It's been dubbed "the perfect new diet," but the Paleo diet has been around for centuries. It's called the caveman diet, because it mimics what our prehistoric ancestors ate: fish, meat, vegetables, fruits and nuts—long before humans began to cultivate grains and legumes, and before we started eating dairy products, refined salt, refined sugar and processed oils.
Last week, a standout swimmer whom I train asked me about "going Paleo." Her swim coach was strongly recommending it "to improve her energy level." This sent up a red flag, because first of all, I would never encourage an athlete to make a dramatic change in her diet during her sport season—unless she had a significant deficiency and a definite link could be demonstrated between diet and performance. Generally, in-season is not the time to experiment.
However, the Paleo diet comes with guidelines that include making allowances for athletes, especially regarding carb sources like bread, rice and pasta. Rather than adopting an extreme version of the Paleo diet, you might want to try a more reasonable, modified approach.
The Paleo Diet for Athletes
Carbs are the dietary focus for most athletes, so instead of eliminating them entirely, eat them in moderation—and make sure they are "clean carbs," like high-fiber whole grains and fruit. Get rid of the processed, refined stuff, and minimize or avoid fried foods. In the off-season, carbs should make up about 50% of your total calories, but in-season at least 60%.
All year, your consumption of protein should be 20 to 25% of all calories. Although the Paleo diet excludes dairy, I am not in favor of it, because low-fat dairy products provide easily absorbed, quality protein (essential for muscle recovery and repair), along with other beneficial nutrients, like calcium. Overall, keep your non-dairy protein lean and healthy.
How much fat you consume should be based on your training schedule. During the off-season, about 30% of your total calories should come from fat, reduced to 20% in-season. Stick with mono- and polyunsaturated fats, like those found in olive oil, peanut butter, and salmon.
5 Stages for Athletes
- Stage 1: before exercise
- Stage 2: during exercise, focused on energizing and fueling muscles for sustained, high-level output
- Stages 3-5 : short- to long-term post-exercise meals, designed for recovery
Stage 1: low-fiber carbs prior to training or competition
Stage 2: (preferably liquid) carbs during training or competition
Stage 3: carb/protein (3:1 ratio) within 30 minutes after training or competition
Stage 4: meal including "clean" carbs (pasta, bread, rice) and lean protein in the hours following training or competition
Stage 5: balanced, nutritious meals for long-term recovery, in the days following training or competition
(See also Eat Like a Caveman to Lose Weight and Improve Performance? and The Paleo Diet Leaves Athletes Powerless.)