paleo diet and sports

Is Paleo Diet Good for Athletes?

The Paleo Diet has been an emerging protocol for dieting and sports in the past years. As it happens with all stablished diets, host of questions regarding their effectiveness enhancing sports performance arise. Athletes, due to their energy expenditures and metabolic adaptations, require of special nutritional protocols. Is Paleo Diet good for athletes, or is it suboptimal?

As we saw in earlier posts (read HERE), Paleo Diet was introduced and explained. Now that you know what it is and what it's not we can start getting deeper into wether it's a useful protocol if you are an athlete or not.

NUTRITIONAL REQUIREMENTS FOR ATHLETES

Before getting into specifically Paleo Diets, I want you to know clearly the main aspects of a diet when it comes to enhancing performance.

Nutritional requirements for athletes are not the same than for other subjects. As always, nutrition has to be individualized and put in context. Quite a lot of research has been done around the optimization of the athletes' nutrition, and we can get to a consensus (study).

Nutrition's goals for athletes are simply to optimize sports performance. Having special requirements, it is an important variable to consider to get stronger, more agile or/and better on their discipline (study)(study). When we talk about 'elite', following a proper diet or not can make the difference between first and second place.

Here we'll cover the main aspects to considere when building an optimized diet. But remember, performance is not always health, and indications on nutritional requirements may vary slightly

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HIGH CARBOHYDRATES INTAKE

Generally athletes benefit from high carbohydrates intakes (study). These macromolecules have shown to be an effective fuel and source of energy for metabolic work and physical activities (study).

Being carbohydrates the most efficient molecule to produce energy quickly, its consumption highly depends on the type of sport to be practiced. Resistance and short-duration high-intensity trainings can rely more on the anaerobic pathways and direct ATP production. On the other hand, endurance and long-duration low-intensity trainings rely mostly on the aerobic and glycolitic pathways (source)

Carbohydrates intakes pre, intra and post exercise are effectives strategies to fill and refill glycogen stores, respectively (study)(study).

PROTEIN QUALITY AND QUANTITY

When building muscle mass, protein intake serves as a substrate source, inducing structural changes and potentiating protein synthesis (source). Once again, athletes can benefit from higher intakes of protein due to the excess on muscle damage and 'catabolic' exercise.

Amino acids provided through the protein intake will be used to 1) repair damaged muscle tissue and 2) construct new muscle tissue. But not only the quantity matters. The quality here also has an important role in the effectiveness of the process. We need all essential amino acids to be able to construct new muscle tissue (study). And leucine, one of the branched amino acids (BCAAS) plays a unique role in muscle growth, triggering and activating the process (study)

Protein intakes of ~2g/kg seem to be optimal for athletes (study), possibly showing more benefits with higher intakes.

FATS ARE IMPORTANT

Although they don't seem to directly enhance sports performance, athletes should still intake some amounts of fats daily. Recommendations of 0.8-1.2g/kg are optimal for fat intake (source).

Fats help stabilizing and adding rigidity to the cell membrane to function properly. Being the main components of these structures, their dietary intake is crucial for the proper cell functioning. In addition to that, the are important to stablish a good hormonal axis and environment (study)(study).

TAKE-HOME MESSAGES:


  • Nutritional requirements for athletes are somewhat different from general populations

  • Athletes require of higher carbohydrates intakes

  • Protein quantity and quality determines the effectiveness of muscle growth

  • Fats are needed to stabilize cell membranes, keep the hormonal axis functioning properly and to have a long term energy reservoir.

PALEO DIET FOR ATHLETES

Now we have seen the most important requirements for athletes when planning a diet. But can Paleo Diet fulfill all these requirement or should we consider some other protocol?

HIGH IN PROTEIN OF QUALITY

Paleo Diets include protein source like meat, fish, shellfish, eggs and legumes. The lack of dairy products and milk protein made people think that paleo diets were not optimal for protein consumption.

Protein quality is based on its biological value. Whey protein and dairy are at the top of the table, but other sources like eggs have a score of 100 on their biological value.

Another aspect to consider on protein intake is the amount of leucine. Although all amino acids are important for protein synthesis, leucine has an extra benefit triggering and activating protein synthesis (study).

Protein animal sources have a high biological value and are generally high in leucine, fulfilling the daily requirements of this amino acids to optimize muscle protein synthesis (study).

