Book Review: “A Paleo Diet for Athletes”

Despite the fact that the last chemistry or biology course I have taken was in 8th grade, digging into the science of nutrition has been a very interesting pursuit for me. One of the books I recently devoured in a page-turner fashion was “The Paleo Diet For Athletes” by Loren Cordain PhD and Joe Friel, MS. Below are some of the highlights and my take aways. All of these content is attributed to the original authors. To learn more, buy the book or do your own research!


A Paleo Diet for Athletes


Right in the front of the book, the authors outline why a Paleo diet helps to enhance athletic performance:

  • Increased consumption of amino acids for building and repairing muscle.
  • Alkaline diet helps to reduce blood acidosis due to high levels of activity, otherwise the body breaks down muscle to balance blood pH.
  • More antioxidant vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals which provide optimum immune system function.  This allows you to which train longer and harder without risking upper respiratory (or other) illnesses.
  • Better maintenance of muscle glycogen by eating net-alkaline producing foods in the post-exercise window.

What are some of the largest differences between our diet today, and those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors?

  • Decreased macronutrient balance :
    • A large majority of caloric intake for Americans is made up of nutritionally deficient foods. This includes both the grains and processed foods, as well as the “real” foods – meat, fruits, vegetables – which are cultivated strains that do not have the macro-nutritient density of ancestral versions of these foods. When was the last time you ate organ meat?
  • Higher glycemic load:
    • The typical glycemic load (not glycemic index) of unrefined real foods is much lower than that of western refined foods. (as a random example from a table in the book, compare Cheeros @ 54.2 versus to baked potato @ 19.5). Hunter-gathers simply didn’t have the ability to consume large amounts of carbohydrates, particularly those with a high glycemic load.
  • Poor Fatty acid balance :
    • We consume a ~15:1 balance of omega 6s to omega 3s, when the ratio should be closer to 1:1. Omega 6s have been correlated with heart disease, inflammation, and certain types of cancers (p.95), among other things. Omega 3s have been shown to reduce inflammation. In several studies, omega 3 fatty acids were shown to increase performance in elite athletes, and to be as affective as Advil at reducing inflammation.
  • Poor Potassium/Sodium balance:
    • Our potassium to sodium ratio is typically < 1 in our diets. In paleolithic times, it was nearly 5 > 1! This problem seems to affect those with exercise induced asthma the most.
  • Poor Acid/base balance:
    • Most of the high carbohydrate foods we consume in America report to the kidney as acidic, causing an increase in blood pH which the body must work to regulate. The body will break down muscle and use calcium in your bones to do so. When muscles are broken down, glutamine is released, which is shown to have a large impact on proper immune system function and muscle mass. Reductions in glutamine due to endurance athletes likely lead to higher levels of infection and upper respiratory illnesses.
  • Lower Fiber:
    • Fiber intake is substantially lower than it should be for most people. Consider that 1000 calories of non-starchy vegetables have 185 grams of fiber, compared with 6 for the same caloric amount of refined cereals, and 24 grams for 1000 calories of whole grain cereals. Fiber is important for bowel function and the prevention of other issues in the gastrointestinal tract.
  • Lower Trace nutrients:
    • Its getting repetitive at this point, but I dare say it again. As fruits and vegetables are replaced in our diet, we do not get the nutrients we need to function optimally. Sugar makes up 18 percent of our daily calories, but provides no nutrition whatsoever. Grains take up a slightly higher percentage, but the refinement process for most grains we eat (85%) strips these of important vitamins and minerals.

Bottom-line, what do the authors recommend as the best diet for athletes?

  • As noted above, eat raw or natural foods that are generally low glycemic load. Eat more protein and fat, and reduce your intake of sodium, sugar, omega 6s, and carbohydrates. (cut refined starches, flours, oils and carbohydrates in general for an easy win).
  • The authors actually DO recommend supplementing the strict paleo diet with sports gels, drinks, and bars immediately before, during and after exercise (this obviously isn’t strictly paleo).

Below is a breakdown of recommended nutritional intake in relation to the time of a large workout, race, or other event of high athletic output:

Stage I – Immediately before the workout

  • 200-300 calories before exercise, mostly carbohydrates, keep fiber low, include protein (especially branched amino acids) to lower glycemic response of the carbs consumed, and hydrate well. Only water in the last hour.

