Paleo for the Active Person



I talked to a guy recently who told me he’d tried eating Paleo and failed. At first I thought, “He just can’t resist the temptation of donuts for breakfast and bread for lunch.” And then I let him plead his case, and it went something like this: when he gave Paleo a shot, he found he didn’t have the energy he needed throughout the day. He was super tired, lethargic and couldn’t get through his workouts. I’m sometimes too quick to judge.

I think a lot of athlete-type people try the Paleo diet, hoping it will improve their performance and help them tone up a bit. They start out the diet having read Cordain’s book, The Paleo Diet, so they’re eating nothing but lean meat, a few of their favorite vegetables, some fruit, and a little dab of olive oil here and there. After a week or so into the diet, they go to the gym after a breakfast of grilled chicken and steamed broccoli and feel a bit light-headed during their second set of dead lifts (or whatever torture their Crossfit gym has planned for them that day). Throughout the workout, their blood sugar plummets, as well as their performance and their motivation to keep eating Paleo. They crawl out of the gym close to passing out and stop at McDonald’s for second breakfast, vowing to give up Paleo forever.

It doesn’t have to be like that. If you’re an active person (and that could include anyone from a city dweller who walks 5 miles a day to someone who’s training for a marathon) you may just need more carbohydrates if you’re failing on the Paleo diet. For myself, I’ve figured out that I MUST have a dense source of carbs in the morning. I can’t just have eggs and meat and some leafy vegetables or 45 minutes later I’m hungry and low blood sugar. And if you start your day out with a blood sugar crash, you’re not doing anything good for your energy for the rest of the day, your sleep patterns or your weight loss goals. So let me explain some things about carbohydrates to see if we can keep you on the Paleo diet AND keep you feeling energetic all day.

First, what is a carb?

Even people who seem really well-versed in nutrition don’t know the answer to this question, so don’t think you’re an idiot if you don’t know exactly what that ubiquitously marketed little structure is. A carbohydrate is a chemical structure that contains carbon, oxygen and hydrogen, which together create simple sugars like glucose and fructose. Those simple sugars, if they’re so inclined, can then come together to form more complex carbohydrates like disaccharides (lactose), starch or fiber. Sugars, starches and fiber are found in abundance in things like table sugar, honey, fruit, vegetables (all of them), grains and beans.

We’re used to eating a LOT of carbs in the U.S. – bread, cereal, beans, pasta, chips, tortillas, sugar, crackers, cookies, “sports drinks,” fruit, sodas, beer, etc. Our bodies use the carbohydrates for immediate energy, and if they’re not used up, they get stored as fat. When we start eating fewer carbohydrates and more fat like we do on the Paleo diet, our bodies become better at using dietary fat (fat from meat, avocados, coconut milk and oil, olive oil, nuts, etc.) more immediately for energy instead of the carbs.

While we can become very good at using dietary fat (especially medium chain fatty acids like coconut milk) as fuel, some people are going to be better at it than others, no matter how hard they work at it. It has to do with genetics and how much you’ve wrecked your metabolism over the years of eating a Standard American Diet. What you need to do is figure out what kind of person you are. Are you someone who needs an abundance of carbs? Or can you perform well with low carbs and tons of dietary fat?

To figure this out, start the diet out pretty strictly, taking out all grains, legumes and refined sugars. After your detox is over (could be a few days or up to a month – you’ll know when it’s over), assess how you feel throughout the day. If you’re bonking or needing naps, feeling grumpy, lightheaded, getting headaches or your athletic performance is waning, THEN start adding more carbohydrates to see how you do. If you’re using Paleo Plan for meal planning, this might mean adding things to your grocery list every week, but it shouldn’t be too hard. Below there are some suggestions on what to eat.

Which Carbs Are Paleo?

You obviously are limited in your options for carbs, since the Paleo diet frowns upon grains, refined sugar and beans. You can only eat so much kale, broccoli and other veggies in a day, and they only provide minimal carbs, anyway. You want to go for the starchy veggies like sweet potatoes, squash, and if you’re like me, tapioca. (Note: Potatoes are not Paleo, but sweet potatoes are. They’re different, in that sweet potatoes have no anti-nutrients in them, but potatoes do. Sweet potatoes also have a LOT of nutrients in them, while potatoes have very few.)

