A growing number of Australians are beginning to follow the dietary habits of our paleolithic ancestors, but is it worthwhile?
The ‘paleo diet’ is characterised by foods that a hunter-gather would eat. Its foundations stem from our genetic make-up. Despite the fact that the human genome has remained relatively unchanged since the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago, our diet and lifestyle have become progressively more divergent from those of our ancient ancestors. This mismatch between our modern diet and lifestyle and our Paleolithic genome is playing a substantial role in the growing epidemic of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and possibly even cancer.
Historical and anthropological studies show hunter-gathers generally to be healthy, fit and largely free of ‘diseases of affluence’. So what exactly does this diet consist of and just as importantly is it suitable to support the well-being and performance of triathletes?
What Does A Paleo Diet Consist Of?
A generous amount of animal protein is recommended including meat, particularly game meat, poultry, fish and eggs. It is preferable to choose meat that is pasture-raised and grass-fed. Eggs should be free-range, naturally fed and organic.
A good amount of vegetables ranging from green leafy vegetables to root vegetables (e.g. carrots, beets, sweet potatoes), plus squash and mushrooms should also be included.
Fruit and nuts should be consumed in low to moderate amounts, with a preference towards lower sugar fruits such as berries.
Fat is not discriminated against and is recommended in comparatively large amounts
to other diets. Those who have been conscious of limiting saturated fat intake will be surprised to find fats such as coconut oil, lard, ghee and duck fat included on this list. The only fats that need to be cut out are vegetable fats, particularly those that have been hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated. These include margarines, peanut oil, safflower and sunflower oils. Olive oil and avocado oil are fine.
The allowance of fresh and dried herbs and a variety of spices and natural flavour enhancers
(e.g. ginger, garlic, chilli and vanilla) allow for tasty dishes to be created.
The following food should be eliminated:
All cereal grains and legumes i.e. NO wheat, rye, barley, oats, brown rice, corn, soy, peanuts, kidney beans
Sugar – in any size, shape or form
Dairy (except butter)
The Paleo Diet Under The Microscope
This diet ticks many of the boxes for me. It is high in lean protein, polyunsaturated fat (especially omega-3 fatty acids), monounsaturated fats, fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other beneficial phytochemicals. In addition it is characterised by much lower levels of refined carbohydrates and sodium. I believe that society as a whole would be far healthier if this approach was adopted over the emphasis that is placed on highly processed, packaged foods. There is no doubt that this diet requires a great deal more planning and preparation than current traditional recommendations. Cost could be another factor that would steer one away from such an approach. I do however believe that individuals determined to make this approach work will find ways to create new habits and routines. In addition, the long-term benefits for your health will invariably outweigh the short-term costs incurred.
But is this diet adequate for triathletes, particularly long course triathletes? Part of the ‘Paleo rules’ include keeping your training sessions short and intense and only doing them a few times a week. Sprinting is recommended over long cardio sessions! I can see many of you having a quiet giggle as you read the last couple of sentences. Yes, a bit of high intensity training is great for everyone but if you’re going to do an Ironman, numerous lengthy sessions are the name of the game. This rule (along with the relatively low levels of carbohydrates recommended in this diet), may need to be altered should you be adopting the Paleo diet as a triathlete. Paleo purists may protest, however I believe common sense needs to prevail.
I am of the belief that, when it comes to diet, it is never a case of ‘one size fits all’, and I believe triathletes can adopt many aspects of the Paleo diet without compromising their training.
When the time comes for lengthier periods in the saddle, long course racing or multiple daily sessions, the inclusion of some carbohydrate, most likely in the form of sport nutrition supplements, needs to be included. If the Paleo approach to your everyday diet appeals to you, then I suggest a period of trial and error to work out what affects it might have on your performance and what modifications you can make to reap the rewards from both a health
and performance point of view.
Sample Paleo Meal Plan
A bowl of mixed nuts and berries with coconut milk
A coconut smoothie (coconut milk, frozen berries, 1-2 raw whole eggs, 1-2 spoons of nut butter and a tsp of vanilla extract)
Tomato and egg stir-fry with spring onions
Tuna salad wrapped in lettuce leaves and almonds
A roast chicken salad with an olive oil and lemon juice vinaigrette
Grilled trout with butternut squash
Citrus beef salad stir fry (stir fried beef flavoured with onion,
ginger, garlic, lemon and orange zest; served on a bed of orange
and lemon segments with shredded spinach)
Hard boiled egg
Bowl of berries with almonds
Raw veggies with an avocado dip