Diet pans for athletes are synonymous with high-carbohydrate foods like rice cakes, bread, pasta and bagels, as well as manufactured sports drinks and recovery supplements. This couldn't be much further from the way Palaeolithic people ate, yet many athletes are starting to embrace the Paleo diet. NBA star Steve Nash, former NFL offensive lineman John Welbourne, surfer Kelly Slater and grand slam-winning tennis player Novak Djokivic all supposedly follow Paleo-style diets.
What is Paleo?
The premise of the Paleo diet is simple -- eat how people would have eaten 10,000 years ago. This means basing your diet around meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Grains, processed dairy and beans are all banned, as are alcohol, refined vegetable oils and more obvious items such as candy, junk food and sweetened drinks. While there are certain gray areas, such as some dairy products like grass-fed butter and cream, caffeine and root vegetables, you can't go wrong if you stick to animal and plant products, avoiding anything processed.
Benefits for Athletes
According to Dr. Loren Cordain, author of the book "The Paleo Diet for Athletes," there are numerous benefits for athletes switching to Paleo eating. In an article for the "Muscle and Fitness" website, Cordain claims that adopting the Paleo diet can improve health markers and boost fat loss. By improving general health, you'll recover quicker between training sessions and games, while fat loss can aid with strength to weight ratio. The high-protein nature of Paleo eating may also be of benefit in helping athletes build strength and repair damaged muscles between workouts.
The Paleo diet isn't classified as a low-carb diet, but according to Cordain, ancient populations only derived around one-third of their calories from plant foods. The restrictions on grains means that you'll eat fewer carbohydrates on a Paleo plan than with a typical Western diet. This goes against the typical recommendations of 50 to 60 percent of total calorie intake coming from carbohydrates to boost athletic performance. Carbohydrates are your body's preferred source of energy when exercising at high intensities, and while you can adapt to using fat for fuel, the transition period in doing so can leave you feeling lethargic and tired.
Planning for Performance on Paleo
If you decide to follow a Paleo plan, you may wish to make a few changes to the typical Paleo-style diet to help increase your performance. Look to include plenty of carbohydrates from Paleo-approved sources such as fruits and vegetables. You may need to bend the rules a little and include some gray-area foods like sweet and white potatoes or other root vegetables to help get your carbs in too. If your sport is particularly physically demanding and burns a high number of calories, you'll also need plenty of calorie-dense foods like nuts, avocado, coconut, eggs and oily fish such as mackerel and salmon to replenish those you've burnt. Include a high-carb pre and post-training snack such as dried fruit and mixed nuts, a fruit salad or squash roasted in olive or coconut oil.