Most fruit provides more carbohydrates than leafy and crunchy veggies, so eat more of it, too. If you’re super active, especially if you’re an endurance athlete, add more honey if you just can’t get enough quick energy from sweet potatoes and fruit. Or if your stomach can’t deal with digesting it during long workouts or races.

As for juice, I recommend freshly juiced juice – not commercial, pasteurized, devoid-of-nutrients juice.

Smoothies are a good way to get more carbohydrates in, since you can pack them full of frozen or fresh fruit.

If you’re a normal American, you will have little idea about how to add some of these things to your daily menu. The only time people normally eat sweet potatoes is on Thanksgiving when they’re smothered in maple syrup and marshmallows, right? Here are some suggestions:

Sweet potatoes
1. Cut them up into square inch cubes and boil them for 20 minutes. Keep them in the fridge and add them to egg scrambles, chicken salad, or just pour some coconut milk and cinnamon on them.

2. Or bake them. I bake sweet potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil in a pan (to catch drippings) for about an hour at 450. The longer you bake them, the softer and sweeter they are. Let them cool and you can keep them in the fridge for up to 5 days in the aluminum foil in the pan. Then I just scoop some out for snacks and add coconut milk and cinnamon. You could sprinkle some roasted nuts or dried fruit into the mix, too.

3. Bake some fries. Cut some sweet potatoes up into thin slices and lay them out on a baking sheet. Drizzle with a little olive oil (or not), and sprinkle some rosemary, pepper and salt on top. Bake on 400 for about 40 minutes. You’ll want to flip them halfway through to let them bake more evenly. They shrink down quite a bit, so if you’re serving these to a large group of people, make a lot!

4. Sometimes I grate up a part of a sweet potato (in my case, it’s usually about half a cup) and stick it in with my egg and veggie scramble in the morning. Because it’s grated, it cooks up in the same amount of time as the other vegetables. The sweetness of the sweet potatoes adds another layer of flavor to my breakfast.

1. You can use it how you’d use pasta. Cut a squash in half, put each side face down in a half inch of water on a baking pan and bake for 30 minutes to an hour (depending on the size of the squash) at 400 degrees. Scoop out the goodness and serve it with hearty, meaty marinara sauces, or add it to stir fried meals.

2. You can always make a sweet treat out of it by adding cinnamon and a bit of honey, some nuts, and dried fruit if you want.

3. You can cut it into small squares and saute them in a pan with some coconut oil or olive oil and eat them as a side to salmon or chicken. Cooked like that, they’re also amazing in Thai curries because they soak up so much of the flavor.

Tapioca is something that I have incorporated into my Paleo diet, even though I know it contains almost no vitamins or minerals. Cordain doesn’t love tapioca, as far as I can tell, but my digestion can only handle so much squash and sweet potatoes and fruit for some reason doesn’t fill me up like tapioca does. It’s a dense source of carbohydrates, and for my active lifestyle, it’s become pretty crucial. You decide for yourself whether you want it in your diet.

1. You can make tapioca crepes to serve with your morning omelet, your afternoon chicken stir fry or your evening salmon fillet, but you can also use the flour to make any bready thing your heart desires. See my post on tapioca and its uses here.

2. Sometimes I will even cook some fruit and coconut milk in a little pot and add a bit of tapioca flour to make it taste more like pie filling – gooey.

These are just things that I do, so please, please add to the list in the comments below. If you’re an active person and you need more carbs, let us know what you’ve figured out.

Know that it is a fine line to walk with carbohydrates if you’re an active person who is trying to lose weight. Too many carbs will put weight on you, but not enough carbs can put your body into starvation mode, keeping weight on you. You need to find the balance that will keep you losing weight, maintaining weight, or whatever your weight goals are. If you’re interested in how many grams of carbs per day you need, I can’t give you an answer to that here because it’s so very dependent on your size, your activity level and your weight loss goals. If you want help with that, I’m available for individual consults. And if you want more detailed information on this topic, Loren Cordain’s book, The Paleo Diet for Athletes is a fantastic resource, especially for endurance athletes.

Keep tweaking this diet to make it your own, and good luck!