodate athletes by allowing some carbohydrates: The authors present five stages of eating for the athlete to follow, based on the glycemic index (GI; how quickly food raises blood glucose levels). The stages are: (1) eating before exercise, (2) during exercise, (3) and 30 minutes after exercise, and (4) during post-exercise extended recovery and (5) long-term recovery. Low- to moderate-GI carbohydrates are recommended at least two hours prior to exercise. Sports drinks or high-GI carbohydrates are recommended for exercise lasting longer than 60 minutes. Immediately after exercise a recovery drink with carbohydrate and protein in a 4:1 to 5:1 ratio is recommended. Stage IV recovery foods (extended recovery) should be a 4:1 to 5:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio, with carbohydrates such as raisins, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams. Stage V recommends focusing on eating from the main Paleo Diet, with carbohydrates coming from fruits and vegetables. So one could argue that the Paleo Diet for Athletes is like most diets for athletes in that it requires carbohydrates. However, the Paleo Diet for Athletes is higher in protein and fat and lower in carbohydrates than what is recommended for athletes by most health professionals.

What we do know from scientific research is that carbohydrates provide the energy needed for endurance and resistance training, competitive athletic events, mental agility, and healthy living. Complex carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, whole-grain pasta, rice and grains, beans, and other legumes contribute to an overall healthy eating plan. By limiting consumption of some of these to only a brief time after exercise, the athlete runs the risk of not having enough fuel for the body, so the body will use protein for energy. Low-fat dairy products also contribute to a healthy lifestyle, providing much-needed calcium and vitamin D as well as probiotics. The Paleo Diet eliminates dairy entirely, even for athletes.

We also know from the scientific literature that during the post-exercise period, within roughly 30-45 minutes of exercise, eating a carbohydrate/protein snack, generally with a 3:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio, is essential to stimulate re-synthesis of muscle proteins and replenish glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrate). It doesn’t stop there: It is important to maintain glycogen levels in the muscle and liver to sustain all activities, especially over the course of several days. Eating high-carbohydrate snacks between training sessions is important to replenish glycogen stores. Carbohydrate intake recommendations for athletes are 6 to 10 g/kg body weight per day, or roughly 55% of daily calories from carbohydrates.

What’s the bottom line? Grains and dairy products are staples of modern-day society and provide essential nutrients to an overall healthy diet. By eliminating one or more food groups, you run the risk of missing important nutrients. And can we really eat as humans did during the Paleolithic era? Their life expectancy was about one quarter to one half of what ours is, and we benefit from research showing that eating a variety of foods over the course of time provides us with energy and the important vitamins and minerals needed to sustain us in daily activities and exercise.