Essential Sports Nutrition


Should athletes follow a Paleo diet?

The Paleo diet is marketed as a "lifestyle" as it it is described to be "the healthiest way you can eat because it is the only nutritional approach that works with your genetics to help you stay lean, strong and energetic because our modern diet is at the root of degenerative diseases such as obesity, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, depression and infertility." It's a way of eating based on the supposed habits of prehistoric hunger-gatherers or caveman. 

I absolutely agree that the Western diet is too full of refined foods, added sugar, unhealthy fats, extremely processed food and fast, convenient food. As a dietitian, there is absolutely nothing wrong with any dietary approach that favors a reduced intake of processed food and emphasizes real food.

However, there is no basis to removing major whole food food groups, like dairy, whole grains and legumes from the diet. Foods that are wholesome and contain a variety of healthy nutrients.

Consider that the Mediterranean diet is ranked as one of the healthiest styles of eating from around the world. It is rich in fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes and olive oil and low in meat. 

The Paleo diet is not only unsustainable but it's not healthy or beneficial for our environment.

If you consider some of the healthiest individuals from around the globe (consider longevity and quality of life as markers for "healthy" and not body image), they eat a lot of plants, they eat grains and legumes and they even consume eggs, cheese and milk.

If grains were so bad, we would all have health issues and that is just not the case. When people complain of health issues, like digestive troubles and low energy, you have to consider what people aren't eating that can assist in better health. Removing food is not the answer. Behavior change is the answer. This is why diets don't work. They don't change behaviors.

When people say that they feel so much better after getting rid of sugar, processed food and grains, it's only when real food is consumed in place of unhealthy alternatives, like processed food, that people will feel better. Oatmeal and berries or a bowl of Lucky Charms? A salad or a protein bar for lunch? A sweet potato with veggies and a lean piece of meat or fast food? Of course you will feel better when you eat real food! And when you eat real food, you spend more time in the kitchen as you have to put more thought into meal prep. When eating is an afterthought and you go into a meal hungry, you are more likely to make unhealthy choices. It's no shock that people feel better when they go Paleo. But grains are not to blame. When's the last time you told yourself that you should really cut back on all the lentils and Teff and Kamut in your diet?

Based on research, caveman were trying to eat enough calories to survive and reproduce. Their diet was not based on "health" but to thrive. The way a Paleo individual today eats is very different than in prehistoric times. Now a days, people are spoiled by the Paleo section of a menu at a restaurant to make ordering easier, there are Paleo packaged bars for when you are in a hurry, there are primal food blogs and cookbooks for inspiration and there is the Paleo friendly section at the Whole Foods salad bar for when you need lunch on the go.
Six million years ago, a caveman was making food choices based on where he lived and the season. He didn't have choices.
There are a lot of holes in the Paleo diet philosophy and let's be real honest, Paleo is all about marketing and food bloggers, nutrition "experts", food companies and magazines know this. If they can catch your attention by a dietary trend/fad, they will do anything possible to get you to believe that with this diet strategy you will get amazing results.

In today's society, it's very interesting to see the cult-like response of diets. People trust information from friends and "followers" and from popular websites and blogs, more than they trust scientific information. We live in a FOMO world where people feel the need to follow a similar style of eating of someone else for fear of not being liked or accepted. Think about all the people you know who are following a no sugar, gluten free, high fat or paleo diet. While people may say this diet "works" (for now), perhaps these people feel more confident in nutrition choices because everyone else seems to be eating this way too.
The truth is that there is no quick fix for healthy eating and what works for you probably won't work for anyone else. 

So while the Paleo diet, low in processed food, sugar and carbs, may work for some time for the average individual, it's still a diet that includes food rules and an off limit food list for no reason.
And once again, obesity and health issues didn't happen from people eating too much whole grains, legumes and quality dairy.

Take a good hard look at your daily diet and ask yourself in the past year, how often you did you eat out, cook a meal, or rely on processed food out of convenience because you were too busy? Do you like real foods like vegetables, fruits, bulgur, lentils, cottage cheese, yogurt and leafy greens? Do you LOVE processed foods like pita chips, cereals, bars, etc?
I'm not saying that the later is bad to consume but it's the former (and not limited to those whole foods) that needs to make up the majority of your diet for health benefits.

As for athletes, it can be very difficult to obtain all of your carbohydrates in a Paleo diet because one can only eat so much fruit and vegetables due to all the fiber. But let's also not overlook the health benefits and nutrients that one obtains from whole grains, dairy and legumes and these foods can be consumed in a healthy diet, alongside vegetables, fruits and your choice of quality protein. 

Ideally, carbohydrates should come from real food, like fruits, vegetables, grains, starches, dairy and legumes. Yes, you should also consume healthy fats and protein. This type of balanced diet is very healthy and satisfying and it doesn't leave a lot of room for sugar and processed food. It gives you energy, it offers great gut health, it protects your immune system and it keeps you well. Yes, you need to grocery shop often, meal prep and cook but a Paleo diet doesn't do that for you. A Paleo diet only tells you what not to eat. It doesn't change your lifestyle habits or thoughts, patterns and behaviors related to food.

As an athlete, when your carbohydrate needs increase, let's say from 3-5g/kg bw per day to 6-8 or even 8-10g/kg to account for the increase in training volume, I can assure you that you can't meet those needs from only whole foods as you will feel incredibly full and it may even cause GI issues. Therefore, as an athlete, you have some wiggle room to deviate from a normally high fiber diet and choose more refined foods. You can still choose real food but low residue foods, juices and sometimes bars may be needed to help you meet your daily carbohydrate needs. This is not reward food or food that you earned but instead, it's food that serves a purpose and a function. We prioritize these more refined foods around workouts due to energy needs and a change in appetite.

If you are trying to lose weight or lean up for performance, a Paleo diet is not the fix. Furthermore, you do not have to devote every minute of your life trying to reach or stay a specific weight, because essentially, you are living like a starving person, fighting your biology.
Your diet should make you happy. With behavior and lifestyle changes, you can learn to love a healthy diet and a healthy diet doesn't have to be perfect. It can still include treats and sweets and fast food and processed food.

It is through healthy daily habits and a smart training regime that you can achieve the leanest livable weight for performance and for your health. And guess can still eat carbohydrates like grains, legumes and dairy!

To be a successful athlete, you need to a healthy body.
A healthy body requires you to be extremely organized, planned and intentional with your eating choices. 

You can't outtrain a poorly planned diet.

Don't assume that any diet will improve your health if you can't maintain that style of eating for the rest of your life. 

Whole grains didn't make our country unhealthy. 

Start putting blame at one of the major causes of health issues and obesity.