At the annual Food and Nutrition Conference in Nashville, I attended a session on the Paleo diet and how it relates to athletes. If you've heard of it, you know that folks who follow the Paleo diet are passionate, to say the least. (All you CrossFit fans out there, raise your hand.)
The diet is explained (and extolled) in two books: The Paleo Diet, by Loren Cordain, and The Paleo Diet for Athletes, by Cordain and Joe Friel, MS, an endurance athlete coach. The diet is based on two premises: (1) our current diet is mismatched with our genes, and we should eat more like our Paleolithic ancestors; and (2) the diet is how we are "designed" to eat.
In a nutshell, the Paleo diet consists of:
- Eggs (6-12/week)
- Organ meats, game and wild meats
- Fish and shellfish
- Fruits and vegetables (although obese people should limit grapes, bananas, cherries and mangoes)
- Nuts and seeds (except peanuts)
- Oils (olive, walnut and flaxseed)
- Moderate use of coffee, tea, wine and beer, and moderate intake of dried nuts.
Foods to avoid on the Paleo diet include:
- Cereal grains
- Legumes and starchy vegetables
- Foods that contain salt
- Fatty, cured and processed meats
- Soft drinks and fruit juices
- Sugary sweets (candy, honey and syrup)
As you can see, the diet emphasizes high-protein foods and other items that can be consumed without additional processing. It limits carbs and beans, which can be difficult if you don't care for meat. Here are some pros and cons:
- Emphasis on lean meats and branched chain amino acids aids in muscle recovery and growth
- Lots of fruits and vegetables—high in dietary fiber, potassium and anti-oxidants for fuel and recovery
- Few refined carbohydrates, which tend to increase cellular inflammation
- Heart-healthy fats, which have been shown to reduce inflammation and have a positive impact on blood lipid levels and longevity
- Moderate intake of alcohol, which, in excess, can significantly impair performance
- Limited intake of sweets and sodium
- Nuts have healthy fats, and aid in nutrient absorption
- Lack of research on the effects of the diet on performance and recovery. Most research applies to endurance athletes
- Lacks vital nutrients, such as calcium, fiber, iron and carbohydrates
- Fails to meet the special needs of strength and power athletes, who need additional carbohydrates
- Heavily meat-based, which makes the diet virtually impossible for vegetarians and vegans
- Dietary supplements are recommended, but did cavemen take supplements?
- The Paleo books contain several errors and misrepresentations of nutrition research
- Populations with the greatest longevity do not eat a Paleo diet, as claimed in the book
- Some allowable exceptions to the Paleo diet contradict the recommendations of the diet—e.g., energy gels and sports drinks are OK before and during exercise, and high glycemic foods such as fruit, potatoes and dried fruit are OK after exercise.
The diet has obvious pros and cons, and you can decide what works for you. But I caution young athletes against committing to the Paleo diet, because I believe the cons outweigh the pros. It can be difficult to follow for a long duration, and put simply, it's an expensive way to eat. Here's a typical shopping list for a week of Paleo eating:
- Chicken breast meat, romaine lettuce, butter leaf lettuce, red cabbage, sliced almonds
- Medjool dates, flaxseed oil, orange juice, herbal tea, tomatoes, avocados, skinless turkey breast
- Broccoli, carrots, artichokes, blueberries, raisins, whole almonds, lemons, celery, lean beef, apples, eggs, decaf coffee, albacore tuna (canned, low sodium), onions, pimentos
- Omega-3 mayonnaise, lemon juice, paprika, ground pepper, mineral water, escargots, halibut, dill, asparagus, kiwi fruit, tangerines, white wine, cantaloupe , crab legs, olive oil
- Garlic, ginger, chicken broth, bell peppers, black olives, yellow onion, anaheim pepper, jalapeño peppers cilantro, cumin, iced tea, salmon steak
Bottom line: If you're athlete who's following Paleo strictly, you may be deficient in a number of nutrients. If you are following it with exceptions, you are probably getting what you need, but you may be getting too much of some things (lean meat) and not enough of others (fiber, calcium, iron and Vitamin D). Furthermore, it may be costing you a lot of dough.
For athletes: It's time to put Paleo back in the cave.
RELATED: Where the Paleo Diet Falls Short
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