Therefore, Paleo Diet shouldn't be a problem when trying to achieve protein requirements for athletes. The use of protein animal sources combined with other plant sources such as legumes or nuts will do the work for you.

GOOD SOURCES OF FAT

Fat can be classified depending on the nature of their fatty acids. While monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids are associated with improved metabolic parameters (study), excess of saturated fats must be avoided (study)

Fat sources found in Paleo Diets are avocado, seeds, fatty fishes, nuts, red meats, and eggs. If we look at the fatty acids composition of all these sources, the majority of them are high on unsaturated acids, while only red meats are high in saturated fats. From this observations we can say that Paleo Diets are not a problem in fulfilling fat requirements associated with health and proper metabolic function.

MICRONUTRIENTS CONTENT

Micronutrients, including vitamins and minerals, play important roles in our metabolism. They are involved in many metabolic reactions acting as essential cofactors or signal molecules (source). For the interest of the athlete, fulfilling the requirements of these substances can potentiate metabolic efficiency and sports performance.

Paleo Diets are high in vegetables and fruits, being one of the main sources of calories and carbohdyrates. By looking at the nutrient density index created by RP (post), vegetables are generally one of the best sources of vitamins and minerals.

Now we'll go through the main micronutrients of interest for athletes, and wether Paleo Diet is a protocol able to fulfill all requirements.

Paleo Foods

PALEO AND METABOLIC HEALTH

To enhance and optimize sports performance, you must consider dietary protocols to optimize your metabolism. It's like having a Porsche and using "shitty" fuel. At first nothing happens, but the engines start deteriorating slowly. Our metabolism is the same. We need to provide all macronutrients and micronutrients to optimize, in this case, muscle hypertrophy and anabolic processes involving structural and metabolic adaptations to training.

VITAMIN D

As we saw in this post HERE, vitamin D plays important roles in our metabolism. Considered a steroid hormone, it acts binding to its receptor, VDR. The main effect attributed to vitamin D is related with bone health and absorption of calcium in the intestine (study)(study). Calcium is involved and needed for muscle contraction, therefore enhancing muscle function (study)

However, VDR has also been found in muscle tissue, suggesting a positive effect on muscle function (study). Effectively, vitamin D affects muscle strength, and to a smaller extent muscle mass (meta-analysis).

Vitamin D and testosterone are directly related. Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with lower serum levels of testosterone (study). And we all know the benefits of having normal levels of testosterone when it comes to building muscle mass (study).

Paleo Diets contain fish oils, which are one of the main dietary sources containing vitamin D. In fact, 10g of fish oil provides 1360UI of vitamin D. This added to sun exposure shouldn't cause a problem when dealing with vit.D serum levels.

CALCIUM

Calcium is one of the most abundant mineral in our organism. It has been associated with bone health, muscle contraction, nervous sytem and coagulation (study) (study) (study).

By looking at the main metabolic functions of calcium, one might think that its deficiency may lead to deteriorated nervous system and muscle contraction. And this is not good for your gains.

Paleo Diet restricts dairy products, these being the most known source of calcium. However, we can 'pay off' this with the high content of fruits and vegetables. Let me explain you why.

Bioavailability of calcium in fruits and vegetables is higher (study). This is, we will need less total calcium to achieve the same serum levels of the active compound.

Fruits and vegetables are also alkaline. The potassium salts contained in these sources lower calcium clearance and excretion through orine (study). Buffer systems' activity are also enhaced, potentiating the retention of calcium.

Paleo Diets are high in fruits and vegetables, and these help achieving the required amounts of calcium. So we can say that calcium shouldn't be a problem when performing a Paleo Diet.

IRON

Iron deficiency is associated with lower muscle function and work capacity (study)(study). Not only directyl, but iron could also enhance performance by improving exercise bioenergetics (study).

Due to the cognitive and physical demands of athletes, requirements of iron are higher than those recommended for general population.

Iron can be found in two forms. Animal sources contain heme iron, while plant soures are high in no-heme iron and vitamin C. Heme iron has been proved to be more effective when icreasing serum levels of iron due to its higher absorption (study).

Paleo Diets contain foods of both types. Intake of meat and vegetables should be enough to avoid iron deficiencies.

ANTIOXIDANTS

Physical exercise generates a higher consumption of oxygen and increases oxidative stress and cell damage. Atheletes (and you) should be aware, and higher intakes of antioxidants could provide benefits on muscle function and recovery.

