Paleo Pros: Why More Athletes are Eating a Caveman Diet

Amanda Beard Olympian

Find out what’s behind professional athletes who eat like cavemen for improved performance.

This is adapted from a recent piece I wrote  for ESPNW, one of my new favorite sites for information about sports and fitness.

For Olympian Amanda Beard, regaining fitness means adopting a retro eating plan that cave dwellers, and other athletes, might recognize.

When swimmer Amanda Beard wanted to get in shape after the birth of her son, she decided to go back the basics — as in 2.5 million years back. The Olympic gold medalist decided to follow a Paleolithic, or Paleo, eating plan, which consists of only the foods that our hunter-gatherer ancestors subsisted on, too.

According to Paleo proponents like exercise physiologist Loren Cordain, Ph.D., humans evolved to thrive on a diet of meat, fresh produce and nuts. More recent foods, like sugary treats, packaged goods and even grains (“invented” 10,000 years ago) are to blame for the spike in weight gain and chronic illness, they say, because the body doesn’t digest these as effectively. Although the premise for this Flintstones-era diet has existed since the ’70s, it’s recently grown in popularity, particularly among athletes like Beard and many more.

8 Paleo Principles for Athletes

  1. Eat whole, natural foods instead of the processed kinds.
  2. Enjoy plenty of fruits, vegetables and nuts, and limit refined grains and sugars.
  3. Increase consumption of lean protein, such as skinless poultry, fish, game meats and lean cuts of red meat.
  4. Up your omega-3 fatty acids from fish, walnuts and other sources.
  5. Avoid trans-fats, and limit saturated fats by eliminating fried foods, hard margarine, commercial baked goods, and most packaged and processed snack foods.
  6. Substitute monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (like olive and canola oils) for saturated fats (such as butter).
  7. Avoid high-fat dairy products and processed meats, such as bacon, sausage, and deli meats.
  8. Drink water as your main fluid.

Ursula Grobler USA Rowing

The Finer Points of the Flintstones Diet

While there are different interpretations of the diet, the basic tenet revolves around eating the whole, natural foods our predecessors consumed. Followers eat mainly lean meat, fish, nuts, fruits and vegetables; corn, wheat, sugar, dairy and most beans, as well as fried and packaged foods, are to be avoided. The result: You consume about 30 percent of your calories from protein, 30 percent from fats (mostly unsaturated) and 40 percent from carbohydrates (mainly from produce). By comparison, the typical athlete’s diet consists of 60 percent of calories from carbs, 15 to 20 percent from protein, and the remainder from fat.

“The diet consists of unprocessed and unrefined foods, which can improve nutrient intake,” said sports nutritionist Ryan Andrews, M.S., R.D., the director of education at Precision Nutrition, a nutrition coaching company. But because the plan is so low in carbs, many endurance athletes, like runners, cyclists and triathletes, find it too difficult to stick with when they’re training. The diet is better suited for sports that require muscle mass at a lighter weight, like diving, gymnastics and rowing.

Pointers from Paleo Pros

“When I’m close to a competition, I’m super-strict Paleo,” said Ursula Grobler, the current world record holder in the indoor ergometer, and one of the world’s best lightweight rowers. “It helps me get the leanness I need to compete, while still supporting good eating habits.” Other athletes say that the super-restrictive diet is too difficult to follow 24/7. “On Paleo, my body fat is lower, energy levels seem higher and my performance is better,” said Becca Borawski, program director at CrossFit LA. “But because it’s so restrictive, I do it five or six days of the week.”

If you want to try Paleo, Andrews recommends starting with a modified plan. “Athletes with high calorie and carbohydrate requirements will need to include some starchy veggies, like potatoes, beans and possibly some whole grains to get the nutrients they need,” Andrews said.


  1. Emily says

    So for normal people (I work out every day but I’m not an “athlete” by any means), would you recommend this type of diet, or is it too protein-heavy/carb-light if you’re not really trying to increase your muscle mass?

  2. says

    I have worked with many competitive athletes that benefit from a lower carbohydrate intake over the past 20 years—decades before the current Paleo diet craze. One swimmer’s mom ran across the street to buy hamburgers, throwing away the bun for her daughter to eat just the patty as she competed and won 4 gold medals as a collegiate swimmer. A professional basketball player shifted to a lower (and better) carbohydrate intake and lost 15 pounds and his belly. (His mother was diabetic.) A recreational hockey player finally felt like his body reflected the amount of time and effort he put into his food and training once he shifted to a lower carbohydrate diet with mostly protein and produce. His body fat dropped from 17% to 11% in 4 weeks. He reported no negative on power or stamina.

    Many athletes thrive on a high carbohydrate diet. Others don’t. It is important to note that each of these athletes compete in power and/or sprint activities. Still, one of the biggest problems with sports nutrition as it is currently practiced is that recommendations are often created for specific situations and sports as if all the individuals playing the sport are inherently metabolizing energy the same way. Little is said about the profound influence of an individual’s unique metabolic profile.

    Sports nutrition guidelines and recommendations need to adequately consider the individual athlete and their unique needs. Maybe researchers could begin addressing the range of outcomes instead of a preoccupation with what is statistically significant. Treating to the mean is a problem, not the solution.

  3. DJ says

    Just wanted to add: Most paleo folks don’t go for the “fake” fat-free or low-fat dairy products (actually, many don’t eat dairy at all).

    Also, what do you think of the latest research that points to industrial oils/PUFAs as problematic vs. the old “saturated fat is bad” approach?

  4. says

    “But because the plan is so low in carbs, many endurance athletes, like runners, cyclists and triathletes, find it too difficult to stick with when they’re training.”

    I’m not a nutritionist, but I AM a triathlete, and I follow a strict Paleo nutrition plan. I think one of the common misconceptions is included in the quote above. Just because you are not eating grain does not mean you are not ingesting carbs – FRUIT is a carb! I supplement my training with higher carb fruits and veg such as bananas, sweet potatoes and yams, dates, raisins, etc. It’s a matter of finding the balance that works for you and supports your workouts. I have excellent energy and endurance AND I am 20 lbs lighter this season. I recently PRd my Oly distance by 40 minutes. If I wasn’t coming off an injury from last fall, it would have most likely been even better. You can’t do that under-fueled.

  5. says

    As a CrossFitter, I encourage people to eat Paleo on a daily basis, however, there is such thing as a lazy Paleo eater… That’s when people go straight for meat and fruit… The list of items you should consume from most important to least important looks like this…
    1) Leafy Green Vegetables and all veggies (go easy on root veggies)
    2) Grass Fed and Free Range Meats
    3) Fish
    4) In Moderation- Fruits, Nuts and Seeds- In moderation doesn’t mean sit down with the bag of nuts and eat them all… it means pull out 9 almonds and enjoy each and every bite.

    We tend to gravitate toward the easily accessible foods, a piece of meat or an apple and handfulls of nuts. That’s easier than making a salad… Don’t be lazy!! Lazy Paleo eating will get you’ll feel sluggish and it won’t improve your performance!!

  6. Cal says

    This article is pretty misleading. The Paleo principles include avoiding grains, sugar, and dairy, period. While this would be one way to ease into it, you’re not following a Paleo plan very strictly if all you do is “limit refined grains and sugar” and “avoid high-fat dairy.” It also isn’t intended to be a low-fat diet, so meat that isn’t super-lean isn’t necessarily frowned upon.


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