You’ve probably heard a thing or two about various diet fads out there – most intended to get you ‘healthier’, one way or another. In this series, we will be exploring three diets: paleo, mediterranean, and vegetarian. Each contain unique benefits for the athlete and non-athlete. So, which is best for you? I’m laying out the pros and cons here, starting with the paleo diet.
Athletes have been trying to get back to their nutritional roots as far back as their caveman ancestors. They call this a Paleo diet in reference to the Paleolithic era that ended 10,000 years ago before the development of grain farming. If you imagine what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate, you will consider free-range meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and healthy oils as part of a Paleo diet. However, the diet excludes dairy, grains, legumes, refined salt, sugar and processed foods. Paleo is great for laying a healthy dietary foundation but may leave some athletes needing more.
Staying In Shape
Overall, this diet is very healthy with lower carbohydrate than the average American diet, higher protein, and higher fiber intake. It is also rich in healthy fats, vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, and plant based phytochemical nutrients. I would consider this diet very heart healthy and it is excellent for staying in shape. So far, this would all lead to me saying that this diet is excellent for athletes.
Endurance Athletes Need More
As with any diet “fad” there is a “but”…First of all, this may not be an ideal diet for an endurance athlete. The relatively low starchy carbohydrate intake provides limited fuel for building up glycogen stores for long endurance challenges. Second, for the strength athlete they miss out on the value of the dairy proteins. Casein and whey protein from milk have both been proven to have significant benefits to provide the building blocks of muscle and recovering from intense exercise. Third, this diet excludes consumption of legumes; a class of food to which soy belongs. Soy protein and products derived from soy have beneficial proteins and phytonutrients which can also be valuable to the athlete in recuperation. When you can’t drink milk or fortified soy milk, it becomes more difficult to get the rapidly digested proteins and calcium your body needs after training.
My Modified Approach
Being a strength athlete who does bodybuilding, CrossFit, and an occasional endurance challenge I enjoy a “modified” Paleo diet. That is, I follow the idea of eating healthy meats and fish, nuts, and lots of veggies. Although I limit fruits for their high sugar content, I replace the carbohydrate calories with yams or red potatoes that are otherwise excluded by Paleo. Furthermore, I am addicted to my whey protein. Whey protein has been a mainstay in my diet throughout my athletic career. Overall a diet that limits processed sugars and focuses on protein and veggies is the basis of any good diet for an athlete.