Stage II – During the workout or race

  • The authors break down the nutrition for events of different length. This ranges from high-intensity 2-90 minute events, to those lasting longer than 18hrs. The nutritional intake requirements for these events vary.
  • For shortest events, water intake is the most important. As events become longer, so does the necessity to intake solid food.
  • On average, for events lasting longer than 2-4hrs, consume 300-600 calories per hour. A carbohydrate to protein ratio of 4:1 is best. It helps to reduce fatigue of the central nervous system AND prevents muscle wasting. Your body needs energy and cannibalizes itself, one reason for this is the increase in blood pH as mentioned above.
  • For every 100 calories consumed, also consume 6-8oz of water. Sodium replenishment is important for races in the heat and must be regulated carefully for longer distance races.
  • As races become longer (12hr+), so does the necessity of careful nutrition planning, which can make huge performance differences late in the event. Much of above applies. Solid foods become more important, and high glycemic index is good.
  • At 18+ hr and greater, consumption of fats should be increased (1/5 to 1/3 of your food intake). The protein to carbohydrate ratio can be increased as protein begins to make up as high as 15% of the fuel for your activity. Supplementing intake to include branched amino acids has been shown to reduce muscle wasting and improve recovery times.

Stage III – Immediately after the workout (within 30 minutes)

  • One of the most important phases for diet, as your body is most ready to rapidly receive nutrients. Restocking of glycogen stores in muscle can occur 2-3 times as fast during this period as later.
  • Goals are to replace glycogen stores, rehydrate, reduce blood acidity, and provide amino acids for the synthesis of protein. If exercise was longer, electrolyte replacement (90+ min) is important.
  • These goals are best met with sports carbohydrate drinks. You can add sodium if you need electrolyte replacement.
  • Carb to protein ratio should be 4:1
  • Best consumed as liquid, so make your own recovery drink. Best if it contains fruits and vegetables which are the only net-alkaline producing foods.

Stage IV – Period equal to duration of the workout after the race

  • Same as above, but solid foods become necessary. Combine solid foods that have a high-glycemic load in combination with those which have a net-alkaline effect (potatos, sweet potatoes, and dried fruits like raisins are best).
  • Fruit juices are a great way to rehydrate in addition to replenishing the electrolyte store. Continued intake of liquids is important, with a goal of 16 ounces for every pound of body weight lost during exercise.

Stage V – Long term recover before next Stage I.

  • Don’t ruin the effectiveness of your training routine by slacking in this period, continue to aim to maintain glycogen stores, rebuild muscle tissues, maintain a healthy pH, prevent inflammation
  • Do this through a balance diet of carbohydrates and protein, with lots of vegetables along the way. The paleo diet for athletes should be slightly higher in carbohydrates than that of the average person, as carb expenditure is greater.
  • Healthy protein intake is important. Avoid feed-lot animal meat and the accompanying fat that comes with these. Eat high-quality grass-fed meats from lean sources.
  • Include good fats: monounsaturated like those from nuts, olive oil, or avocados. Research suggests that intake of fat during non-training times can spur the body to spare more muscle glycogen, which is better used for high-output activities.

Here are my own thoughts/observations after reading, which may turn into several separate posts themselves. It was nice to see corollaries between this content and my own experiences using supplements:

  • I have taken fish oil off an on, and when taking I notice a reduction in post-exercise inflammation. This typically has led to faster healing and better repair of muscle/tendon/ligament damage.
  • Several folks have mentioned to me the value of branch-chained amino acids. This is something I am trying now.
  • Again seeing glutamine supplementation show up. It seems this is only necessary for long periods of endurance training/output where the immune system is strained.
  • Periodization is explored by the authors as a way to achieve peak fitness several times a season (2-3). This is becoming a commonly accepted fitness paradigm, even in unconventional sports like climbing. For example, Steve House mentions the importance of periodization in Training for the New Alpinism.
  • It was nice to see the recommendations for increased protein intake. I recently spent two months avoiding consumption of animal byproducts more than once a day, which naturally led to decreased protein intake (fewer branched aminos). Over those two months I noticed chronic issues with muscle stability and tendon/ligament pain. I’ll report back on how increasing protein helps these issues.

Even if you are not interested in the science, here are the takeaways:

  • Replace processed foods and carbohydrates in your diets with more fruits and vegetables.  In this post here, I provided a bunch of meals that I have found to be easy to make, low in carbs, and include lots of good fiber and fat:
  • Avoid feed-lot animal meats which have bad fats.
  • Diet is a key component to periodization, eat more fats during base and volume periods.



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