What to Know Before You Go Paleo

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Is a Paleo diet right for you as a runner? What to Know Before You Go Paleo www.runnerclick.com

We have had a funny saying in our house for years: If you are eating your meal very quickly, you are “pounding your food like a caveman.” Who knew that eating like a caveman would actually become a thing? With cookbooks, websites, online groups, meet-ups, etc., all devoted to eating a Paleolithic diet, or a diet that a caveman would have eaten. But, what are the pros and cons of eating this way? And what are the implications for those who are physically active? And what should you know before you try a paleo diet?

Paleolithic People: What Did They Really Eat?

It turns out that the diet of Paleolithic humans—often referred to as ‘cavemen’—was quite different than today’s popular Paleo diet. True to their hunter-gatherer reputation, these early humans basically ate whatever they could find. Depending on their location, this could include anything from “grubs to nettles to armadillos,” noted Rebecca Rupp, author of “Prehistoric Dining: The Real Paleo Diet” on nationalgeographic.com. They picked berries and dug up tubers, chased down and hunted animals and scavenged whatever was edible from animals that had been killed by larger predators.

Rupp explains that today’s sources of meat have more meat on their bones, so to speak, than those Paleolithic people would have hunted. Fruit, similar to those options we enjoy today, were smaller and more tart but still made up a good portion of the Stone Age’s Paleo diet.

Paleolithic vegetables were unrecognizable, however, as compared to today’s garden fare. They were minuscule and sometimes unpalatable. Rupp asserts that tomatoes were the size of berries and potatoes the size of peanuts. Corn grew wild and its clusters—not ears—were the size of pencil erasers. Cucumbers were spiny and lettuce was prickly. Peas were so tough that they had to be roasted and peeled before eating.

Despite the assertion that both modern men, as well as our ancestors, have not adapted enough to process grains, scientists discovered bits of plants on 30,000-year-old grinding stones at archeological digs in Italy, Russia and the Czech Republic, suggesting that the ancient Paleo diet may have included ground-up plants that were mixed with water to make a rudimentary type of bread.

The Modern Paleo Diet

Although the premise of the Paleo diet had been around since the 1970’s, there has been an upswell in its popularity in the last 10 years or so. Based on foods that our ancestors would have eaten, today’s Paleo diet includes fruits, vegetables, seafood, meat, and nuts. The diet’s focus is eating food straight from the Earth, so grass-fed and organic options are preferred whenever available.

Just as important as what you can eat on the Paleo diet, is what you can’t. Obviously, anything from a box, bag or jar doesn’t have a place on the Paleo table. Also, foods that weren’t consumed during the Stone Age are off limits—grains, dairy, and legumes (peanuts, beans, soybeans or lentils), for example. Although research has shown that the ancient Paleo diet included tubers that were similar to our modern potatoes, potatoes are not part of the current strict Paleo diet. This exclusion of potatoes, according to Loren Cordain, author of The Paleo Diet, is mainly because they have a high glycemic index, are usually eaten in processed forms and contain a toxin called saponin, which some think is linked to leaky gut syndrome. The shunning of potatoes is not without controversy, however. Those who are pro-potato point to research that shows Paleo people ate plenty of potatoes and tubers and that if you want to include them, you can just eat them baked or roasted rather than French fried or tater-totted.

Although alcohol and honey are generally not part of the Paleo diet, red wine is the closest a dieter might come to a Paleo beverage. And of course, honey is greatly preferred to refined white sugar or artificial sweeteners. Added salt is also eschewed on the modern Paleo diet.

Paleo Eating for Athletes

Presumably, most athletes are already eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and lean proteins, but many still consume lots of processed food, starches and grains, which are no-nos on the Paleo diet. Eating Paleo is pretty much the polar opposite of the athlete’s traditional carbo-loading diet and pre-race time-honored practice.

According to Joe Friel, a U.S. Olympic triathlon coach, author of Cyclists’ Training Bible and Triathletes’ Training Bible and co-author of The Paleo Diet for Athletes, making a few tweaks to the modern Paleo diet can make it beneficial for endurance athletes. In “The Paleo Diet: Right for Runners?” on Competitor.com, Friel explains that the Paleo diet offers better long-term recovery because of its higher micronutrient levels as compared to the traditional sugary, high-starch diet. This permits athletes to train with a greater stress load because their recovery is optimized.

Friel and Cordain, the other co-author of The Paleo Diet for Athletes, detail a few changes that enable athletes to maintain a Paleo diet while continuing to train at the highest levels possible.

Friel asserts that athletes’ meals can follow the modern Paleo diet guidelines but that prior to, during and after workouts, some deviations from the diet are necessary. He explains that about two hours prior to a long and/or hard workout or race, Paleo athletes should eat something with a low to moderate glycemic index and low fiber content.

During long endurance events such as half marathons, marathons, ultramarathons or triathlons, athletes can drink sports drinks or eat sports gels to give the body carbohydrates that can be quickly processed. The body can sustain itself with water during events that are less than an hour in duration.

Immediately following the workout, Friel recommends a recovery drink with a carbohydrate-to-protein ratio of 4-5:1, consumed within 30 to 40 minutes to maximize recovery and begin rebuilding muscle tissue.

Approximately two hours after the workout is when perhaps the greatest deviation from the Paleo diet should occur, when eating carbohydrates to replace glycogen stores is important to the recovery process. Starchy fare like bagels or pasta are options but Paleo-friendly raisins, potatoes, and yams also are viable choices.

Over the long haul, a Paleo diet can train your muscles to utilize more fat stores, which increases efficiency and evens out variations in blood sugar. Paleo eating also can increase your levels of antioxidants and vitamins, which can bolster the immune system, balance pH levels, and facilitate muscle retention and recovery.

As with any strict eating regimen, the Paleo diet takes commitment and planning. Those who want to maintain their current level of fitness on the Paleo diet will need to ensure they are consuming the appropriate nutrients in the optimal quantities. One of the most important things is to listen to what your body is telling you. The Paleo diet may be a good fit for some athletes but not for others. Prior to making what might be a drastic change in your diet, you might want to consult a nutrition professional for input and advice.