What You Should Know About The Paleo Diet Trend
More athletes are trying the meat- and produce-packed diet, claiming improved health and running. Should you switch?
By Kelly Bastone, Runner’s World
Photo by sbshine/Flickr
If a diet promised to help you lose weight, feel energized, and dodge colds and flu, would you try it? What if you had to give up pasta, bagels, and oatmeal? Carbs may be staples for many runners, but they are one of the restrictions in the Paleo diet, which advocates a model of eating based on prehistoric humans’ diets. A growing number of runners have joined its ranks. But is it good for you?
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"Paleo has a lot of very good things going for it," says Heather Mangieri, M.S., R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The program excludes processed foods and refined sugars and emphasizes vegetables, fruits, nuts, and grass-fed meat. All good. "We know diets rich in fruits and vegetables fight heart disease and certain cancers," says Mangieri. Grass-fed meat has a healthier fat ratio than grain-fed, and all meat provides amino acids that speed recovery. A few months after adopting a Paleo diet, ultrarunner Timothy Olson set a new course record at the 2012 Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. "My legs are less swollen after really long runs," says Olson. "I can go hard again sooner than I did before I went Paleo."
But the Paleo diet also eliminates grains and legumes (both key carb sources for runners), as well as dairy, alcohol, salt, and vegetable oils. Paleo protagonists, such as researcher Loren Cordain, Ph.D., coauthor of The Paleo Diet for Athletes, say that these foods raise your body’s acid levels and leach minerals from your bones. Cordain cites substances within those foods (phytates in whole grains and lectins in beans) that inhibit nutrient absorption. But Mangieri disagrees: “Nutrient loss is minimal,” she says, “and it doesn’t seem to cause deficiencies.” She points to Mediterranean populations that enjoy long life and little chronic disease with a diet rich in grains and legumes.(See what a day of eating like cavemen is really like, here.)
The diet’s emphasis on eating high amounts of meat is also concerning, says Matt Fitzgerald, a certified sports nutritionist, running coach, and author of the new book Diet Cults, which explores why certain diets take root in our culture. A 2012 study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that the more red meat people eat, the higher their mortality rate. “I would encourage runners interested in the Paleo diet to eat more fish and poultry and less red meat—and as little processed meat as possible” he says.
Related: The Best Diet for Your Fitness Goals
THE CARB CONUNDRUM
While there are potential health benefits to going Paleo, experts on both sides of the debate agree the diet in its strictest sense is too low in carbs for runners training hard. Joe Friel, M.S., an endurance coach and coauthor of The Paleo Diet for Athletes, says that Paleo-approved carbs, which include fruits and some root vegetables, can adequately fuel you up before a run. But he notes, “these foods are just too low on the glycemic index to replace glycogen mid- and postrun as quickly as most athletes would like.” That means for runners who want to make Paleo work, some “cheating” may be necessary. Olson, who won Western States, needed more midrun carbs to prevent him from bonking on endurance runs. He tried honey, dates, and dried fruit (which are not Paleo-approved), and ultimately found that energy gels worked best for him.