This blog is for those seeking peak performances in their fitness and athletic pursuits. If you are an overweight, out-of-shape couch potato you will need to focus primarily on a low carb diet until you get your metabolism back in balance and deal with your insulin resistance.
Sedentary populations really only need to worry about providing adequate carbohydrates to support liver glycogen stores, which regulate normal blood sugar levels and fuel the brain and central nervous system at rest. This can be accomplished with roughly 100 grams of carbs a day. You don't have to memorize any of that; just remember that athletes and lifters can handle a lot more carbs than office workers.
That's why research shows that lower carb, caveman-style (Paleo or Primal) diets may be the best approach for improving body composition and biomarkers of health for the obese, insulin resistant, and sedentary populations. So if you're severely overweight, insulin resistant, and/or sedentary, a low carb Paleo-style diet will be the best approach for you at this time. Get in a calorie deficit mode, eat adequate protein, get roughly 100 grams of carbs from vegetables and whole fruit, and make up the rest of your calories from healthy fats. Once you have gained control of your weight and decide to intensify your training, you will need to adjust your diet with a focus on performance.
The basic premise of Paleolithic nutrition is that certain foods are optimal for humans and others are non-optimal. The optimal foods are those that we have been eating for most of our time on Earth—more than 4 million years. Only in the last 10,000 years, a mere blink of the eye relative to our species’ existence, have we been eating non-optimal foods. Unfortunately, these foods comprise the bulk of what western society eats today and include such foods as grains, dairy and legumes. Given that our bodies have not changed, we are simply not well adapted to these non-optimal foods and they moderate health and peak performance.
Why is the Paleo Diet Beneficial for Athletes?
Health and fitness are not synonymous. Unfortunately, many athletes are fit but unhealthy. Frequent illness, injury and overtraining reduce performance potential. An ancestral diet approach for athletes significantly improves health long term. Compared with the commonly accepted athlete’s diet, the Paleo Diet:
· Increases intake of branched chain amino acids (BCAA). Benefits muscle development and anabolic function. Also counteracts immunosuppression common in endurance athletes following extensive exercise.
· Decreases omega-6: omega-3 ratio. Reduces tissue inflammations common to athletes while promoting healing. This may include asthmatic conditions common in athletes.
· Lowers body acidity. Reduces the catabolic effect of acidosis on bone and muscle while stimulating muscle protein synthesis. This is increasingly important with aging.
· Is high in trace nutrients. Vitamins and minerals are necessary for optimal health and long term recovery from exercise. The most nutrient dense foods are vegetables and seafood. On average, vegetables have nearly twice the nutrient density of grains.
Modify your Paleo approach for performance – Here’s what you need to know:
· The ultimate performance diet for athletes is a caveman-based diet with the re-introduction of starchy carbs and workout nutrition to support training.
· There's no such thing as an essential carbohydrate, but tell that to the person who's combining high amounts of anaerobic training with no carbs and whose sex drive is in the toilet.
· The anaerobic energy production pathway runs on glucose/carbs. High intensity muscular contractions require glucose.
· The true value of an ancestral approach to nutrition is what it cuts from the average person's diet.
Simply put the optimal eating approach for merging health with performance and physique enhancement is to follow a caveman-based diet – animal proteins and veggies, no junk – with the re-introduction of a select few starchy carbs. That's it. Don't eat crap and adjust the macronutrients to the demands of your modern sport nutrition plan.
Use the Paleo diet as the baseline template for food choices, cutting out refined/processed foods and emphasizing animals and plants. Add back in some starchy foods to support your training. Try to minimize sugar, gluten, anti-nutrients, and toxic compounds. What you're left with is root vegetables (yams, sweet potatoes, regular potatoes) and white rice. Maybe you do okay with gluten or dairy, but a large percentage of people don't. Test and assess to see what works best.
Let's talk about the Paleo diet in terms of its most generally accepted, well-known version – the low-carb, higher protein and fat version (eat animal protein, non-starchy vegetables, whole fruits, and healthy fats).
