The Paleo Diet: Is It Right for Young Athletes?

imagesThere’s been a lot of buzz over the Paleo Diet, based on the premise that people should eat like our ancestors ate during the Paleolithic Era thousands of years ago. The diet emphasizes lean meats, seafood and eggs, fresh fruits and vegetables, and completely eliminates processed foods, grains, legumes and refined sugar.

Dr. Loren Cordain, who wrote The Paleo Diet for Athletes: A Nutritional Formula for Peak Performance, argues that the Paleo Diet provides the necessary fuel for athletes and supplies the body with enough vitamins, calcium, iron, folate and essential fatty acids. Here are some of the principles of the Paleo Diet, according to Dr. Cordain:

  • Consume much more animal protein than the typical American diet.
  •  Get good carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables instead of grains, legumes and refined sugars.
  • Eat a large amount of fiber from non-starchy fruits and vegetables.
  • Eat a moderate amount of fat, with more unsaturated than saturated fat.
  • Eat foods high in potassium and low in sodium content.

In the world of athletics, the Paleo Diet has been encouraged by CrossFit, with Dr. Cordain’s support. But is it a good idea for athletes, especially young athletes? I have a few issues with this diet, especially as it relates to young athletes:

  • Any diet that completely eliminates a food group raises a red flag.

You know I don’t really believe in completely eliminating a food group (except processed food, we can all do without that!). There are MANY health benefits associated with eating whole grains and legumes, so the idea of a young athlete not being able to eat brown rice, nuts or sweet potatoes is a little perplexing.

  • The Paleo Diet has a sole source of carbohydrates: fruits and vegetables.

While there is NOTHING wrong with encouraging young athletes to eat fruits and vegetables, they would have to eat A LOT of them to meet their carbohydrate needs. The Paleo Diet recommends 23% of calories to come from carbohydrates, while many studies have suggested between 45-65% carb calories for athletes. Athletes NEED carbohydrates for energy. We also need to keep in mind that young athletes are still growing and developing, and this reduced carbohydrate intake may have an negative impact on their growth and development.

  • The Paleo Diet encourages consumption of a large amount of fiber from fruits and vegetables.

In my experience, young athletes need to be cautious about consuming too much fiber, especially prior to practice or competition. Too much fiber can cause significant gastrointestinal upset, especially during endurance sports.

Final Thoughts…

I am a proponent of eating whole foods, limiting processed foods and added sugars, so in part I can see how the Paleo Diet would be appealing. While it may not have a strong negative effect on adult athletes practicing strength-based exercise (ie. CrossFit, weightlifting), I do have concerns about this diet for those young athletes who practice for hours at a time, include significant cardio in their workouts, or practice endurance sports.

Oh, and one last thing…as with any “fad diet,” why do we all of a sudden have a million recipes for “Paleo” brownies, cookies and cakes? I don’t think our Paleo ancestors were eating them!

Remember: Balance is KEY, especially when dealing with young athletes!



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