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Best diet for athletes: Paleo versus vegan versus high fat low carb debate

Awesome athletes soar: The diets that energize them.
Awesome athletes soar: The diets that energize them.
Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

If you're an athlete, should you follow a high carb diet that's low in fat, a grain-free protein-rich Paleo diet, a plant-based diet or a high fat low carb ketogenic diet? The answer: Not even the experts know for sure. But an increasing number of athletes and sports scientists are arguing in favor of Paleo and low-carb diets for both energy and weight loss, reported Triathlete Europe on July 30.

During an Ironman race in 2004, Nell Stephenson contracted a parasite. Despite taking medication, she became increasingly sick until she received a diagnosis of gluten intolerance. After trying the grain-free, dairy-free Paleo diet, she "felt better in three days."

Author of "Paleoista: Gain Energy, Get Lean, and Feel Fabulous with the Diet You Were Born to Eat," Stephenson argues in favor of the Paleo low carb approach for athletes. Some experts agree but recommend a modified Paleo plan, including U.S. Olympic triathlon coach Joe Friel.

"[Paleo offers] better long-term recovery, due to greater micronutrient content [than a standard high-starch and sugar diet], allowing the athlete to train with a greater stress load," Friel said. Co-author of "The Paleo Diet for Athletes," with Dr. Loren Cordain, he believes that athletes can get the best results by taking a phased approach to their food plans for competitions.

For competitions such as an Ironman or ultramarathon, Stephenson does rely on carbohydrate gels. Friel suggests sports drinks or gels that provide carbohydrates that are rapidly processed.

In addition, Friel suggests that athletes consume a recovery drink with carbohydrates and protein in a 4-5:1 ratio immediately after a long workout or competition. He suggests considering a higher carbohydrate plan that does not conform to the Paleo diet during the hours after strenuous exercise, such as potatoes.

With those exceptions, Friel and Stephenson concur that athletes do better with a Paleo low carb diet. Agreeing with them is sports scientist Dr. Timothy Noakes, who encourages endurance athletes as well as consumers to slash carbohydrates and follow a high fat low carb ketogenic diet.

In an exclusive interview, Noakes revealed how he used himself as a guinea pig. Like Stephenson, he promptly noted the difference.

"Within eight weeks I had lost 11kg and improved my running times to those I had last run 20 years earlier," he said. His approach allows dairy, which the Paleo plan does not, and also encourages the consumption of more fat.

"The more fat you eat, and the less protein and carbohydrate, the more ketogenic the diet becomes. I focus on limiting carbs for everyone with insulin resistance. If you have diabetes, then it makes sense to focus on eating more fat and less protein since protein acts as a partial carbohydrate," he explained.

"If you include fruit and avoid dairy, it is called Paleo. Probably we are closer to Atkins but we promote a reasonable intake of leafy vegetables which Atkins may not have," Noakes explained.

With an M.D. from Stanford University, PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry from MIT and post-doctoral training at the University of Vermont and Harvard, Dr. Stephen Phinney also advocates high fat low carb diets for athletes. Author of "The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance," he noted in an exclusive interview that individual athletes continue to prove the merits of ketogenic diets.

For example, "low carb athlete Sami Inkinen at age 39 recently won the Wildflower Triathlon against a field of almost 1500." In addition, four of the top six men and women at last year’s Western States Endurance Run (100 miles on mountain trails from Lake Tahoe to Auburn) followed low-carb diets. And low carb dieter and bronze medalist winner Bode Miller became the oldest Olympic skiing medalist at 36.

But Spokane Shock wide receiver Mike Washington disagrees that animal protein is essential for athletes. He has opted for what he calls a "plant-based green diet," reported the Spokesman Review on July 30.

Washington views his body as "my most prized possession. This arena game will age you because of the surface we play on and the walls. My money-maker is my speed and my legs."

He is so careful about following his plant-based diet that he makes sure he's fed separately from the rest of the team. While the others hit the hot dogs, Washington goes for veggie dogs.

"It has his name on it and nobody touches it," revealed receiver Adron Tennell said. "One time somebody touched it and he got crazy."

When the team travels, Washington packs his own essentials. Among those plant-based choices: Rice, tofu and vegan strips.

So who's right? Author of "Diet Cults: The Surprising Fallacy at the Core of Nutrition Fads and a Guide to Healthy Eating for the Rest of Us," Matt Fitzgerald says that although all these approaches have benefits, moderation also has merits.

That means that rather than eliminate entire food groups like the Paleo diet does, you learn to enjoy "agnostic healthy eating. In my exposure to world-class endurance athletes, very few Olympic-caliber athletes do any kind of diet with a name. They don’t demonize any nutrient," he said.

Yoni Freedhoff, M.D., agrees that demonizing specific diets doesn't make sense. Author of "The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work," he said in an exclusive interview that "the best diet for an individual is the one they actually enjoy enough to sustain."

What about his own diet? "There’s nothing I recommend in The Diet Fix that I don’t practice myself. I tend to have a homemade protein, berry, swiss chard smoothie for breakfast, nuts for snacks, leftover dinner for lunch, a home cooked meal for dinner, and then more often than not, a bit of scotch and a few potato chips (perfection’s a bad goal)," said Dr. Freedhoff.

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