The premise of the Paleo Diet is that human beings are biologically designed to operate best when they are consuming foods that are closest to those that our earliest ancestors ate before the advent of agriculture or domesticated livestock.
Meat, fish, and vegetables make up the core of the Paleo Diet, while dairy products, grains, beans, rice, potatoes, sausage, bacon, bread, alcohol, peanuts, and sugars are prohibited. Even canola oil is not recommended.
One of the the criticisms of the Paleo Diet, which authors Loren Cordain and Joe Friel attempt to address in The Paleo Diet for Athletes, is that it doesn’t provide enough carbohydrates for train for and race in endurance events. The Paleo Diet for Athletes suggests several modifications of the standard Paleo Diet to allow for endurance training and racing.
In The Paleo Diet for Athletes Stage I (Eating Before Exercise), Stage II (Eating During Exercise), and Stage III (Eating 30 Minutes Postexercise) allow the consumption of energy gels, sports drinks, and recovery drinks containing sugars to help fuel endurance workouts and races. Stage IV (Short-term Postexercise) allows high sugar fruits like apples and sugary fruit juices like grape juice. Stage V (Long-term Postexercise) resembles more traditional Paleo Diet. In Stage V, fat makes up about 40% of the total calories.
Some of the authors’ arguments in favor of the Paleo Diet are a bit confusing. In the Introduction, the superior VO2max values of several hunter-gatherer and non-Westernized societies are touted as a resulting from their animal-rich diet. It’s far more likely that their high VO2max values are result of their active lifestyle and relatively low bodyfat. It’s unlikely that very many !Kung tribesman are spending most of their day sitting behind a desk or on the couch watching TV.
Strangely, one of the examples given in the book is the Masai tribe of Kenya, whose diet consists largely of cow’s milk and maize-meal, both of which are prohibited in the Paleo Diet. Amazingly, this diet seems have done them no harm and their VO2max values are among the highest reported.
Studies of the diet of the communities in Kenya that produce most of the world’s top distance runners indicate that it consists of vegetables, bread, rice, potatoes, kidney beans, and ugali (a corn-meal paste), along with large amount of tea with milk and sugar. Meat is consumed about four times a week in small amounts of about 100 g (3.5 oz) . While most of their diet is banned under the Paleo regime, they dominate distance running.
One of the arguments in The Paleo Diet for Athletes against the consumption of milk is that our hunter-gather ancestors weren’t capable of domesticating the wild ancestor of the cow, the auroch. History suggests that sheep, goats, and cattle were all domesticated around the same time, about 10-11,000 years ago.
The Paleo Diet theorizes that humans haven’t adapted to be able to properly digest milk from these domesticated mammals since that time, and thus it should be avoided. While there are some large ethnic groups which are lactose-intolerant, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone should avoid it.
The Paleo Diet for Athletes also tries to make the case that milk is not very nutrient dense compared to other foods on a per calorie basis, but they use high calorie, whole milk to stack the deck. When was the last time you drank whole milk? Whole milk represents less than 25% of milk sales. The vast majority of people drink low-fat or skim milk, which is much more nutrient dense, on a per calorie basis. On this basis, human breast milk would probably also not be considered “nutrient dense” by the book’s authors, despite having sustained infants for millions of years.
My biggest problem with the Paleo Diet is its restrictive nature. Since it eliminates entire food groups, it is difficult to stick to the diet. The authors seem to acknowledge this, allowing for “cheating” 15% of the time, not including the non-Paleo foods allowed before, during, and after some workouts. Given this cheating allowance, you might actually be able to come close to eating a standard diet, while still claiming to be following the Paleo Diet for Athletes.
If you think that the Paleo Diet will help you improve your performance as an athlete go for it. I’m not convinced that it is superior to other, more conventional diets. Personally, I’m not crazy about any diet where I can’t have a glass of beer or a slice of pizza without feeling guilty.
What do you think? Have you tried the Paleo Diet? Has it worked for you? Tell me in the comments.