Is a Paleo, Low-Carb-High-Fat Diet Suitable for Runners?
The short answer? Yes, Paleo/Low-Carb-High-Fat is very much suitable for runners of all distances!
Tired of feeling tired, constantly bloated and experiencing blood sugar drops and mood swings, I came across an article by Professor Tim Noakes on the Banting diet, or “Banting” for short. This is a Low-Carb-High-Fat (LCHF) diet, named after William Banting, after his significant weight loss when he limited carbs and upped his fat intake.
Professor Tim Noakes, a medical doctor, ultra-runner and emeritus professor at the University of Cape Town, authored several books on exercise and diet. In one of these, The Real Meal Revolution, Noakes states that carbohydrates are the only macronutrient that man can safely live without. Although we need a constant supply of glucose to survive, the liver can produce this more consistently from breaking down fat and protein, and thus, we do not need carbs.
What is a LCHF and a Paleo diet?
A LCHF diet, similar to a Paleo diet, is based on the premise that the genetics of the human species have not changed significantly in the last 200,000 years and that we are still designed to eat what our earliest ancestors ate. It is only very recently that man started to cultivate cereals, grains and sugar, and metabolically, we have not adapted to consume or benefit from these in any amount that we have been lead to believe was “healthy”.
Basically, the LCHF diet as well as the Paleo diet promote and support eating of real, whole foods and avoiding chemically processed foods.
The difference between Paleo and LCHF
The Paleo diet and Low-Carb-High-Fat diets vary in their approach to dairy and carbohydrate consumption. The LCHF diet includes the use of dairy such as cheese with low lactose content, full cream milk, yogurt and cream, while no dairy is consumed on the Paleo diet. Dairy is an essential source of healthy fats and calcium but may cause allergic or intolerance reactions in some people.
Although in limited portions, most vegetables, fruits and nuts (except peanuts) are allowed on the Paleo diet, while tuber vegetables and cashews that are high carbs, are not allowed on a LCHF diet.
The Banting diet has food lists that are used as guides. The Green List provides the lowest carb options that can be eaten without exceeding the daily carb limit, while the Red List of foods should be avoided completely. Foods on the Orange List can be eaten in moderation only as it is higher in carbs. All fruits as well as butternut squash, sweet potatoes and carrots are on the Orange List.
What are the benefits of a Paleo/LCHF diet for runners?
The traditional way of thinking that we need to “carb-load” before we can exercise is completely overthrown with the LCHF way of life. Several advantages exist for runners that opt to forgo the carbs and load on fat.
By eating foods from which the fat content has been reduced or eliminated (think low-fat or fat-free yogurt), the body’s ability to take up very important fat-soluble vitamins A,D, E and K is reduced. These vitamins are essential, amongst others, also for its synergy with minerals such as Zinc, Calcium and Magnesium, which aids in energy metabolism, cell regeneration and cell health.
Although the body prefers to tap into muscle glycogen stores during exercise, these supplies are usually depleted within 20 minutes of exercise. Without carbs, the body reverts to its fat supplies for fuel, a much larger and more sustainable source of energy than the limited muscle glycogen stores. Ironically, we need to eat fat to kickstart the body’s ability to metabolize stored fat with the help of those essential fat-soluble vitamins and their mineral partners.
One of many case studies features South-African veteran ultra marathon athlete Alfred Motaung. Alfred switched to a LCHF diet before running his 14th Comrades ultramarathon in 2015, and successfully completed the 89.7 km in a time of 9:55:51. His breakfast on raceday consisted of eggs and beef sausages with cubes of butter in his coffee. He refueled with fatty, salty beef jerky as well as bananas to prevent cramping and felt great.
Ditching carbs and increasing our intake of healthy fats such as nut oils, butter, coconut oils and fats from meat will keep the body fuller for longer. Carbs are broken down faster than fats and proteins, resulting in cravings and uneven blood glucose supplies. This, we know, can lead to regular, unhealthy snacking or overeating.
It is a matter of personal preference to go “more Paleo” and “less LCHF” by consuming more items from the Orange List (i.e. higher in good carbs) for increased energy during higher intensity workouts. Or to choose to strictly follow the LCHF diet by avoiding fruits and carb-rich veggies for better weight loss results.
The fat-soluble vitamin A is essential in speeding up recovery and supports early inflammation after injury. Zinc, which can only function normally in the presence of fat-soluble vitamins A,D,E and K, is important for cell renewal and repair, as well as optimal functioning of the immune system.
Increased general health
Except for direct health risks that are associated with the overconsumption of carbs, trans fats and carcinogenic additives that are often encountered in processed foods, there is the question of personal food allergies and intolerances.
The FDA lists only eight food allergens and their sources that are required to appear on food labels, namely milk, eggs, certain fish species, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans. These eight foods are responsible for 90% of all food allergies and intolerances. The remaining 10% of allergies and intolerances can be caused by any single or combination of a number of additives, preservatives, colourants or other chemicals.
Group labeling such as “artificial flavoring” may refer to a blend of 10 different chemicals, making it incredibly hard to determine what exactly you are taking in and in what quantities when eating processed foods. To pinpoint a specific allergen or source digestive discomfort when consuming processed foods is like searching for a needle in a haystack. It is nearly impossible.
By adopting a Paleo-type diet the risks associated with consuming processed foods are completely avoided.