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Paleo For Athletes: Can The Caveman Diet Increase Performance?



More modern men and women are going “paleo” than ever before, but is eating like our ancient ancestors the right choice for athletes looking to increase peak performance?

First popularized in the 1970s and adopted by more athletes every day, the paleolithic diet aims to feed you like your body was made to be fed, like the cavemen did it.


For more than 2.5 million years — 99.6 percent of human history — we ate just lean meats, seafood, fruits, vegetables and nuts. Our bodies became attuned to this nutritional mix, paleo experts say, and we should be eating just these unprocessed foods if we want to live healthy today.

But we are not eating these foods, and we are not living healthy. 10,000 years ago, the agricultural revolution arrived, bringing with it a deluge of readily available fats, dairy, legumes and grains. We’ve been stuffing our faces ever since, giving rise to an epidemic of diseases like obesity, hypertension and diabetes. Civilization is suffering from major health issues as a direct result of what we now eat and drink. But is the going back to the ways of our caveman ancestors the answer to today’s dietary ills? Is the paleo diet healthy?

Nearly all nutritionists agree that we’d be wise to assimilate at least some paleolithic wisdom into our daily lives. Skip the chocolate cake for dessert and eat a piece of fruit instead. Can the Pringles and snack on a handful of nuts.

But should you really exclude all dairy from your daily life? Isn’t milk good for your bones? What about grains? Aren’t we supposed to carbo-load before a big race? And no legumes? Really?

This is where the field splits, but not down the middle.

Paleo For Athletes Food

Photo Credit: sbshine /

The Science

A minority of paleo-minded PhDs swear by the hard-line, encouraging patients to follow every letter of the paleo diet law. And many all-out practitioners are happy with the results, quickly shedding weight and feeling great, with many using the help of vitamin supplements to complete their diet.

Other nutritionists are less enthusiastic, especially when it comes to prescribing paleo for athletes. Our ancestors, after all, walked five to ten miles a day while foraging and hunting, but granddaddy caveman didn’t exert himself vigorously for much more than an hour at a time like the Adrenalists of today. And he most certainly didn’t run marathons.

For endurance athletes and those of you who hit the gym hard every day, it’s probably smart to bend the rules on the foods eaten by the ancients. The paleo diet isn’t just expensive and largely inconvenient, it short-changes its followers on an organic compound essential for peak endurance: carbohydrates. When carbohydrates aren’t available in the blood stream, your body starts breaking down other things for fuel. Those other things can include muscle, which you need to achieve peak athletic performance.

Paleo for Athletes Weight Training

Photo Credit: BozDoz /

Paleo for Athletes: Is It The Answer?

If you’re thinking about going paleo, it’s probably OK to take on the fundamental principles, but cut corners for a performance dietary fix. You need your carbs to perform like a champion. New paleo-based diets are being drawn up every year for athletes, some giving the green light to legumes, others allowing for bagels and cereal during designated windows pre- and post-workout.

Ultimately, none of us can really ever go back to living totally like our paleolithic ancestors. We may have inherited their bodies, but we won’t be able to find their foods. Not only have we hybridized and marbled “their” produce beyond recognition, it’s unclear exactly what “their” foods were in the first place. Some paleolithic tribes ate almost all meat, others ate almost all roots and tubers.

If one thing is for sure, it’s that our modern tribe can improve upon the way we eat. The paleo diet might not be the solution for athletes looking to increase performance, but it offers some keys to how we might get there.

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