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LeBron James scores low carb controversy: Ketogenic versus Paleo for athletes

LeBron James has created a diet debate.
LeBron James has created a diet debate.
Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images

Weight loss usually results in congratulations. But for LeBron James, it's resulted in a low carb controversy as physicians and dietitians debate whether a ketogenic diet or Paleo plan is best for athletes, reported Sports Illustrated on August 11.

The diet debate began when LeBron tweeted a photo of his newly slender physique. ESPN writer and fan Brian Windhorst quickly followed with an announcement that the athlete was following a low carb diet. But speculation on the exact nature of that plan has ranged from a high fat ketogenic weight loss program to a modified Paleo diet.

Ketogenic diet expert Dr. Jeff Volek explained that ketogenic diets change how the body utilizes energy sources. Rather than glucose, fat is used for fuel when the body is in nutritional ketosis. Volek considers it safe and effective for athletes.

"There is a growing number of athletes who have been told that they need carbs and now you see them questioning that conventional wisdom," said Volek, who co-authored "The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance" with Dr. Stephen Phinney. "It does take at least four weeks to adapt to the diet but almost anyone can do it and it’s something they can maintain through competition."

But Los Angeles Lakers nutritionist Dr. Cate Shanahan takes a different approach to the ideal diet for athletes. She recommends a modified Paleo plan and has developed her own program, called PRO-Nutrition.

Shanahan and Volek do agree that eliminating sugar, tweaking the diet to achieve the correct amount of protein and choosing healthy fats are key elements in a weight loss plan as well as in any diet intended to fuel an elite athlete. However, while Volek focuses on nutritional ketosis through slashing carbohydrates, Ancestral Health advocate Shanahan puts more emphasis on what to eat, from grass-fed animal protein to healthy fats such as avocado and nuts.

When it comes to a Paleo diet, Dwyane Wade also has hopped on the back-to-basics bandwagon. Wade stays away from sugar and grains, emphasizing quality protein such as grass-fed beef and vegetables, reported the Palm Beach Post on August 11.

"Like many diets, the Paleo diet dramatically limits simple carbohydrate intake — including fruits — which translates into a low-insulin state," said West Palm Beach neurosurgeon, author and health/fitness expert Dr. Brett Osborn.

As athletes age, Osborn feels that the anti-inflammation benefits of Paleo diets are particularly helpful. The healthy fats in the plan and elimination of processed foods help to prevent "age-related diseases, including cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, diabetes and cancer."

Is it easy to make the shift from a traditional high carb diet of breakfast cereals, bagels, bread and sugary energy drinks to a Paleo plan? No, said Ray Allen in an interview with the Miami Herald.

"The first three or four days, it was a task because I was getting headaches, my body felt like achy, but I just started living on salads and fruit and protein and salmon and chicken and I didn't have soda, any Gatorade," said Allen "I had unsweetened iced tea and water and that’s it."

Rather than snack on chips and pretzels, he became a fan of pecans, cashews and plantain chips. "As I've gotten older, I've learned how to manage my body from an eating standpoint. I've always done it, but I've taken it to the next level," he said.

Paleo diet expert Robb Wolf agrees that the approach is "the perfect solution for both performance and recovery. Lean protein sources such as chicken, lean beef, turkey, pork loin and sea food are ergogenic (performance enhancing) because of the large amount of Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA’s) which have been proven to be crucial in rapid recovery after hard training, both for strength and endurance athletes."

However, rather than focus on achieving nutritional ketosis through lowering carbohydrates, he recommends that athletes emphasize Paleo-approved carbs for recovery. "High-intensity aerobic or anaerobic sports such as soccer, boxing, wrestling, mixed martial arts or sprint interval training (running, biking, swimming, rowing) should take advantage of a period of time post-workout when the body is primed for recovery," he says.

In such cases, Wolf suggests eating lean protein plus Paleo carbohydrates including sweet potatoes, squash, fruit or yams. He feels that these extra carbohydrates help to repair muscle tissue and replenish muscle glycogen.