Paleo for Athletes

Going ‘Paleo’ is a buzz statement in the athletic and general population at the moment.  But what does eating paleo actually mean for athletes and the average Joe training hard?


A Paleolithic style of eating, or a caveman diet as some call it, entails eating a diet similar to what we believe our primal ancestors may have eaten in times before us.  The premise of the diet is that our genes were created eating this type of diet and that the current crisis in lifestyle related disease is due to our more modern and processed diet. Critics of the diet argue that our ancestors did not live for long enough to experience diseases such as high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease and insulin resistance.  They also make comment that our ancestors were not without illness, but that these illnesses tended to be fatal and therefore the genetic line was not passed on.


The actual specifics of the diet do change depending on where you source your Paelo information from.  Generally however, the diet is based on red (including offal) and white meat, fish and seafood, eggs, some nuts and seeds, oils and most vegetables.  Vegetables such as potato are often excluded, fruit is sometimes encouraged but not in all programs while dairy, legumes and grains are almost always excluded.  Sugar and processed food are heavily restricted.  Interestingly, coconut oil is encouraged as a healthy fat, while the majority of Cardiologists and Dietitians would recommend limiting coconut oil, milks & creams and its flesh due to its high saturated fat content.


The Paleo diet first became popularized in the mid-70’s by a Gastroenterolgist who suggested the diet to help his patients with digestive diseases such as Crohn’s, IBS and Colitis.  By the mid-80’s some research papers were emerging recommending to achieve the same proportions of nutrients as our ancestors by following a Paleolithic diet.  They did this through skim milk, wholegrains, brown rice and potatoes as well as animal meats, fruits and vegetables.  By the early 2000’s, many texts had been written on the topic with some quality research being undertaken for treating various medical issues such as weight loss, insulin resistance and coronary heart disease.  Somewhere during the 90’s the diet morphed to exclude grains and dairy but sweet potato and yams continued to be included.


The most popular version of the Paleo diet now encourages grass fed red meat, wild caught fish and seafood and the exclusion of starchy vegetables except for sweet potato.  Interestingly, Archaeological Scientists report that sweet potato was not available in our forefathers diet and that there is evidence of our ancestors grinding grains and legumes in to flours and meals.


So what about Paleo for athletes and those training hard?  There is no doubt that eating more fresh food such as fruits and vegetables, eggs, meats and seafoods is the basis of a healthy diet and has the potential to encourage athletic success.  These foods provide vital nutrients for recovery from training, vitamins and minerals for adaptations to training as well as supporting the immune system and preventing deficiencies.  However, a restriction on grains and legumes severely limits a person’s ability to consume adequate carbohydrate for fuelling and recovery.  Proponents of the paleo diet for athletes recommend a relaxation of the ‘rules’ around training where they recommend a low GI carbohydrate source before long duration training sessions, high GI carbs such as sports drinks and gels during endurance training or competition and a recovery formula post training which includes whey protein, starchy carbohydrates and possibly some dairy.  For those training twice per day this may not leave much time for being Paleo in between!  On a practical note, some may struggle to afford this high cost diet.


With the Paleo movement now extending to café’s, mass produced food products as such as breads (made with ground nuts and seeds), breakfast cereals (also made with ground nuts, seeds, dried fruit and often coconut) as well as protein powders and supplements; it is likely you will be targeted with advertising and strong marketing campaigns.  If a more liberal approach to a paleo style diet is used where carbs are used strategically placed around training and adequate calcium intake is maintained within the diet, then ‘going paleo’ may encourage a healthier nutrition intake; foods from the ground, from plants and from animals.  Absolute adherence to the Paleo diet guidelines may result in an under-fuelled athlete who struggles to maintain their athletic performance.  A Sports Dietitian would be well placed to design a suitable diet to encourage athletic performance in a Paleo adapted eating plan.


One Response
  1. Very insightful. While I have never thought about restricting any of the food groups to follow a fad diet, I believe eating healthy is the only way to live. I train and play a lot of sport, therefore I eat appropriately to gain the most out of what I put in my mouth.

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