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Pros and Cons of the Paleo Diet

By Leslie Bonci, RD, MPH, LDN, Director of Sports Nutrition

As a sports dietitian, I work with athletes on ways to optimize their performance through what they eat and drink. There is no “perfect” diet for everyone, but there are a lot of wrong ones or plans that may compromise performance. You may have heard about the "paleo" diet, but how much do we really know about this? Here’s a breakdown for your consideration.
This diet was developed by Loren Cordain, PhD, a researcher from Colorado State University, who started doing studies in the 1970s. He says that the paleo diet is the way humans were genetically designed to eat. Let’s explore this:
  1. We are not cavemen.
  2. Recent studies suggest that early man was more of a vegetarian (plant eater) and not as much of a carnivore (meat eater).
  3. Most of us don’t just hunt for our food.
  4. We have many food choices available.
  5. There has been a lot of research on the health benefits of foods that are not part of the paleo diet.

What can you eat?

  • Lean meat, such as chicken, turkey, pork, lean beef, and buffalo (bison)
  • Fish
  • Seafood
  • Fresh fruit
  • Nonstarchy vegetables, such as lettuce, asparagus, green beans, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and spinach
  • Nuts like almonds, walnuts, cashews, pecans, and pistachios (no peanuts)
  • Seeds like pumpkin and sunflower
  • Eggs
  • Plant-based oils, such as olive, walnut, grapeseed, and coconut
So think about this list and ask yourself what you like and don’t like, because these are the foods you are going to be eating.

What can't you eat?

  • Grains, such as oats, wheat, barley, and rice which means no cereal, bread, pasta, bagels, crackers, or granola bars   
  • Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes and corn, as well as potato and corn chips, tortillas, and popcorn
  • Legumes or beans so no peanuts or peanut butter; no soy foods, such as soy milk, tofu, or edamame; no hummus, black beans, or baked beans
  • All dairy products so no milk, yogurt, cheese, or ice cream
  • High-fat meats, such as salami, bologna, pepperoni, hot dogs, ground meat, rib roast, and ribs
  • Sugars, such as in soda, honey, jam or jelly, syrup, candy, cakes, cookies, and sports drinks
  • Processed foods or trans fats, such as doughnuts, french fries, fruit snacks, or mac and cheese
  • Salty foods, such as crackers, chips, pretzels, soy sauce, added-salt foods, or sports drinks
This is a really long list, and there may be foods on this list that you enjoy, so ask yourself if you can live without them. 

General Observations

  1. The diet does not specify portions of the allowed foods, and because there aren’t a ton of approved foods, you may find yourself overeating some of them. This wouldn’t be a calorie issue if you ate a lot of lettuce, but could be a problem if you ate a 5-pound jar of nuts.
  2. The diet is higher in protein, which is an important nutrient to build and maintain muscle. But too much protein usually means too little carbohydrate, which is the energy source for exercise.
  3. The amount of carbohydrate may be inadequate for athletes. The diet does allow some carbohydrates, but it is still fairly restrictive.

For Athletes

The paleo diet for athletes recommends that two hours before exercise, you can eat:
  • Eggs and fruit, but no apples, berries, dates, figs, grapes, pears, mangoes, or pineapple, which means you could have bananas, oranges, or grapefruit.
  • Applesauce mixed with protein powder (yuck!).
  • Jarred baby food mixed with chopped meats (yuck again!).
During exercise, you can have a sports drink. After exercise, you can have a recovery beverage with electrolytes, or a turkey sandwich with vegetables.
How many of you would routinely eat a turkey sandwich right after practice?

Benefits

  • You will eat a clean diet without additives, preservatives, or chemicals.
  • You do get the anti-inflammatory benefit from the plant nutrients in fruits, vegetables, oils, nuts, and seeds.
  • You will be eating more iron through increased red meat intake.
  • You will have improved satiety a feeling of fullness between meals, due to the higher intake of protein and fats.
  • Most people will lose weight primarily due to the limited food choices.

 Risks/Disadvantages

  • This eating plan can be very pricey.
  • You don’t eat any grains, whole or otherwise, which are good for health and energy.
  • Consuming no dairy foods is not great for your bones.
  • If you take away foods and nutrients and don’t find suitable replacements, you can create a nutrient imbalance.
  • This diet can be really hard for vegetarians, especially since the diet excludes beans.
  • Most athletes need between 3 to 6 grams of carbs per pound of their body weight, per day. This would be very hard to do with just fruits and vegetables.

My Bottom Line

If you want to "health up" your diet, by all means do. But rather than going paleo, try this:
  • Do eat three meals a day.
  • Do include some protein at every meal and snack.
  • Do include foods with color at every meal or snack.
  • Do include some grains at every meal and snack, such as cereal, whole grain bread, rice, or pasta.
  • Do include a little fat at each meal, such as nuts, butter, salad dressing, oil , or a little mayonnaise.
  • Do be selective with some of the less healthy foods.
This is the best way to eat well, play well, and stay well.
 

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