You may have never thought of eating like a cave dweller before, yet as a runner, you've probably heard of the Palo Diet. And the Paleo Diet, put simply, is a lot like the diet of our ancient ancestors. In recent years, there has been increased discussion of the Paleo Diet and its health benefits, especially for long-distance runners or others who work out intensely.
It turns out there are arguments on both sides of the fence. Many say there are unquestioned endurance benefits that come with following a Paleo diet. Others aren't so sure, and there are those who say the diet lacks in the nutrients that are essential to long-distance runners.
Of course, all of it adds up to the one burning question…does it work for runners, or not? Let’s look at some of the basics.
What is paleo?
The Paleo Diet emphasizes eating in a way that is similar to our prehistoric ancestors who existed before the Neolithic agricultural revolution. Paleo excludes processed foods, refined sugars and places emphasis on eating:
This diet emphasizes taking in large amounts of protein and healthy fats. It typically excludes:
The Paleo way of eating encourages eating fats and fats of all kinds except for polyunsaturated fats that are commonly found in processed vegetable oils. Most nutritionists say that the Paleo Diet is right on the mark when it comes to cutting down on processed foods, including:
These foods offer less protein, fiber and iron than unprocessed equivalents, and can increase the risk of heart disease and cancer.
How does Paleo benefits runners?
Some runners who have become Paleo converts say the diet helps train the body to learn to burn fat more efficiently. Since the body's main energy sources are fat and carbohydrates with fats in large supply, it makes sense that it's helpful to increase a long-distance runner's reliance on fats before accessing its limited supply of carbs.
Dr. Loren Cordain, author of The Paleo Diet, says that there are several other reasons that the diet boosts endurance performance. One major reason is that it aids muscle repair, thanks to lean meats and fish that are high in branched-chain amino acids. And, says Cordain, a diet high in fruits, vegetables and lean meats includes antioxidant vitamins and minerals that help build a healthier immune system. These nutrients will help you have fewer colds and illnesses.
What are Paleo's drawbacks?
While nutritionists agree that the Paleo Diet provides benefits in its emphasis on non-processed foods, there are plenty of critics when it comes to its overall approach. For starters, Paleo's low-level reliance on carbohydrates has drawn criticism from many corners. This comes as no surprise since it’s common knowledge that carbs are an essential part of an endurance athlete's diet.
What works for the average person when it comes to carb consumption typically isn't adequate enough for a distance runner. Sports nutritionists have long recommended that a runner's diet include 60 percent carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates break down into sugars such as glucose, which is stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen and provides fuel for muscles. Having high stores of glycogen can increase the duration before an athlete reaches exhaustion. Grains and legumes, both key sources of carbs, are also not part of the Paleo Diet.
The diet's emphasis on consuming large quantities of meat has also raised eyebrows. Research has consistently shown that the more red meat we eat, the higher our mortality rate. Endurance athletes are thus encouraged to eat more fish and poultry and less red meat.
What about evolution?
Other critics say that the Paleo Diet emphasizes eating in a way that was just one part of our evolutionary history, while ignoring more modern ways of eating and preparing food. Moreover, experts say almost every single species consumed today, whether it’s fruit, vegetable or animal, has evolved greatly from the Paleolithic age.
It's also not completely clear what our pre-historic ancestors ate. Vague generalizations can be made, but the human diet varied by geography, season and opportunity.
Modifying the Paleo Diet for runners
For runners, the basic premise of the Paleo Diet is sound, but experts suggest that a little bit of “cheating” should be allowed. Endurance coach Joe Friel, author of The Paleo Diet for Athletes - said that Paleo-approved carbs can help fuel you for a run, but may not adequately replace glycogen during and after a run. Friel recommends non-Paleo carbs such as sports drinks and bagels for mid-run and post-workout fueling, but to avoid these at all other times.
Critics suggest that even adding non-Paleo types of carbs may not help you reach the 100 percent of the carbohydrate intake you need if you are following a strict Paleo diet. The longer and faster you run, the more your body relies on its glycogen stores.
What is the bottom line on Paleo?
Does following a strict Paleo diet work for runners? Does a Paleo diet improve performance and recovery rates? Research and evidence has shown that the diet provides many benefits and helps decrease the consumption of unhealthy foods. However, critics say that it doesn't give endurance athletes enough of what they need.
There is no "one-size-fits-all' diet anyway. Many factors go into determining the best diet for each runner, factors, including:
While the Paleo Diet provides many health benefits, it is not necessarily a perfect fit for runners.