There are many different versions of a Paleo diet. From no-carb, to low-carb to a high-carb Kitavan-esque diet, there are many different ways to “eat like a caveman.” One of the most common ways to start exploring a Paleo lifestyle is via an athletic endeavour (usually CrossFit®).
If you are a sedentary office worker, your nutrition needs will be different than someone who is active. When performing high-intensity exercise, there are some major differences, dietarily, that must be implemented in order to avoid a crash. But what are those differences and what makes them so important?
“Paleo” Crash Course
When first adopting a Paleo diet, the simplest way to explain it to your co-workers and friends is that you’ll be avoiding dairy, grains, legumes, and processed foods. By avoiding these foods, you will be maximizing nutrient density, avoiding inflammatory and allergenic compounds and avoiding foods that may cause digestive stress.
You can immediately see how this would be beneficial for athletes. When you are pushing your body to the limit, demanding more of yourself than the common person, nutrition is paramount. Nutrition is the difference between beating your PR and feeling like death at the end of a simple workout. Besides sleep, there is nothing you can do, lifestyle-wise, to better prepare yourself for athletics than proper nutrition. This is true whether you’re an endurance athlete, CrossFit® athlete, or an elite olympic weightlifter.
Athletic activity causes inflammation, which ideally happens only as a hormetic stressor. Lowering inflammation is hugely beneficial for athletes. The best way to do that is via diet. In fact, one study showed that ginger and cinnamon showed a decrease in muscle soreness. Simple dietary changes can clearly have an effect on inflammation in athletes. With that premise, imagine what a diet very low in inflammation, or even an anti-inflammatory one, can do for a high-performance athlete!
When one consults with me for athletic nutrition advice, they more often than not tend to focus on macronutrient ratio. “How many carbs do I need? How much protein?”. No doubt some of this comes from the old approach of the Zone diet and CrossFit®. Counting blocks, obsessing about almonds – all of these micro-concerns are common among athletes.
The truth is that focusing on quality of food quality, not quantity is the key to success. Oftentimes these athletes will be concerned about consuming 6, rather than 7, almonds. Then, they will gorge on pizza and junk food on the weekend. It is obvious to see the problem here.
A consistent diet rich in vegetables, good sources of carbohydrates (like sweet potatoes, dark berries), protein, and healthy fats, is much more important than many of the specific variables outlined below. That being said, there are still guidelines that will differ for athletes when compared to sedentary individuals.
Further, there are even differences in dietary intake between endurance athletes and athletes performing short bursts of high intensity activity. As is true for the reasoning behind any specific diet or supplement recommendation, what works for me might not work for you. Keep this in mind as you read further.
Regarding protein, it is no doubt vital to not only human function, but especially for athletes tearing down their muscle mass on a daily basis. 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight has become the standard accepted amount that is deemed ideal for athletes. However, does the scientific literature back up this amount as optimal?
One of the best studies done on protein intake was done in 1992, by Tarnopolsky and associates. They found no difference between consuming 0.64g of protein per pound of bodyweight, and 1.1g of protein. Other studies have backed this up.
If you think you are some kind of super athlete who needs more than the average person, I would ask that you read a study from 1992, which studied athletes training 1.5 hours per day, 6 days per week. Their conclusion: protein intake of a nearly identical amount (0.75g per pound of bodyweight) was the maximum at which favorable benefits occurred.
Besides protein, carbohydrates are the most common element that athletes have questions about. This is a highly individualistic question, and the answer depends highly on activity levels, thyroid status, gender, age, stress, and other variables. It should firstly be noted that a no-carb, or extremely low-carb diet, such as a ketogenic one, will be disastrous for an athlete performing any glycogen-dependent work.
You can implement a diet low in carbohydrates if the only activity you are doing is olympic weightlifting, and maybe some walking. These activities won’t require much glycogen. If performing metabolic conditioning, carbohydrates will definitely be needed. There are many, somewhat dangerous, downsides to going too low carb, especially for athletes.
Decreases in thyroid output, weakened immune function, muscle breakdown (via gluconeogenesis), increased cortisol, and many other negative things can happen when you go too low in carbohydrate consumption. The free testosterone/cortisol ratio is commonly used as a biomarker for overtraining. As cortisol ramps up to create glucose, testosterone plummets. This can have some serious consequences.
Pre and post-workout intake of carbohydrates is another pet peeve that athletes tend to obsess over. The truth is, a consistent, quality, intake of carbohydrates, rather than timing, will provide the best benefits. Sure, if you have every other variable dialed in, which includes sleep, stress, being injury-free and a healthy HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis, feel free to experiment with tweaking pre and post workout carbohydrate intake.
But, in actuality, 99% of clients have huge issues with either sleep, stress, injuries or an imbalance in adrenal health. They are looking to tweak and obsess their carbohydrate intake, rather than deal with the underlying issues, because it is easier to focus on a number, than deal with a bigger problem.
Stress is probably the most common issue. There are a wide variety of behavioral and physiological changes that occur due to stress. In response to stress, corticotropin-releasing factor causes a cascade of events. This ends with the release of glucocorticoids from the adrenal cortex, which is found on the edge of the adrenal gland.
As can been seen above, the HPA axis is important for normal physiological function. Correcting imbalances are vital to improving health, much more than small tweaks in carbohydrate intake, pre and post workout. That being said, some studies have been done on carbohydrate intake and athletes.
Regarding carbohydrate timing, one of the best summaries comes from this study, which states that when mimicking real-life use, there is a mixed opinion on potential ergogenic effects. They found that specific carbohydrate timing, when performing up to 70 minutes of activity, likely had no effect. They state that there is a mixed consensus on activity longer than 70 minutes.
Fats, especially healthy forms such as coconut oil, avocados, extra virgin olive oil, etc., have an important place in any athlete’s diet. Interestingly, there are gender differences, as pointed out by this study. Researchers state that many women restrict not only calories, but specifically fat. This is actually counter-productive, as many in the paleo community are surely aware.
They then go on to state that there should be less emphasis on carbohydrates and more focus on quality protein and fat consumption. I couldn’t agree more. Other researchers have stated that increasing dietary fat increases VO2max, which is maximal oxygen uptake. This is the amount of oxygen your body can use in one minute. Since this is alterable by changing the fat in your diet, endurance athletes should pay close attention.
What is the best way to eat a Paleo for athletes? Consume around 0.64g per pound of bodyweight, of high quality, complete protein, per day. Consume quality sources of carbohydrates, without worrying about specific timing and more concern about your stress, type of activity and general health status. Fill in the rest of your diet with healthy fats, which will help your body in a variety of ways.
If this seems simplistic, you may be right. However, it will definitely give you great results, and simple plans are the ones that human beings can actually stick to. With many confounding variables which include life stressors such as jobs, children, sleep loss, ever-changing schedules, injuries and more – a simple dietary plan works wonders.
There are no confusing amounts to track, no specific guidelines to follow, and diet won’t become a stressful part of your life. It will provide you with the building blocks that you need to be healthy, happy and perform your best in the gym. Until the last 20 years, which saw a massive uptake in supplement production and advertising, humans stuck to ‘real’ food, and seemed to do just fine.
This is easy to forget, with massive advertising campaigns, quick weight-loss promises and societal pressures. But the truth is, real food is your best weapon to increased athletic performance and body composition.
Does this clear up some dietary misconceptions you may have had? How do you eat for athletics? Let us know in the comments!