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Why Paleo Might Not Be the Best Nutritional Approach for Performance

A popular diet in the CrossFit community, Paleo might not be the best option if your goals are to improve your performance.

Since 2009, the Paleo diet has become nearly synonymous with the CrossFit methodology. After all, nutrition is the base of the CrossFit ‘Theoretical Hierarchy Of Development’ – the CrossFit pyramid – isn’t it? 

The official CrossFit nutrition prescription is: “Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.”

Sounds a lot like Paleo! But is this the best approach for athletes aspiring to achieve a high level of performance?

CrossFit: Theoretical Hierarchy Of Development

What is Paleo?

There are many “variations” of the Paleo Diet depending on which book you read, which podcast you listen to, or which CrossFit gym you go to. The basic premise is that you eat like your hunter-gatherer ancestors would have. 

Here are the basics:

  • No grains – quinoa, oatmeal, pasta, bread, cereal, couscous, etc.
  • No dairy – milk, yogurt, cheese, butter, etc. 
  • No refined sugar – high fructose corn syrup, Splenda, xylitol, cane sugar, maltodextrin, etc.
  • No legumes/beans – peanuts (or peanut butter), black beans, chickpeas, soybeans, tofu, kidney beans, tempeh, edamame, etc.
  • No starches – potatoes
  • No alcohol
  • No “processed foods” – whatever that means… ins essence, anything that would not have been available to a caveman

As humans shifted from the Paleolithic to a Neolithic period we went from hunting and gathering food to an agricultural diet. 

Some arguments for adopting a Paleolithic diet include, but are not limited to: weight management, eating like our ancestors to optimise health, beans might be bad for you, and that grains cause inflammation. 

Although we won’t be getting into these aspects of the Paleolithic diet, it’s worth mentioning that we have a very diverse dietary world and that the primary reason early humans ate a paleo diet is because it was the only food they had available to them. 

Now that new foods are available, both human and athletic performance have improved. The three primary reasons a paleo diet might not be the best approach for CrossFit athletes aiming to improve their performance are:

  • Limited Carb Choices
  • Difficulty Refueling Effectively
  • Food Restriction Approach

1. Carbs Are Not the Enemy

One of the biggest game changers for CrossFitters is the mindset shift from viewing yourself as just someone who works out to viewing yourself as an athlete, which is what you are.

The general nutrition guidance for those wanting to look and feel better is to cut calories and move more. For most of us, adopting a Paleo diet would result in exactly that, a reduction in calories. 

The problem is that CrossFit is a highly glycolytic sport, meaning our body relies on carbohydrate stores to help us move weight and push the pace.

A sedentary individual hitting the drive thru a few too many times per week who adopts a Paleo diet will almost immediately see weight loss and improved energy simply from eliminating many of those empty excess calories and replacing them with lean protein, fruits and vegetables. 

An athlete adopting a Paleo diet who usually eats oatmeal for breakfast and uses rice as a staple in their post-workout meals will likely struggle to get enough calories and/or carbohydrates to fuel performance and recovery. 

In order to perform at peak potential and recover effectively, carbohydrates are essential.

The Paleo diet is very limited on carbohydrate choices which, in the absence of very intentional food choices, makes it difficult to achieve a macronutrient distribution that supports high intensity training. 

Some of the most carbohydrate dense foods allowed on a Paleo diet are sweet potatoes and fruit, which really aren’t all that dense! This can become especially problematic for high level athletes training multiple times a day who have very high calorie and carbohydrate needs. 

2. Difficulty Refuelling Effectively

With multiple high-intensity training sessions a day, it becomes difficult for athletes to structure out their meals. One popular way for CrossFit athletes to get in the calorie requirements to recover from training is through liquid shakes that include protein and carbohydrates. 

Shakes make sense because it is much easier to digest liquid calories than solid food, and athletes need to refuel and recover quickly in order to hit multiple training sessions. 

Simple, quick digesting carbohydrates like sugar and refined grains, which are outlawed on the Paleo diet, are an athlete’s best friend in this scenario. 

Additionally, fast digesting whey protein is a great supplement for high-level athletes because of its amino acid profile. Since whey protein is milk derived, it’s also vetoed on the paleo diet. 

Can you consume enough energy in fruit, chicken, and sweet potatoes alone before and after your workouts? Sure, but you’re likely to feel pretty full for a long time, and no one wants to do thrusters and burpees with a stuffed stomach. 

Failure to refuel properly can lead to weaker lifts, slower metcon times, early fatigue, increased risk of injury and, in chronic cases, RED-S.

3. Food Restriction Isn’t the Answer, Especially for Athletes 

Recovery aside, there are some concerns with following a Paleo diet long-term for your emotional health. 

This is a fairly strict diet, and there is a level of restriction that occurs when following an exclusion diet. You are constantly having to say “no” to foods that might otherwise fit just fine into a balanced nutrition plan or face the guilt of enjoying a food that was “off limits”. 

What happens when you want to have a piece of birthday cake for your son’s 10th birthday? Or champagne at your best friend’s wedding? A restrictive approach fuels the “on again, off again” or yo-yo dieting that is worse for your performance or health than the cake or champagne itself.

Studies have shown that restrictive diets, or diets that exclude specific foods or food groups, can actually have a lower long-term success rate when compared to a calorie-controlled inclusive nutrition plan. Let’s ditch the food restriction mindset!

dumbbell exercisesSource: Courtesy of CrossFit Inc.

A Personalized Approach to Nutrition 

You are unique, and so should be your approach to nutrition if you want to reach specific goals.

The Paleo diet can work if you want to change your nutrition approach and need guidelines, but it can be hard to stick to long-term and isn’t the best option if you’re regularly training at high intensity.

Optimal nutrition requires a GREAT deal of individualization. We can talk about research and make generalized recommendations until we’re blue in the face but ultimately the “best” nutrition will look different for every single person. 

Your lifestyle, job, workouts, preferences and even genetics will determine what is the best approach for you. 

If you want to change your nutritional approach to meet certain goals, a qualified nutrition coach is a good place to start. Don’t change your diet drastically before consulting a qualified professional. 

A coach is where personalization meets simplicity. Optimising nutritional habits can feel overwhelming, but this is where working one-on-one with a qualified nutrition coach comes in. Learning how to fuel your body is an investment that pays off for years to come. 

Emily Wagener is a Registered Dietitian and nutrition coach at Consistency Breeds Growth.

All content within this article is provided for general information only and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional.

Always consult a dietitian before making big changes to your diet.

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