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An in-depth Assessment of Paleo for Performance

OK so what’s the problem?

Firstly, let’s ignore the fact we don’t really know exactly what our Paleolithic ancestors ate and that there’s evidence they ate grains too (Gowlett, 2003)…….

But as a starting point to building a diet, you can’t really fault the Paleo approach:

  • High in protein

  • Includes lots of veg

  • Reduces processed foods

  • Promotes fats as healthy


To be honest, if you’re a recreational athlete who couldn’t care less about shaving a few seconds of your WOD times and simply looking to clean up your diet, then if you find Paleo or Zone works for you then go with it. After all, preference is key when adhering to a diet.

Hovever, if you’re looking to be more competitive with functional fitness/CrossFit(tm) then you need to reconsider what you’re eating.

‘CrossFit is constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity’ says founder Glassman.

As the definition suggests, the majority of these workouts are performed at a high intensity where the predominant energy system used is glycolytic, meaning they require enough carbohydrate to perform at a high intensity (Hargreaves, 2004, Hawley, Schubert, Noakes and Dennis, 1997, Burdon and O’Connor 2011), where glycogen depletion will result in fatigue.

So it goes without saying that carbohydrates should be a fundamental part of any athletes’ diet.

But you can still eat carbs with Paleo and Zone?

Yes, 100%, I’m far from saying you can’t ‘do’ CrossFit if you choose to eat Paleo, in fact any strategy focusing on the quality of your diet will likely bring about positive changes in both the way you look and the way you perform. So going Paleo is a perfectly acceptable starting point. However, the main issues are with the volume and intensity of competitive functional fitness and sports like CrossFit(tm).

If you are training up to two or more times per day, your daily carbohydrate intake will be up in the region of 4g/kg/BW, which is a lot. Try and eat that from sweet potatoes, rice and other ‘clean’ carbs. It’s near impossible! Unless you want to make eating a full time job then the use of sugary, high GI or ‘bad’ carbs will be the answer.

When performance or gaining weight is the goal then highly available carbohydrates like Gatorade, fruit juice and simple sugars will be your friend rather than your enemy like HQ have you believe. Obviously, individual differences and goals will dictate the use of these types of sugars. Matt Fraser during the games will make far better use of an energy gel than your recreational athlete training twice per week, who needs to lose weight.

Again, consider what you need as an individual rather than what a set diet says.

For more help with this get your free Macro Workbook for the functional athlete here.

What about recovery between sessions?

Exercise depletes glycogen stores and as most WOD’s are performed high intensity work (Glassman, 2010), type IIX muscle fibres will be particular affected and deplete more rapidly than type 1 fibres (Gatorade Sports Science Institute, 2016), so even though you may only be moderately glycogen depleted in all fibre types, your type IIX fibres may be completely exhausted inhibiting your ability to perform at a high intensity, not good for your WOD’s!

Meaning glycogen restoration should be one of your primary goals after finishing your WOD, where failure to replenish will result in using muscle instead (gluconeogenesis). Timing is critical for ‘refuelling’ if you’re training regularly where if left beyond 2hrs, resynthesis rates are reduced by up to 50% (Currell, 2016). This is why you should aim small frequent feedings of carbohydrates immediately after exercise.

Around 1g per kg of bodyweight of carbohydrates are thought optimal (Jentjens and Jeukendrup, 2003, Betts, 2010), where foods with higher carbohydrate availability (think more sugary) will speed up the replenishment of both kcals and glycogen, giving you a window of opportunity to speed up recovery and facilitate growth. The use of energy bars, gels, Lucozade and even fruit juice with their combination of glucose and fructose (50:50 ratio) that speeds up absorption rate and enhance glucose availability (Van Loon, 2013). So even if some of these foods maybe 'bad' according to your Paleo enthusiasts, they're going to improve your recovery and performance.

So does this matter for the recreational athlete? Probably not, but if you’re training or competing more than once in a day then you will want to make use of this post workout window of opportunity.

For performance at a high intensity, for recovery and to facilitate as much adaptation (strength, work capacity and power) as possible, we can safely say carbohydrates are still king when it comes to competitive fitness. Even ‘un-Paleo’ carbs.

A note on health

Just by eating bananas, dates and maple syrup still means you’re eating a lot of sugar. Let’s not forget, that all carbohydrates are broken down into the same thing, glucose, meaning whether you get your carbs from jelly babies or sweet potato, providing you stay within your allotted daily targets it will not make much of a difference. But herein lies the problem. Some sugars are incredibly easy to over consume which can result in a number of health problems (insulin, leptin resistance) so it goes without saying that opting for more satiating, higher fibre foods is the better option, like the Zone diet recommends. This is not to say sugar itself as the problem, but eating too much of it!

