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Is The Paleo Diet Right For The Endurance Athlete?

May 10, 2015

 The Paleo diet has been around for many decades and has made another breakthrough in the past 5 years or so. It needs little introduction but just before I get to the point let me just outline some of the principals of the Paleo Diet.

The Paleo diet is based on eating like our ancestors, the cavemen, did in the Palaeolithic era (approx. 10.000 years ago, lasting almost 2.5 million years).  It advocates a seemingly healthy selection of foods that are rich in protein and fibre, high in mono saturated fat and low in sodium and carbohydrates. There are several other base principals to adhere to, for example some foods you should avoid are grains, legumes and dairy


Based on the Paleo theory modern humans have not adapted to eating foods like bread, yoghurt and beans as we are not able to metabolize such foods and that adherence to a Paleo diet might see you live healthier and longer.

However, for a variety of reasons our ancestors did not often live past the age of thirty and I would really like to focus on why there might be good reasons to consider eating grains, dairy and legumes during your preparation for an endurance event.

Is Paleo the right diet for endurance athletes?

In a previous blog I have warned about the dangers of shopping for an answer to your inquiry on Google. I ran into the same problem when I was researching the Paleo Diet.   According to Paleo beans and legumes are toxic when uncooked  however when I explored the Dieticians Association of Australia website about beans and legumes,  very clear benefits are listed (folate, low saturated fat, high antioxidants and high B-group vitamins) and they are recommended as part of a healthy diet. To find out who is right I have spoken to an accredited sports nutritionist who has guided me on a fact finding mission over the past month.


According to Palaeolithics dairy is not an option ; it is (almost always) processed AND our gut is not able to metabolize the various components such as lactose and animal fats.

We know for certain that there is a small group of people that definitely do not tolerate lactose and lactose-free dairy is commonly available at most supermarkets.

Each 250ml of full cream milk will give you 680 Kj, 12g of carbs, 8g of protein, 10g of fat and 285mg of calcium.

There is increasing evidence that the role of dairy plays an important role in sports nutrition according to Sports Dieticians Australia7. Dairy products are inexpensive, enjoyable and practical. The nutrient characteristics can assist with short term goals such as before, during and recovery. Long term benefits are improved health and body composition.

Let’s look at a population where dairy is consumed in large quantities.  One close to my heart – The Netherlands. The Dutch LOVE dairy, it is served with most meals, a mug of milk for breakfast (with a chocolate sprinkle sandwich!), 2 cheese sandwiches with probably another glass of milk for lunch and for desert  a decent bowl of yoghurt.  The Dutch are the tallest nation in the world3,10, most likely due to two factors: dairy and genes.  It is unlikely to be their whole diet as they do have some fairly unhealthy cravings such as (a lot of) mayonnaise with chips and a lot of deep fried snacks and sugar.

Grains and Legumes

Although the wholefoods in a Paleo diet are certainly a lot more varied than the average Australian diet, by choosing not to consume other whole foods such as grain, legumes and dairy you might find yourself low on calcium, fibres and other essential mineral and probiotics found in these food groups.

Our ancestors from the Palaeolithic period were most likely more vegan than initially believed and certainly consumed grain and also legumes 4,6,9 The Period was extremely long and humans settled in a variety of nutritional landscapes. The foods that you are eating now (bananas, kale, tomatoes, almonds etc.) have all been farmed to suit us1. Broccoli and olive oil were not on the menu 10,000 years ago.

Calorie expenditure during endurance racesStandard Diet

When a female (30yr, 1.7m 70kg) rides a bike at 25km/h she will burn per hour approximately 624 calories (men 777, 30 yr,1.8m and 80 kg  ), swimming will cost her 450-704 calories (men 550 -817, note that records are inconsistent), as a runner at 12km/h she would need 781 (men 825).

Looking at some of the extremes we see a marathon runner churning through 3000 to 3500 calories. During Ironman you may burn as much as 8000 – 10000 calories! Calorie expenses of this extraordinary level are 500 calories per hour of racing on average. The goal is to replace 30 to 50% of those (150 to 250) calories during the race.

Anecdotally Paleo athletes describe some days needing 8-10 chicken breasts to raise their energy needs and spending almost as much time preparing the meals and snacks as they do on training.

In conclusion


The Paleo Diet is a Diet. As with all diets they offer an alternative to conventional diets. The Paleo Diet is expensive, hard to adhere to, inconsistent (wine and carbohydrate gels are allowed) and has not been proven to improve health. In saying that, if it works for you and you feel healthy and happy with it then you bagged a winner! Even though a Palaeolithic type diet can help improve blood pressure and glucose tolerance and decrease insulin secretion, this has been studied in comparison with an average American diet (large amounts of heavily processed foods). By simply eliminating large amounts of sugar and processed foods you can also achieve these health benefits.

From an exercise point of view, the energy that you will derive from the Paleo Diet will most likely see you coming short during long training sessions and racing. Most dieticians (and experienced endurance athletes who have tried the Paleo Diet) suggest carbs in the form of pasta and bread should be added to the diet2. The downfall of that is the danger of “binge eating”, overeating on carbs.

They therefore suggest you consult a sports dietician who can help you establish a balanced diet.

Paleo dieting seems a little like the effect Chris McDougall’s book “Born to Run” had on the barefoot running craze we saw a few years ago. Fortunately we quickly realised it is okay to strike first with your heels and run on thick soled shoes!


  1. Debunking the Paleo Diet, Christina Warinner

  1. “Guidelines for Daily Carbohydrate Intake”

Louise Burke

3. Health and Welfare during Industrialization

J.W. Drukker and Vincent Tassenaar

  1. “Maize, beans and the floral isotopic diversity of highland Oaxaca, Mexico”

Christina Warinner

  1. Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet”

L A Frassetto

  1. “Plant foods and the dietary ecology of Neanderthals and early modern humans”

Amanda G. Henry Alison S. Brooks Dolores R. Piperno

  1. Thirty thousand-year-old evidence of plant food processing.

Revedin A, Aranguren B, Becattini R, Longo L, Marconi E, Lippi MM, Skakun N, Sinitsyn A, Spiridonova E, Svoboda J.

10.   Continuing positive secular growth change in the Netherlands 1955- 1997

AM Fredriks



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