We always try and cut through the hype and get to the root of
anything. The new Paleo craze is the flavor of the month, and
we have Brian Rigby get to the roots of Paleo and separate fact
from fiction for you. Here is part 3 of the series:
Myth #3:The Paleo Diet Is Great for Athletes and Weight Loss
This comes with an addendum: the Paleo Diet can potentially be fine for athletes, assuming they make some changes such as increasing the amount of carbohydrates they eat. This is not the usual case made, however. Rather, the regular old high meat and veggie Paleo diet is advertised as having wonderful effects for physical fitness.
The truth is most athletes will suffer some form of performance inhibition due to the very low content of carbohydrates in most Paleolites diets. Without these carbohydrates, ability to do high-intensity work is limited and proteolysis (breakdown of muscle tissue) is dramatically increased as the body attempts to create its own carbohydrates to make up for the ones it’s not getting from the diet.
A commonly extolled virtue of the Paleo Diet is that it will increase performance through reduction in weight. Over a short period of time, a low-carbohydrate diet does appear to increase weight loss, but it is likely that much of this is water weight as the body sheds its glycogen stores (stored carbs which are very important for performance). As for a long-term solution for weight loss, the results are less promising.
Comparing the Mediterranean diet, a low-carb Paleoesque diet, and a low-fat diet, all had leveled out after about a year. The low-carb diet ostensibly weighed less by a few pounds, but given the context it is highly likely the difference in weight was accountable to water, not fat.
Another study analyzed different diets and found that carbohydrate and fat content was not responsible for effects on weight loss, which could be solely attributed to the amount of protein in the diet. Any diet can be high in protein, so this is not a claim to fame for Paleo.
Without any increased ability to lose unwanted body fat, and with a significant reduction in the ability to perform carbohydrate-driven high-intensity work, what other advantage might the Paleo Diet give? Many claim that the Paleo Diet increases your ability to burn fat. As with so many of the other myths, this one is half true as well. A low-carb diet does increase the amount of fat you burn, but not because your body gets particularly good at it, but because there simply are no carbohydrates to burn!
If you have a gas/electric hybrid car, but never fill it with gas (opting to plug in instead), you can give the artificial appearance that it runs off electricity better because little to no gas is being used. However, the reason is limitation, not adaptation. Fill that car with gas again, and the amount of electricity it uses to run will once again drop to the expected amount.
To cap this off, the athletes who pursue a high-protein, high-fat, low-carb diet wind up improving less than athletes on a diet which includes carbohydrates, and by a significant margin. The Paleo Diet, as it is often consumed, has no real benefit for performance, and in the long-term may be detrimental.