In unhealthy populations (metabolic problems; insulin resistance, diabetes) then it is wise to reduce carbohydrates, however for healthy populations then you should use sugar to your advantage. No I’m not saying get stuck into the Haribo all day but pre workout high GI carbs are can be beneficial in sparing muscle glycogen and for speedy recovery post WODing.

For more on carbohydrates and fat loss see (

So hopefully I’ve at least given you something to think about before diving head first into complete Paleo if performance matters. Try not to bow to the diet dogma of following set patterns or restrictions. Follow solid basic principles and tweak things to find a setup that suits you, your goals and preference :)

Need more help with you diet? Then see how we can help -

References and further reading

Ajala, O., English, P. and Pinkney, J. (2013). Systematic review and meta-analysis of different dietary approaches to the management of type 2 diabetes. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 97(3), pp.505-516.

Burke, L., Cox, G., Cummings, N. and Desbrow, B. (2001). Guidelines for Daily Carbohydrate Intake. Sports Medicine, 31(4), pp.267-299.

Burke, L., Hawley, J., Wong, S. and Jeukendrup, A. (2011). Carbohydrates for training and competition.Journal of Sports Sciences, 29(sup1), pp.S17-S27.

Burke, L., Ross, M., Garvican-Lewis, L., Welvaert, M., Heikura, I., Forbes, S., Mirtschin, J., Cato, L., Strobel, N., Sharma, A. and Hawley, J. (2017). Low carbohydrate, high fat diet impairs exercise economy and negates the performance benefit from intensified training in elite race walkers. The Journal of Physiology, 595(9), pp.2785-2807.

Cermak, N. and van Loon, L. (2013). The Use of Carbohydrates During Exercise as an Ergogenic Aid.Sports Medicine, 43(11), pp.1139-1155.

Currell, K. (2016). Performance Nutrition. 1st ed. Crowood.

Escobar, Kurt A., Jacobo Morales, and Trisha A. VanDusseldorp. "The Effect of a Moderately-low and High Carbohydrate Intake on Crossfit Performance." International Journal of Exercise Science 9.4 (2016): 8.

Flight, I. and Clifton, P. (2006). Cereal grains and legumes in the prevention of coronary heart disease and stroke: a review of the literature. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 60(10), pp.1145-1159.

Gatorade Sports Science Institute. (2016). SSE #79: Dietary Carbohydrate & Perform

ance of Brief, Intense Exercise. [online] Available at: [Accessed 15 Dec. 2016].

Gowlett, J. (2003). What Actually was the Stone Age Diet?*. Journal of Nutritional & Environmental Medicine, 13(3), pp.143-147.

Hargreaves, M., Hawley, J. and Jeukendrup, A. (2004). Pre-exercise carbohydrate and fat ingestion: effects on metabolism and performance. Journal of Sports Sciences, 22(1), pp.31-38.

Hawley, J., Schabort, E., Noakes, T. and Dennis, S. (1997). Carbohydrate-Loading and Exercise Performance. Sports Medicine, 24(2), pp.73-81.

Lindeberg, S. (2005). Palaeolithic diet ("stone age" diet). Food & Nutrition Research, 49(2).

Maki, K., Beiseigel, J., Jonnalagadda, S., Gugger, C., Reeves, M., Farmer, M., Kaden, V. and Rains, T. (2010). Whole-Grain Ready-to-Eat Oat Cereal, as Part of a Dietary Program for Weight Loss, Reduces Low-Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol in Adults with Overweight and Obesity More than a Dietary Program Including Low-Fiber Control Foods. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 110(2), pp.205-214.

Phillips, S., Sproule, J. and Turner, A. (2011). Carbohydrate Ingestion during Team Games Exercise. Sports Medicine, 41(7), pp.559-585.

Temesi, J., Johnson, N., Raymond, J., Burdon, C. and O'Connor, H. (2011). Carbohydrate Ingestion during Endurance Exercise Improves Performance in Adults. Journal of Nutrition, 141(5), pp.890-897.

Ye, E., Chacko, S., Chou, E., Kugizaki, M. and Liu, S. (2012). Greater Whole-Grain Intake Is Associated with Lower Risk of Type 2 Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease, and Weight Gain. Journal of Nutrition, 142(7), pp.1304-1313.

#sportsnutritionist #sportsnutrition #functionalfitnessnutrition #sportsnutritiondiet #exercisenutrition #paleo #paleodiet

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