Pros and cons of the “Paleo” diet for swimmers
By Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RD, CSSD
A 15-year old swimmer recently asked me about “going paleo.” She trains six days a week for two hours a day and cross trains several days a week. Some people at her gym suggested she follow the paleo diet and they told her “they feel better and seem to have more energy.” The Paleolithic (“paleo”) or “caveman” diet is based on the idea that early men and women ate wild game, wild plants, roots and berries and that those foods are best for our body. Of course, the life expectancy of cave men and women was not very long compared to modern folks, but is the paleo diet a good plan for swimmers?
Paleo diet plans are so popular that they are becoming like the “dummies” series; the paleo diet for men, for women, for athletes, for children, and even the paleo pet! The paleo diet includes low-fat protein like bison, grass-fed organic beef, lamb, pork, chicken and turkey. Wild-caught fish is also recommended. Roots, wild greens and non-starchy vegetables, as well as some nuts, seeds and berries that were foraged by men and women a very long time ago are also allowed on the diet. What is not included is grains (like wheat, rice, pasta, oats, cereals), potatoes, legumes (beans, like kidney beans and black beans and peas, like chick peas), peanuts and peanut butter, dairy foods (milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream) and processed meats like luncheon meats, bacon, hot dogs and fast food burgers.
The pros of the paleo diet include the elimination of highly processed foods (cavemen didn’t have soft drinks, Kool-Aid or chocolate-covered pretzels). It also includes lean meats that are lower in fat and saturated fat compared to the usual burgers, steaks and chops. Vegetables are often sorely lacking in the diets of young people, so including greens and other veggies is good for athletes. Nuts and seeds provide protein and healthful fats. A paleo diet might also help young athletes eat “clean” and appreciate nourishing foods.
The cons of this plan are the elimination of most carbohydrate-rich foods. Swimmers need carbohydrates, and it is hard to get sufficient carbs to support hard training on the paleo diet. There are only so many rutabagas and turnips you can eat before you are craving a baked potato or PBJ sandwich. The elimination of dairy can also pose a challenge to young swimmers, as dairy foods supply calcium and vitamin D in greater amounts than other calcium-containing foods. While it is true that we don’t need to drink milk or eat yogurt, we do need the nutrients found in those foods. I know I could not live without yogurt!
I applaud young swimmers who want to improve their diets but before you go paleo, seek the advice of a registered dietitian nutritionist who can modify any meal plan to make sure you have the fuel and nutrients that you need to perform your best.
Chris Rosenbloom is the sports nutrition consultant for Georgia State University Athletics and is the editor of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Sports Nutrition Manual, 5th edition, 2012. She welcomes questions from swimmers, parents and coaches. Email her at email@example.com.