An Athlete's Guide to the Paleo Diet

Should Athletes Eat Paleo?

Should Athletes Eat Paleo?

Chances are almost all of you have heard of the Paleolithic (or Paleo) diet. The hypothesis of the Paleo diet (also called the Caveman, Stone Age, or Warrior diet) is that human beings should eat only the foods that our (ancient) ancestors were likely to have eaten, and avoids grains and refined foods altogether. “Eating Paleo” has become immensely popular among the athletic and CrossFit populations, with the aim of improving athletic performance. In fact, I’d bet that most of you know someone—a friend, family member, coach, or neighbor—who has tried, or is currently trying, to eat Paleo. But while this style of eating may sound nutritious, this diet is nothing but a fad, pure and simple.

And I know I’m about to ruffle some feathers here, but the Paleo diet has absolutely, positively NO place in athletics. 

Paleo supporters say our bodies are genetically programmed to eat like our Paleolithic ancestors. The diet is based on the foods that could be hunted, fished, and gathered during the Paleolithic era—meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, tree nuts, vegetables, roots, fruit, and berries. Sounds pretty reasonable, right? But the problem is that a true Paleolithic diet is impossible to mimic: wild game is not readily available, most modern plant food is cultivated rather than wild, and meats are domesticated. Paleo supporters counter by suggesting organic plant foods, wild-caught fish, and grass-fed meats as substitutes, as these are closer to the nutritional quality of the foods of our ancestors. But again, while that sounds good in principle, the food limitations in this diet are huge. People “go on” the Paleo diet, but cannot sustain it for a number of reasons—lack of food variety, high cost of food, and potential nutrient inadequacies due to the elimination of certain food groups (like grains) all make this diet nearly impossible to adhere to. And when you consider that our hunter-gather ancestors led active lives seeking food, water, and shelter, while we live a fairly sedentary lifestyle today, the Paleo diet just doesn’t make sense for today’s humans.

Source: Jane's Healthy Kitchen (www.janeshealthykitchen.com)

Source: Jane's Healthy Kitchen (www.janeshealthykitchen.com)

Eating Paleo is even worse for athletes. “Paleo” athletes ingest meals made up purely of protein in their quest for improved performance, recovery, and muscle growth, but this is counterproductive. If an athlete eats only protein after intense exercise, in the absence of carbohydrates, the protein is then broken down and converted to glucose and fatty acids in the liver, which limits the amount of protein available for muscle growth and recovery. Without carbohydrates to replenish your body’s supply of glucose, proteins essentially pick up the slack—leaving no leftover protein for your muscles. This is a poor nutritional habit, and can actually result in a loss of muscle strength and diminished athletic performance.



Looking at another fad diet, the Atkins plan, you’ll see similar nutritional inconsistencies. The Atkins diet, similar to the Paleo plan, is based on a high intake of animal protein and saturated fat with minimal carbohydrates. Eating this way forces the body to burn fat, instead of carbs, for energy—which sounds like a good idea, until you consider the long-term effect this has on the body. The body’s process of burning fat as its primary fuel source is called ketosis, and it has the potential to create a dangerous electrolyte imbalance, as well as an acid buildup in the blood that can cause kidney damage, kidney stones, and osteoporosis by leaching calcium from your bones. Side effects of ketosis include fatigue, headache, nausea, faintness, and (ew) bad breath. Even worse, the high levels of saturated fat in the Atkins diet (or a poorly implemented Paleo diet) can increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer. 

If you are an athlete, and your goals are to improve performance, recovery, and muscle growth, the Paleo diet is just plain not for you. Fad diets are something you try—but performance nutrition is a lifelong lifestyle commitment. And every food has a place and a function in the quest for better performance.


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Mike Bewley, MA, CSCS, C-SPN, USAW-I is a guest contributor to the Volt blog. He is a Strength and Conditioning Coach at Clemson University, a specalist in sports nutrition, and the founder of online nutrition platform NutraCarina.