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Nutritionist Dr Kevin Currell examines the pros and cons for triathletes of the paleolithic / hunter-gatherer diet

Photo: Aproximando Ciência e Pessoas

Eating a palaeolithic diet seems to be all the rage these days, with many blogs and internet sites dedicated to it, and a fair few books as well. The general principle is to eat like we would have when we were hunter-gatherer Neanderthals or cavemen.

During this time we’d potentially have only eaten meat, fish and vegetables, and we certainly wouldn’t have been able to walk to the shops and buy a quick burger and chips, or pop to the supermarket and buy a microwave meal.

The scientific argument for a palaeolithic diet is made on some significant circumstantial evidence around studies of other primate diets, fossils, anthropology and understanding our own metabolic pathways. So, if you were to eat like a caveman, what would you need to do?

Well let’s start with those foods that aren’t on the list. These include anything pre-prepared such as pasta, rice and quinoa, as well as other cereals and whole grains, like porridge; dairy; legumes such as lentils and chickpeas; bread; sausages; most sandwich meats; alcohol; and even the humble potato.

What can you eat? Meat, fish, nuts, fruit and vegetables. But not any old meat and fish – just those that are organic and grass-fed. No tinned fish, just those caught naturally out in the ocean. So pretty simple really.

If you make these changes to your diet what’s likely to happen? Firstly, you’ll reduce the carbohydrate content of your diet, while increasing your protein and fat intake. Most of the latter is likely to come from healthy fat sources though. The carbohydrates you do eat will be slow-release ones, which is generally a good thing, as research suggests it would be good to have the majority of your diet coming from these types of carbs. Alongside this, you’ll certainly eat more fibre, which again is seen as a good thing in terms of health. You’ll also consume far more micro-nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, as well as increasing your potassium intake and decreasing your sodium intake.

So far, not too bad. However, the word health has been mentioned a lot, with not much mention of performance. We know that restoring and maintaining muscle glycogen after exercise is key to recovery and optimal performance. We know that if you remove carbohydrates from your diet and replace them with fat then your endurance improves, but your time-trial performance doesn’t change and you lose the ability to go fast. Is salt also that bad for an athlete? We certainly lose a lot during training, so maybe we need to replace some in our diet too.

The paleo diet idea is based on significant circumstantial evidence and as such isn’t based on too much science. There’s good evidence that low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets aid weight loss, but not much about the long-term adherence to them. I’d also question the idea that the humble potato isn’t a natural food – if a caveman saw a potato I think he’d have eaten it. We also know the Incas ate quinoa.

So is the paleo diet a good thing? Certainly some of the principles are. The protein intake is good too, as eating protein in every meal is essential for athletes (research shows that 20g in each meal is optimal). However, there are times when you’re going to need a more carbohydrate-based meal like pasta or bread, such as after a long bike ride or during periods of really heavy training. It can sometimes be hard to achieve this when following a paleo diet.

So in conclusion, eating fresh, good quality food is essential, but don’t get too obsessed – I don’t think our caveman ancestors would have done.