It’s important to note there's no single "Paleo" diet, and food choices and macronutrient percentages vary among time periods and regions (Inuit versus Kitavan, etc.). I know that's not really fair to the whole Paleo movement, but this article is about simplifying and giving people actionable strategies, and putting it in terms they know.
Target your approach
The problem occurs when any nutritional approach becomes a religious-like cult – rabid teachers preaching it as the only way with no possible modifications based on individual goals; hardcore followers condemning all other methods; brainwashed students that may be inhibiting their progress or even doing themselves harm by dogmatically adhering to the tenets of an inflexible system, instilling fear that if a starchy carb ever touches your lips, the wrath of the four winds is going to swoop down and destroy your village.
You'll never convince me that a 300-pound, obese, insulin resistant, sedentary office worker trying to save his life should be eating the same thing as a regular exerciser or athlete that wants to reach peak physical condition. Yet that's what you have to believe if you buy into the dogmatic adherence to a one-size-fits-all "system." Cookie-cutting only works in the cookie-making business.
The true value of a caveman or ancestral approach to nutrition is what it cuts from the average person's diet – high-fructose corn syrup, soy, gluten and table sugar, trans-fats, high n-6 vegetable oils, etc. – rather than a religious-like adherence to one specific macronutrient distribution pattern regardless of individual activity levels, metabolic condition, or goals.
Why? Because 100% Paleo eating (as it is most commonly defined) just doesn't account for variances in activity levels, individual metabolic factors, overall health, and the differences between average and elite physique or performance goals.
Avoiding Skinny-Fat Syndrome
Animals and plants provide us with the essential amino acids, essential fatty acids, and micronutrients we need for survival and normal functioning. Everything else is about providing us with the energy we need to fuel our daily activities.
"Added fats" are an energy source, not an essential nutrient. This can be good or bad depending on your total calorie requirements and goals, and the composition of the rest of your diet. Starchy carbs are an energy source, not an essential nutrient. This can be good or bad depending on the type and amount of training you do. A healthy and active human body is adaptable and can do well on either one.
Low-carb diets are great for certain demographics – sedentary, obese, insulin resistant, etc. – thus they should be the default status for probably 70% of our population.
However, exercise creates a unique metabolic environment, an altered physiological state, and changes the way your body processes nutrients both during activity and for up to 48 hours after completion of a training session. If you train intensely three or more days a week, then your body is virtually in a recovery mode 100% of the time. It's in an altered physiological state 100% of the time and its nutritional needs are completely different than that of couch potato populations. In a sports nutrition context, carbohydrates are thus considered conditionally essential.
Fats should then be adjusted up or down accordingly to stay within your allotted calories. If the training program is different, the diet should be different. Beyond dietary dogmatic creeds, that's just common sense.
The anaerobic energy production pathway runs on glucose/carbs. It can't use lipids or ketones. While the body can use fatty acids as fuel at rest (and the brain ketones), and even those who train only in the aerobic zone can become "fat adapted," high intensity muscular contractions require glucose.
Therefore, chronic carb depletion combined with anaerobic training can impair performance and eventually lead to muscle loss: skinny-fat syndrome. The body will break down amino acids as a reserve fuel to provide the necessary glucose to fuel high intensity activity. You know how they say fats and ketones are more "muscle sparing" than carbs? Not necessarily, when you factor in anaerobic training.
And low-carb diets combined with consistent high intensity activity can have a lot of metabolic, hormonal, and physiological drawbacks including impaired thyroid production, low Testosterone and sex drive, decreases in metabolic rate, muscle loss, skinny-fat syndrome, insomnia, depression, irritability, and low immunity.
For those who fear carbs during fat slashing phases, just remember that total calories are still the most important step. If you strength train while maintaining a relative calorie deficit, you can still include some starchy carbs in the diet while losing significant amounts of body fat.
