What Athletes Need to Consider Before Going Paleo
Article By: Rocco Ferraiolo | September 22, 2012
Are you eating the way your body was meant to, or scarfing down processed convenience foods? A well-rounded meal plan is crucial for athletic performance enhancement, recovery and regeneration, maintaining proper body composition and preventing disease.
But what is the perfect meal plan?
Recently, the Paleo diet, which mimics how our caveman ancestors ate, has received lots of attention. It consists mainly of fish, grass-fed meats, vegetables, fruit, fungi, roots and nuts, and it excludes grains, legumes, dairy products, salt, refined sugar and processed oils. Some researchers and athletes who have gone Paleo have reported significant results. The problem is that the Paleo diet violates much of the nutrition advice given to athletes today. (See Is the Paleo Diet Right for Athletes?)
Eating like a caveman means consuming fewer additives, preservatives and chemicals. Since the diet is big on fruit and vegetables, which are high in alkaline, it helps balance out the body and prevent soft tissue breakdown. This can help athletes reduce inflammation. Another issue athletes often face, iron deficiency, can be prevented with the Paleo's high meat consumption. Plus, a diet low in saturated fats can improve cholesterol levels. While no research results confirmweight loss in athletes, there is evidence of weight control benefits in the general population.
High quality carbohydrates—like legumes, brown rice and sweet potatoes—are not part of the Paleo meal plan. Not taking in enough carbohydrates can have negative effects on performance and recovery, potentially leading to depletion of glycogen stores and low energy levels. And since dairy products are eliminated, calcium intake is reduced, putting athletes at risk for stress fractures. Low calcium levels, combined with the acid load of higher protein intake, can result in calcium loss in the bones. This can be mitigated by consuming foods that contain potassium, but athletes on the Paleo diet must focus daily on taking in potassium-rich foods like peaches, tomatoes, bananas and greens.
Considering the Paleo diet? Ask yourself the following questions before going full caveman:
Why are you considering the Paleo diet?
If it's because you want to eat more natural, unprocessed foods, go right ahead. But if it's to achieve a specific goal related to weight modification, health or performance, work with a sports dietitian to establish guidelines.
Will Paleo eating affect your training?
Athletes have changing nutritional needs during the season and off-season. So there may be times when Paleo eating is more suitable. During intense training, carbohydrate needs are higher. Trial and error can help athletes learn about their diet needs, but be sure it's an appropriate time for experimentation.
Will you get enough carbohydrates?
Athletes on the Paleo diet must still take in carbohydrates before, during and after training sessions, workouts, and competition. For some, that may be enough, but for others it may not be. Don't set yourself up for early fatigue, soreness and/or potential injury. Be sure to include plenty of natural carbohydrate sources.
Will you get enough calcium?
On the Paleo diet, it's possible, but more difficult, to get the recommended daily allowance of calcium. Alternate sources include almond milk, spinach and canned fish, like sardines and salmon. If you cannot meet your calcium needs through diet, take 1,200 to 1,500 milligrams of calcium citrate or carbonate per day.
Will you get enough vitamin D?
Most dairy is fortified with vitamin D, so if you are not consuming dairy, this is a concern. Adequate vitamin D levels contribute to normal calcium metabolism and deliver other physical and mental benefits. Good sources of vitamin D include fatty fish, tuna, liver and eggs.