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Paleo Athletes?

Is it true that you must be carb fueled to be a world class athlete? No.

Here are some examples:

  1. Aaron Rodgers is Reading The Paleo Diet. Read it HERE from ESPN – “”But back to the packing. He planned to bring a couple of books, including “The Paleo Diet.” Awesome. I guess I am rooting for him this weekend :)”
  2. Bjorn Ferry is a Swedish bi-athlete and Olympic Gold Medalist. Just recently he won GOLD in the Biathlon World Cup in Germany. Bjorn changed his diet to a low-carb high protein diet. You can read an interview here but must use Google translator to turn it into English.
  3. Garmin Racing Team is gluten-free. Though that is not paleo, it is a step in the right direction. At least they realize the sickness of wheat and grains…They make a mistake describing red meat as an inflammatory food. Nutritiondata.com scores foods on how inflammatory they are. Red meats, depending on the cut, is just around the same as pork and chicken and mostly neutral. Grains and bread, however, are much more inflammatory.
  4. Joe Friel is the most sought after Endurance and Triathlete coach. He has numerous books, one of which is The Paleo Diet for Athletes.
  5. Drew Brees is gluten free but turned to food like soy and thus he is in the process of turning his hormonal profile more similar to a woman’s, lowering his testosterone, adding fat around his belly, not to mention bloating and gas.

I am sure we will see more athletes realize grains and gluten are not good for performance. I just hope they don’t turn to other evils like soy. More and more research is coming out in favor of fat adaptation in athletes as opposed to carb-centered diets. Many studies in the past discredited fat as a fuel source because an adaptation period was not accounted for. You must give yourself adequate time to flip the switch from Carb fuel to Fat Fuel. In modern studies the grace period has been accounted for and the results conclude similar or better performance than carb-fueled athletes.

Most athletes are aware of glycogen – the stored fuel in your body. However, did you know that glycogen can only fuel for a bout 90-180 minutes before fatigue sets in and you ‘hit the wall’. Thus it is clear that during prolonged exercise, such as cycle road racing, energy has to be derived from an additional source. What source? Fat! As athletes, we want our fat to be mobilized as fuel. If we continue to take in carbohydrates (gels and drinks) during exercise we are spiking insulin which tells our body to keep fat in storage. We don’t want to store fat we want to use fat.

You also have a limited amount of glycogen stores but an almost unlimited amount of fat storage. Fat also has more energy (calories) per weight. Your fat burns long and slow giving an sustained flow of energy. Carbs burn fast and with high and lows. That gel will work for about 20 minutes but after that you will hit a low (blood sugar dropping).

Studies:

