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5 Reasons Why Athletes May Not Want to Go Paleo

author image Patricia Bannan, MS, RD
Patricia Bannan, MS, RD, is a freelance writer, frequent guest expert on news shows and author of "Eat Right When Time Is Tight." She is passionate about helping people reach their health and wellness goals.
5 Reasons Why Athletes May Not Want to Go Paleo
Photo Credit somegirl/ Niki Gruttadauria/ Adobe Stock

Eat like a caveman? Thousands of people are adopting this “age-old” advice, but is there really any merit? And what about for athletes? Can it help you outrun a tiger too? The theory behind the Paleo diet is that our current diet of highly processed, carb-heavy foods has led to many health ailments and diseases, so why not go way back to the Paleolithic period of more than 10,000 years ago when our diets weren’t loaded with grain-fed beef burgers, french fries and soda?

The focus of the diet is on foods that could be hunted or gathered back in the day -- mainly animal protein and plants. The simple rule of thumb is: “If a caveman didn’t eat it, you shouldn’t either.” While there are many positive aspects to the Paleo diet, such as cutting out refined carbs and sugar and eating lots of veggies, fruit, fish and poultry, there are also limitations to the diet, especially for athletes.

Steve Hertzler, Ph.D., RD, LD, Chief Science Officer, EAS Sports Nutrition, spoke at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ 2015 Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo in Nashville about nutritional shortcomings and scientific misconceptions of the Paleo diet, particularly with regard to athletes. The following are six reasons Hertzler suggests athletes should not follow a strictly Paleo diet from his review of “The Paleo Diet,” by Dr. Loren Cordain, Ph.D., and “The Paleo Diet for Athletes: A Nutritional Formula for Peak Athletic Performance,” by Cordain and Joe Friel.

1. No study on the Paleo diet in athletes has been conducted.

Some studies have been done on the Paleo diet in sedentary, obese people and people with medical conditions like heart disease or diabetes, which have shown improvements in body composition and health markers like blood lipids and blood sugar. However, athletes are very different than obese people or sick people. “There are no studies done of any kind on athletes, including endurance athletes, which is what the book focuses on because the authors are endurance athletes,” says Hertzler, Ph.D., RD, LD. In addition, Hertzler says there are no studies on the effects of bone density, no studies on the impact of the diet on mental function or mood and no studies regarding effects of the diet on autoimmune or inflammatory diseases.

Say buh-bye to potatssium-rich potatoes, healthy fat-filled peanut butter and satiating oatmeal.
Say buh-bye to potatssium-rich potatoes, healthy fat-filled peanut butter and satiating oatmeal. Photo Credit KimKelly/ Adobe Stock

2. Important food groups are restricted.

Not only are diets that restrict entire food groups difficult to follow, they also tend to lack important nutrients, which are all the more important for athletes who need to stay properly fueled for top performance and need to replenish their energy stores. Books on the Paleo diet state that humans should not have dairy, grains, legumes (including peanuts and peanut butter) and starchy vegetables since they did not exist in that era. By eliminating these food groups, studies show the diet does not meet calcium, fiber and iron recommendations in some cases. “It doesn’t make sense to restrict entire food groups unless a person has a specific medical reason to do so. There is no good rationale for avoiding potatoes, canola oil or legumes. The studies the authors cite to rationalize these eliminations are mainly based on animal studies and are grossly misinterpreted. I would add these foods back in the diet for athletes,” says Hertzler, Ph.D., RD, LD.

3. Not all athletes have the same nutritional needs.

A main concern of the Paleo diet is that it does not account for the widely varying calorie needs of different individuals and athletes. “Some athletes need 3,000 to 5,000 calories a day, yet there is no information in the book for athletes as to how to adjust the meal plan to fit differing caloric and nutritional requirements for different athletes,” says Hertzler, Ph.D., RD, LD. In fact, if you followed Michael Phelps’ diet in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games you might remember that he needed to consume as many as 12,000 calories a day to deliver his astonishing performance, which would have been more difficult had he cut out major food groups.

4. The diet is pricey.

Forget about the cost of your gym membership or personal trainer, the grocery bill might be the thing to empty your wallet once you go Paleo. “The expense is considerable. The produce section and meat and seafood counters are among the priciest corners of the grocery store. And there is a conspicuous lack of less expensive foods in this diet, such as beans, potatoes, rice and bread,” says Hertzler, Ph.D., RD, LD. In fact, the USDA thrifty food plan did a study that showed those following a Paleo diet, even with the inclusion of potatoes, would need a 9 percent increase in salary to maintain the diet. Depending on your income, you might want to jump to a more affordable meal plan.

5. The diet is impractical, and most followers “cheat.”

Imagine no more sandwiches, cereal, rice and beans, peanut butter, milk, yogurt or cheese? The reality is that these restrictions are not sustainable for most people, especially athletes who need extra calories and nutrients to stay energized. In fact, the diet itself does allow for numerous exceptions before, during and after physical trainings to meet high carbohydrate demands of endurance athletes. “If there are so many exceptions, are they really following Paleo?” asks Hertzler, Ph.D., RD, LD. In addition, Hertzler notes that the serving sizes in the books are only given in grams, which is impractical for most people. For example, a breakfast recommends 276 grams of cantaloupe and 333 grams of salmon.

What Do YOU Think?

Do you agree with Dr. Hertzler? Do you follow the Paleo diet? If so, what has your experience been like? What do you think is the best diet for an athlete? Share your experience on how making lifestyle changes has affected your life -- maybe your knowledge will help others.

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