Paleo Diet for Athletes – Overview
Serious athletes, when it comes to immediately before, during, and directly after workouts, need to bend the rules of the Paleo Diet a bit since we're placing demands on the body that were not normal for our Stone Age ancestors. Hour after hour of sustained high energy output and the need for quick recovery are the serious athlete’s unique demands. This requires some latitude to use non-optimal training support foods on a limited basis. The exceptions may best be described by explaining the athlete’s 5 stages of daily eating relative to exercise.
Stage I: Eating Before Exercise
In brief, we recommend that athletes eat low to moderate glycemic index carbohydrates at least two hours prior to a hard or long workout or race. There may also be some fat and protein in this meal. All foods should be low in fiber. Take in 200 to 300 calories for every hour remaining until exercise begins. If eating two hours prior is not possible, then take in 200 or so calories 10 minutes before the workout or race begins.
Stage II: Eating During Exercise
During long or hard workouts and races you will need to take in high glycemic index carbohydrates mostly in the form of fluids. Sports drinks are fine for this. Find one that you like the taste of and will drink willingly. Realize that events lasting less than about an hour (including warm-up) don’t require any carbohydrate. Water will suffice for these. A starting point for deciding how much to take in is 200 to 400 calories per hour modified according to body size, experience and the nature of the exercise (longer events require more calories than short).
Stage III: Eating Immediately After
In the first 30 minutes post workout (but only after long and/or highly intense exercise) and post-race use a recovery drink that contains both carbohydrate and protein in a 4-5:1 ratio. You can buy a commercial product such as Ultrafit Recovery™ (www.ultrafit.com) for this. Or you can make your own by blending 16 ounces of fruit juice with a banana, 3 to 5 tablespoons of glucose (such as CarboPro) depending on body size, about 3 tablespoons of protein powder, especially from egg or whey sources and two pinches of salt. This 30minute window is critical for recovery. It should be your highest priority after a hard workout or race.
Stage IV: Eating for Extended Recovery
For the next few hours (as long as the preceding challenging exercise lasted) continue to focus your diet on carbohydrates, especially moderate to high glycemic load carbohydrates along with protein at a 4-5:1 carb/protein ratio. The perfect Stage IV foods are raisins, potatoes, sweet potatoes and yams.
Stage V: Eating for Long Term
As you recover during the remainder of your day, or until your next Stage I, return to eating a Paleo Diet by focusing on optimal foods.
How Much Protein, Carbs and Fat Should I Eat?
The macronutrient requirement changes with the demands of the training season and so should be periodized along with training. We recommend that athletes maintain a rather consistent protein intake year round. As a percentage of total calories this will typically be in the range of 20-25% for athletes. This is on the low end of what our Stone Age ancestors ate due to the athlete’s increased intake of carbohydrate in Stages I to IV which dilutes protein as a percentage of daily calories.
On the other hand, periodization of diet produces significant and opposing swings in the athlete’s fat and carbohydrate intake as the training seasons change. During the base (general preparation) period the diet shifts toward an increased intake of fat while carbohydrate intake decreases. At this time in the season when a purpose of training is to promote the body’s use of fat for fuel, more healthy fat is consumed—in the range of 50% of total calories—with carbohydrate intake at around 30%. During the build and peak (specific preparation) periods the intensity of training increases placing greater demands on the body for carbohydrate to fuel exercise. At this latter time of the season Stages III and IV become increasingly critical to the athlete’s recovery. Carbohydrate intake increases accordingly to around 50% of total calories with fat intake dropping to around 30%.
During times of the year when training is greatly reduced (peaking/tapering and transition periods) the athlete must manage caloric intake to prevent unwanted weight gain.
I encourage you to take some personal accountability and self-experiment to find what works best. You should use science and systems to give yourself an informed starting point, but don't dogmatically cling to anything, regardless of the source. Simply find a way to win.
References: The Paleo Diet for Athletes: The Ancient Nutritional Formula for Peak Athletic Performance by Dr. Loren Cordain and