The main mechanisms by which antioxidants could benefit is by delaying muscle fatigue (study), improving glucose uptake (study), and achieving higher degrees of muscle adaptations (study)

For your luck, Paleo Diets have no problem in fulfilling the requirements of antioxidants, being this primarly vitamins A, C, E. These vitamins ca be found in fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat and fish. If you follow a balanced paleo diets, there should be no problem in the antioxidant content of your diet.

Paleo Diet for Athletes

CONS OF PALEO DIETS FOR ATHLETES

Now we have seen that, in principle, Paleo Diets could be used to build muscle and improve your muscle performance. But not everything is pink and amazing. Here we'll see the potential drawbacks of paleo diets for athletes.

VERY SATIATING

Paleo Diets are extremly satiating. They are very high in fiber, which are nondegradable and create a gel in our digestive tract (study). This gel enables us to feel full and satiated before, being able to eat less.

Additionally, Paleo Diets are also high in protein. This macronutrient has been found to be the most satiating of all three (study).

This can be an advantatge when losing weight, but athletes trying to gain muscle mass have to eat high amounts of calories daily. And if these are coming from high-fiber or protein sources, it makes it way harder for the athlete to reach the required calories.

HIGH IN FRUCTOSE

Paleo Diets are generally high in fructose due to the abundance of fruits. High intakes of fructose may lead to gastrointestinal disorders (study) (study).

When we are about to head to the gym or start practising any kind of sport, the last think we want is to feel pain in our stomach. The best option for this is to avoid fructose close to your trainings, or consume preferably bananas or any other kind of fruit with low contents of fructose (study)

LESS ADHERENCE TO THE DIET

As it happens with all diets that restrict some sort of foods, adherence is lower. And when dieting and following a nutritional protocol, we are highly interested on the long term. In fact, the 'yo-yo' diet, known for being "2 months diet - 2 months normal - 2 months diet - ..." has been proved to create metabolic adaptations to gain fat more easily (book). This is called the "rebound effect"

So we are interested in following a protocol that adheres to our lifestyle and we find enjoyable. And, again, any restricted protocol will adhere to a less extent to you.

In this study investigating adherence to Paleo Diet in Australian subjects, researchers found that adherence to the diet was lower when compared to general nutritional habits. Thi was mainly due to the struggling when doing groceries, and the greater incidence of gastrointestinal problems (study)

HEAVY DIGESTIONS

One of the main problems of Paleo Diet is its high content of foods with a high satiety index and high in fiber. As we discussed earlier, these two have been proved to delay digestions and gastric emptying (study).

In addition to that, Paleo Diet also contain high amounts of fats. And fats are also associated with longer digestions and gastric emptying due to their high caloric content (study)

Athletes must consume a considerable amount of calories, often doing 6-7 meals a day. If digestions are slow, the subject will struggle reaching caloric requirements, compromising performance and overall progress.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR ATHLETES

To end with this post, we would like to tell you some recommended protocols to minimize 'cons' associated with Paleo Diet. If you are athlete and want to follow a Paleo Diet, you should consider these that follow.

BE FLEXIBLE ON YOUR DIET

Adding some 'non-paleo' foods to your diet won't harm anyone. Base your nutrition on the Paleo Diet and strategically add cereals, or other foods with fast gastric emptying and high carbohydrate content.

Main macronutrient lacking on Paleo Diet is fast digested carbohydrates, making digestiong harder and slower. So if you need to train soon and you struggle with your gastric emptying, consider intake of cereals, bread, or ultraprocessed foods high in carbohydrates.

FOLLOW 'PALEO' BREAKS

Once in a while is good to take a break and eat 'at libitum'. It will help achieving higher degrees of adherence and making dieting easier. You can always go back on track whenever you want, just take the control and don't go crazy when having the breaks.

USE SUPPLEMENTATION

If you are concerned about possible nutritional deficiencies when doing a Paleo Diet, maybe sports supplements are for you. Vitamin D and multivitaminics seem to be the main possible deficiencies, but it will depend on your situation and context.

CONCLUSION

Paleo Diet has been an emerging protocol lately. Athletes show special nutritional requirements, and nutrition plays an important role when optimizing sports performance.

In this review we saw how Paleo Diet for athletes can be a feasible protocol to induce muscle adaptations and optimize physcial performance. However, there are some facts you should consider when following this diet, such as fiber content, gastrointestinal problems or the satiety of the diet.

If you still have doubts, please leave your comment below and we'll try to solve it.

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