CAN RUNNERS BENEFIT FROM A PALEO DIET?
By Rodney Hansen
In my first article of Return of a Has Been Runner, my fifth tip addressed adequate nutrition and avoiding fad diets, detox, and restrictive diets. A popular restrictive diet that many runners are trying is Paleolithic Nutrition, the Paleo Diet, or the “Caveman Diet.” The basis of this diet is that the present day human needs to eat like our ancestors did 10,000 years ago.
The basic claim of Paleolithic Nutrition is that we humans are not designed or have not evolved to eat the present day foods, especially foods produced through conventional farming. Therefore, we need to eat like Cavemen, the hunters and gatherers, did prior to the development of agriculture (about 10,000 years ago). Present day foods avoided in the paleo diet include grains, refined sugars, dairy products, beans, and processed oils. The Paleo diet is primarily composed of animal based meat and eggs, and plant based foods including vegetables, fruits, and nuts. In other words, if you can’t “stick it or pick it” then it is not part of the paleo diet, and should be avoided.
The theory behind Paleolithic Nutrition is intriguing. Many studies over the last two decades suggest Paleolithic Nutrition could be beneficial in specific populations. In the academic community of nutrition, lots of theory is presented and debated by all sides of the Paleo argument. But from my perspective as a healthy, exercising runner trying to improve my running performance, the bottom line for any diet is if it delivers the numbers I need for proper nutrition. I believe we need to look past theory and instead at the real numbers of what a diet for a runner should be and does the numbers from a paleo diet address those needs.
In my previous article, I stated that proper performance nutrition starts with proper calorie intake with adequate protein and carbohydrate (CHO). Although this is a simplistic approach, let’s use this approach as a perspective to analyze the paleo diet:
Several years ago I had an undergraduate student do a simple senior project. I instructed her to create a profile of a typical male college distance runner and identify the nutritional needs of this athlete. Then I handed her The Paleo Diet for Athletes by Loren Cordain, PhD and Joe Friel, MS that was published in 2005. I instructed her to read the book from cover to cover, and then following the advice from the book, design two weeks of Paleo diet for our athlete runner. I then instructed her do a diet analysis of the two weeks of meals.
Although she did a complete analysis of the macro and micronutrients of the diet, I wanted to focus on the calories, protein, and CHO intake of the paleo diet, and compare these numbers to sport nutrition guideline numbers recognized by the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American College of Sport Medicine (J Am Diet Assoc. 2009; 109:509-527). The needed calories we calculated for our athlete runner were 3443 Kcals. The Paleo Diet calculated to 4403 Kcals. The daily needs for protein for our athlete runner we calculated to be 136 grams at most, where the Paleo diet was 297g per day. The daily CHO needs of our athlete we calculated to 408 grams at least, where the Paleo diet supplied only 209 grams per day. Although this is a simple analysis of diet with limitations, these data do suggest that the Paleo diet is excessive in protein and deficient in CHO.
Adequate Calories, protein, and carbohydrate are crucial to runners. Excess protein and limited carbohydrate intake are detrimental to running performance and to the recovery process of training to run faster. Restrictive diets, like the paleo diet, do not supply the needed numbers for a healthy runner’s diet, and restrictive diets need to be avoided. As a runner, your nutrition advice, guidance, and counseling needs to come from a Registered Dietician that specializes in performance nutrition.
So enjoy your chocolate milk after your next training session or race. Four hundred generations ago, your great-grandparents never got that chance after running down and spearing a woolly mammoth!
Rodney Hansen – Exercise Physiologist | Ph. D. in Nutritional Sciences | Runner | Coach
Rodney has been a distance runner since junior high. He graduated from Fort Collins High School in Fort Collins, Colorado and earned his Bachelor’s degree from Idaho State University where he was also a cross country, indoor, and outdoor track athlete. He completed both his Master’s Degree in Exercise Physiology and Doctor of Philosophy Degree in Nutritional Sciences from Colorado State University.
Rod’s former professional experience includes coaching high school Boys and Girls Track (Poudre School District, Fort Collins, Colorado), and collegiate Mens and Womens Cross Country, Indoor Track, Outdoor Track, and Marathon (College of Southern Idaho). He also conducted research in nutrition in the Colorado State University Veterinary Medicine Program where he primarily investigated dietary omega-3 fatty acids and the effect they have on chronic disease in companion animals.
Rod has been a professor at Weber State University since 2004. He teaches nutrition and his research interests have included biomechanical analysis of barefoot running in elite runners and nutrient intervention to address muscle soreness in older runners. He is married to Julie Hansen.