Sports dietitians work with athletes on ways to optimize their performance through what they eat and drink. There is no “perfect” diet for everyone, but there are a lot of wrong ones — or plans that may compromise performance. You may have heard about the paleo diet, but how much do we really know about this? Here’s a breakdown.
What Is the Paleo Diet?
This diet was developed by Loren Cordain, PhD, a researcher from Colorado State University, who started doing studies in the 1970s. He says that the paleo diet is the way humans were genetically designed to eat. Let’s explore this:
- We are not cavemen.
- Recent studies suggest that early man was more of a vegetarian (plant eater) and not as much of a carnivore (meat eater).
- Most of us don’t just hunt for our food.
- We have many food choices available.
- There has been a lot of research on the health benefits of foods that are not part of the paleo diet.
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Paleo Diet Food List
- Lean meat, such as chicken, turkey, pork, lean beef, and buffalo (bison)
- Fresh fruit
- Nonstarchy vegetables, such as lettuce, asparagus, green beans, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and spinach
- Nuts, like almonds, walnuts, cashews, pecans, and pistachios (no peanuts)
- Seeds, like pumpkin and sunflower
- Plant-based oils, such as olive, walnut, grapeseed, and coconut oil
What Can’t You Eat on the Paleo Diet?
- Grains, such as oats, wheat, barley, and rice — which means no cereal, bread, pasta, bagels, crackers, or granola bars
- Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes and corn, as well as potato and corn chips, tortillas, and popcorn
- Legumes or beans — so no peanuts or peanut butter; no soy foods, such as soy milk, tofu, or edamame; no hummus or beans of any kind
- Dairy products — so no milk, yogurt, cheese, or ice cream
- High-fat meats, such as salami, bologna, pepperoni, hot dogs, ground meat, rib roast, and ribs
- Sugars, such as in soda, honey, jam or jelly, syrup, candy, cakes, cookies, and sports drinks
- Processed foods or trans fats, such as doughnuts, french fries, fruit snacks, or macaroni and cheese
- Salty foods, such as crackers, chips, pretzels, soy sauce, added-salt foods, or sports drinks
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Essential Paleo Diet Tips
- The diet does not specify portions of the allowed foods, and because there aren’t a ton of approved foods, you may find yourself overeating some of them. This wouldn’t be a calorie issue if you ate a lot of lettuce, but could be a problem if you ate a 5-pound jar of nuts.
- The diet is higher in protein, which is an important nutrient to build and maintain muscle. But too much protein usually means too little carbohydrate, which is the energy source for exercise.
- The amount of carbohydrates may be inadequate for athletes. The diet does allow some carbohydrates, but it is still fairly restrictive.
Paleo Diet Benefits
- You are more likely to eat a clean diet without additives, preservatives, or chemicals.
- There are anti-inflammatory benefits from the plant nutrients in fruits, vegetables, oils, nuts, and seeds.
- If you are eating more red meat, you will get more iron.
- You may see improved satiety — a feeling of fullness between meals, due to the higher intake of protein and fats.
- Many people lose weight primarily due to the limited food choices.
Negative Effects and Disadvantages of the Paleo Diet
- It can get expensive.
- You don’t eat any grains or dairy which can be good for health and energy.
- This diet can be difficult for vegetarians, especially since it excludes beans.
- Most athletes need between 3 to 6 grams of carbs per pound of their body weight, per day. This would be very hard to do with just fruits and vegetables.
Paleo Diet Alternatives
If you want to “health up” your diet, by all means do. But rather than going paleo, you may consider:
- Do eat three meals a day.
- Do include some protein at every meal and snack.
- Do include foods with color at every meal or snack.
- Do include some grains at every meal and snack, such as cereal, whole grain bread, rice, or pasta.
- Do include a little fat at each meal, such as nuts, butter, salad dressing, oil , or a little mayonnaise.
- Do be selective with some of the less healthy foods.
Remember that if you take away foods and nutrients and don’t find suitable replacements, you can create a nutrient imbalance.
For more information, visit UPMC’s Sports Nutrition site to learn more about our services.
About Sports Medicine
Sports bring with them a potential for injury. And if you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury, UPMC Sports Medicine can help. We serve athletes from a wide variety of sports across every demographic: young or old, male or female, pro or amateur. We partner with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Pitt Panthers, and over 60 high school, college, and regional teams and events. We’re working to build better athletes. We use cutting-edge rehabilitation techniques to help you recover and provide education on how to prevent injuries.