  1. An MIT study followed five elite endurance cyclists followed a high-carbohydrate diet for one week (60 per cent of calories came from carbohydrate, 30 per cent from fat, and 10 per cent from protein), and then shifted over to a diet which supplied the same number of daily calories but contained much more fat. In fact, on this four-week ketogenic diet, fat supplied about 85 per cent of total calories (key sources of fat included mayonnaise, heavy cream, sour cream, and cream cheese), while carbs chipped in just 2 per cent (that’s not a misprint; the athletes swallowed no more than 20 grams – 80 calories – of carbohydrate per day, less than the quantity in one average banana).VO2max and endurance capacity were assessed before and after the athletes embarked on the high-fat diets. The endurance test was a simple one: the athletes attempted to cycle for as long as possible at an intensity of 62 to 64% VO2max, or about 75 per cent of maximal heart rate (‘The Human Metabolic Response to Chronic Ketosis without Caloric Restriction: Preservation of Submaximal Exercise Capability with Reduced Carbohydrate Oxidation,’ Metabolism, vol. 32 (8), pp. 769-776, 1983). Endurance capacity increased with the higher-fat diet. The high-fat pedallers lasted 151 minutes during the endurance test, compared to 147 minutes when carbo-loaded. However, this small disparity was not statistically significant. Four weeks of fat gobbling also had no significant impact on VO2max, which held steady at about 69 ml/kg.min. So, the truth is that high-fat diets had little effect on aerobic capacity or performance in this study.
  2. The University of Otago in New Zealand has also linked high fat intakes with good blood-fat set-ups. 34 experienced endurance cyclists were divided into two groups. One group followed a high-carbohydrate diet (60 per cent of total energy from carbos, 20 per cent from fat, and 20 per cent from protein), while the second collection of cyclists pledged allegiance to a high-fat diet (45 per cent of calories from fat, 40 per cent from carbos, and 15 per cent from protein). One of the great things about this study was that the diets were followed for a relatively long time – three months (‘The Effects of High-Carbohydrate Versus High-Fat Dietary Advice on Plasma Lipids, Lipoproteins, Apolipoproteins, and Performance in Endurance Trained Cyclists,’ Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Disease, June, 1996).HDL changed nary a tick in this New Zealand study, but both groups – high-fat and high-carbohydrate – decreased total cholesterol, reduced LDL-cholesterol, and increased Apolipoprotein A1 over the course of 12 weeks. In other words, high-fat and high-carbohydrate diets both led to equivalent, positive changes in blood-fat profiles. Amazingly enough, most of the fat consumed by the Otago cyclists was in the form of saturated fat – the kind believed to be most damaging to blood-fat profiles!
  3. Paul Thompson, M.D., president-elect of the august American College of Sports Medicine and a noted cardiovascular researcher at Brown University studied 24 fit runners (VO2max = 56). Initially, the runners were following a fairly standard diet, with 53 per cent of calories from carbohydrate, 32 per cent from fat, and 15 per cent from protein. However, some of the runners embarked on a 14-day high-carbohydrate diet, with 69 per cent of calories from carbs, while the others started up a 14-day high-fat diet, with 69 per cent of calories from fat (‘The Effects of High-Carbohydrate and High-Fat Diets on the Serum Lipid and Lipoprotein Concentrations of Endurance Athletes,’ Metabolism, vol. 33(11), pp. 1003-1010, 1984). And what happened? The high-carb diet produced a number of negatives, including a 9-per cent drop in HDL, a significant increase in LDL, and a 30- to 50-per cent rise in blood triglycerides. Meanwhile high-fat diet produced a number of positives, including a tendency for both HDL and Apolipoprotein A1 to increase and a 10- to 20-per cent drop-off in serum triglycerides!
  4. A study carried out in Sweden, individuals who ingested a high-fat (52-per cent fat) diet during a rugged, eight-day, cross-country ski expedition in the mountains lowered LDL and boosted HDL by 19 per cent, while skiers on low-fat diets (21- to 26-per cent fat) failed to nudge HDL upward (‘Influence of Dietary Fat, Cholesterol and Energy on Serum Lipids at Vigorous Physical Exercise,’ Scandinavian Journal of Clinical and Laboratory Investigations, vol. 51, pp. 437-442, 1991)
  5. Another study – when individuals engaged in strenuous physical training (walking 37 kilometers per day) while consuming a high-carbohydrate diet (85 per cent of calories from carbs), VLDL (another ‘bad’ cholesterol) increased and HDL decreased. However, when the same subjects utilized a high-fat diet (75 per cent of calories from fat), VLDL decreased while HDL went up (‘The Acute Effect of Prolonged Walking and Dietary Changes on Plasma Lipoprotein Concentrations and High-Density Lipoprotein Subfractions,’ Metabolism, vol. 37 (6), pp. 535-541, 1988).

As you can see fat does have it’s place. Carbs are not the only answer to fuel your body.

So what kind of Fat?

Medium-Chained Triglycerides (think coconut). MCT empty out of the stomach quickly and are ready to be used as fuel during exercise, you can eat a lot of them, and can be solid or liquid (just like carbs).

Metabolic Derangement

A high-carb diet, no matter if you are an athlete or sedentary person, has negative effects on blood profiles, hormones, and overall health. A high-carb diet will move you down the road of disease and sickness very quickly. You may be thinking about athletes that are famous for eating mountains of carbs like Micheal Phelps. Yes, he is the best at his sport. He will also have a terrible time with his body after his competing years.  Just as the majority of professional athletes gain a lot of weight after their prime years and are awarded many diseases with their medals. A diet like this is setting him up for diabetes, rapid aging, and hormonal imbalance.  Could he have performed the way he did on a more fat adapted body? I don’t know. But I think it is fair to assume so. Since none of you are the next Michael Phelps (sorry) your diet does not need to be as extreme. Yes, get enough calories and learn how the human body fuels itself.

References:

  • The Effects of High-Carbohydrate Versus High-Fat Dietary Advice on Plasma Lipids, Lipoproteins, Apolipoproteins, and Performance in Endurance Trained Cyclists,’ Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Disease, June, 1996
  • The Effects of High-Carbohydrate and High-Fat Diets on the Serum Lipid and Lipoprotein Concentrations of Endurance Athletes,’ Metabolism, vol. 33(11), pp. 1003-1010, 1984
  • High Density Lipoprotein Metabolism in Man,’ The Journal of Clinical Investigation, vol. 60, pp. 795-807, 1977
  • Influence of Dietary Fat, Cholesterol and Energy on Serum Lipids at Vigorous Physical Exercise,’ Scandinavian Journal of Clinical and Laboratory Investigations, vol. 51, pp. 437-442, 1991
  • The Acute Effect of Prolonged Walking and Dietary Changes on Plasma Lipoprotein Concentrations and High-Density Lipoprotein Subfractions,’ Metabolism, vol. 37 (6), pp. 535-541, 1988

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