I’m often asked if The Paleo Diet™ is suited for triathletes. As with most questions, there is a short, simple answer and a longer, more complex one.
First, let’s take a look at what The Paleo Diet prescribes. The premise of the diet is to go back to our caveman roots and eat what hunters and gatherers presumably ate for survival thousands of years ago.
The foundation of the diet is based upon:
Lean meats (specifically grass fed), fish, fruits, vegetables, eggs, nuts and seeds.
In other words, it drastically reduces carbohydrates and emphasizes natural fats and protein. While somewhat varied from individual to individual, its macronutrient recommendation is 23% carbohydrate, 38% protein and 39% fat.
The Paleo Diet in its purist form prohibits anything that’s a result of cultivation or agriculture. That means no dairy, grains, legumes, sugar, refined oils, salt, coffee or alcohol.
There has been a heated ongoing debate about The Paleo Diet. Is it a fad or an idealogy, or is it solid nutritional science? I’ll let you do your own research to decide. However, back to the original question: Is The Paleo Diet viable for triathletes? My short answer is “No.”
Now, before you send me irate comments or unsubscribe from my email, allow me to provide a nuanced response!
If a triathlete takes the core premise of The Paleo Diet, adapts and supplements it with additional healthy foods, then she can unlock the nutritional secrets for optimal performance.
Here’s what I mean:
The Paleo Diet has a lot going for it. In several studies it improved results in the Glucose Tolerance Test and saw decreased waist sizes, a reduction in visceral fat and an overall reduction in body weight. It is also typically results in a dramatic decrease of triglycerides and improvements in HDL cholesterol values. Finally, signs of inflammation, so common in diets rich in refined foods and simple carbohydrates, are often reduced or even eliminated.
The Not So Good
So, with results like these, what’s the problem?
Like many diets, the severity of The Paleo Diet makes it difficult for most people to adhere to. If you can’t stick with the plan, you won’t succeed.
As athletes who continuously challenge and stress our bodies, I believe it’s important to nourish ourselves with a wider variety of healthy whole foods. I’m a fan of diets with a higher proportion of healthy fats (like Paleo), but I prefer to expand my food choices to include nuts, seeds, grass fed beef, cold water fish, avocadoes, cheese, dairy, olives, coconut oil and olive oil.
Do I hate The Paleo Diet? No… I believe it provides a useful foundation that — with specific modifications — can lead to optimal health and performance.
Here’s what I eat, and how I advise my athletes:
Dairy. One of my biggest issues with The Paleo Diet is its prohibition of dairy products. Personally I couldn’t go a day without my full fat organic yogurt, and I also consume raw cheeses, hard cheese and kefir (a fermented milk drink that does wonders for your gut microbes).
Legumes. Another area where I part ways with The Paleo Diet is its absence of dark colored beans and peas. They’re loaded with soluble and insoluble fiber, and contain about 20% protein by volume. They’re also rich in magnesium and B-vitamins, which are lacking in The Paleo Diet. I have 2 to 3 servings of legumes per week. (On a side note, I avoid all soy products, and will explain why in a future episode).
Grains. I’m a proponent of limiting grains, especially those that are overly processed. Lately I’ve aspired to gluten-free eating, and have been encouraged by the results. I do consume amaranth and quinoa 3 or 4 times weekly. These non-grass pseudocereals are excellent sources of protein and other phytonutrients.
Fish. While The Paleo Diet advises eating fish, I limit my intake of cold water mackerel, tuna and swordfish (due to their high mercury content), and increase my consumption of wild caught Salmon, anchovies, herring and Krill.
Adjust for Training Intensity. A topic often not addressed is whether or not to modify your diet on higher intensity training days. I contend that you should. Specifically, I want athletes to boost their consumption of healthy carbohydrates such as kale, cruciferous vegetables, asparagus, red and yellow peppers, cilantro, bok choy, leeks, cabbage, chard and tomatoes (all of which are all loaded with fiber). I agree with the Paleo plan to avoid starchy vegetables, especially potatoes.
Enjoyment. My final departure from The Paleo Diet includes foods that I simply enjoy. A morning cappuccino or an occasional glass of red wine with dinner is difficult to justify in the Paleo model, but I believe it’s also important to enjoy life!
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