In the big picture of health, diet should work in harmony with activity: your food should help build muscle and give you energy to explore all the amazing ways your body can move when you’re fueling it properly. Movement – whether it’s dancing or deadlifting – is just the expression of a well-nourished body. That’s why an evolutionary approach to exercise complements Paleo so well. A species-appropriate diet and species-appropriate physical activity fit together seamlessly as part of overall health.
That doesn’t suddenly change when you put a number on your physical activity and call it a “sport” or a “workout.” But somehow, as soon as people start worrying about specific performance goals, it starts to seem like just eating real food isn’t enough – there must be some arcane secret to going harder, faster, stronger! There’s a whole mythology built up around sports nutrition: protein powders, carbohydrate back-loading, intermittent fasting, post workout macronutrient ratios…
To help clear up that confusion, this article takes a look at what the research really says about macronutrient ratios (protein, fat, and carbs) and physical activity, and how you can use Paleo as an appropriate template for meeting any macronutrient goals.
There’s a lot more research behind all this than it’s possible to get into in just one article, but the bottom line is that non-competitive athletes don’t need to go crazy with it. For professional elites, it’s crucial. Nobody’s arguing that. But for most of us, three solid meals a day of whole foods does the job just fine! You shouldn’t have to resort to non-Paleo foods for anything, and especially not getting enough carbs. But don’t just take our word for it; read on and see for yourself!
Protein: How Much and When?
Protein gets all the good press in athletic circles, and it is important. But that’s not because it’s used as workout fuel; your body doesn’t burn protein to do any kind of exercise. Athletes need protein for functional uses and to build muscles, and for that purpose they don’t need a whole lot more than anyone else.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
For example, after an exhaustive review of the evidence, this study concluded even experienced strength athletes had an ideal range of 1.2-2.2 grams/kg of bodyweight per day. Here’s a chart showing what that looks like in the real world:
|Weight of person||Grams of Protein per day||Approximate Amount of Skinless Chicken Breast*|
|120 pounds (55 kilograms)||66-121||Just over 1 whole breast.|
|140 pounds (64 kilograms)||77-141||1 ½ breasts|
|160 pounds (73 kilograms)||88-161||2 breasts|
|180 pounds (82 kilograms)||98-180||2 ½ breasts|
|200 pounds (91 kilograms)||109-200||3 breasts|
*Obviously nobody is going to get their entire protein intake from chicken breast alone; these equivalents are just to give you a rough idea of how much food is in the numbers.
And this is for hard-training experienced lifters; most recreational joggers should err far towards the lower end of these ranges.
In other words, there’s no need to get totally fixated on protein. Protein should not be your chief source of calories, and you can get plenty of protein from a normal diet, even for muscle-building exercises. Definitely don’t think you need to start paying for protein shakes: they aren’t necessary and they’re definitely not ideal for optimal health.
Does Protein Timing Matter?
Another question about protein is timing: is it better to eat it right before or after a workout? This study takes a hard look at the very conflicting data surrounding pre- and post-workout supplements, and concludes that it’s hard to know for sure what the effects are. We have a lot of very short-term trials, which may or may not have the same effects in the long term, the studies have various methodological problems, and the results are inconclusive. The author concludes that, while it’s not definitively proven to be a huge advantage, ingesting some protein both before and after your workout probably has some benefit and certainly can’t hurt.
Paleo Recommendation: Paleo provides plenty of protein for athletic performance. Eat plenty of high-quality animal foods, and your protein needs are covered without worrying about timing or grams of anything.
Carbs: How Much and When?
How Many Carbs Do I Need?
We’ve all heard the standard line: Athletes need lots of carbs! Carbs give you energy! Carbs should be 60-70% of your diet! Give up all those life-giving whole grains and your muscles will waste away into oblivion!
Not quite, but there’s a kernel of truth in there. Huge vats of pasta aren’t necessary for anyone, but very low-carb diets also aren’t great. Most people do better with a moderate amount of carbohydrates for exercise, especially if you’re working at any significant intensity.
When your body is hunting around for fuel to move you somewhere, it can either go with carbs or with fat. At very low intensities, fat is the primary fuel source. But as intensity increases, carbohydrate usage increases as a proportion of the total. Here’s a general breakdown (from this paper):
- Very low intensity (walking, doing dishes, weeding the garden): low total energy expenditure, mostly from fat.
- Moderate intensity (recreational bike rides, easy jogging): higher total energy expenditure, still mostly from fat but with a fair percentage from carbs.
- High intensity (sprinting): fat use decreases and carbohydrate use increases as intensity goes up.
This might lead you to believe that carbs are only important for sprinters and weightlifters. But this actually isn’t true. If you like, you can plug your own numbers into this calculator and see for yourself how well your workout burns carbs instead of fat. Even moderate intensity workouts still need some carbohydrates. In fact, since an hour of jogging burns so many more calories than an hour of weightlifting, you may end up needing a greater absolute amount of carbohydrate for the jogging, even if the relative carbohydrate usage is lower.
Unfortunately, with so many variables, it’s impossible to give one “carbohydrate recommendation” for everyone. 60% of calories from carbs (as recommended by the US Dietary Guidelines) is likely overkill for most people. But your specific carbohydrate needs will depend on your age, sex, activity level, and all the other factors affecting your recovery.
Instead of fixating on precise percentages of diet, a better rule of thumb is to play around with your own food and see what makes you feel best. Most active people feel and perform better with some carbs in their diet. On an extremely low-carb diet, it’s easy to wear yourself down and hinder recovery. Ketosis is not ideal for athletic performance, especially in sports that really “take it out of you.” But on the other hand, some athletes do just fine with a minimal carb intake. As long as you’re eating enough carbs to fuel your own performance goals, you’re eating the right amount of carbs for you.
This doesn’t mean that you have to “cheat” on Paleo to get your carbs in. So many people think like this – they’re Paleo “except that they need more carbs.” But Paleo is not a low-carb diet, and you can tweak it to include potatoes and other carb sources very easily. This is not “cheating.” It’s simply one of the many variations of Paleo.
Does Carbohydrate Timing Matter?
What about carbohydrate timing? The traditional wisdom goes something like this: eat protein + carbs right before you work out, to top up your glycogen stores. Eat them again right after you work out, to fill the tank right back up and maximize muscle growth. This is your post-exercise “anabolic window” when protein and carbs will rush straight into your muscles, so seize your chance! This position is supported by this paper and this one.
But actually the evidence supporting this is incredibly conflicting. Some studies find a benefit; others don’t. Even the supporters of the nutrient timing approach admit that the evidence is murky at best. The same skeptical study on protein timing above, for example, takes a harder look at the evidence for carbs, and concludes that it’s very complicated:
- Unless you’re training twice a day, your glycogen stores will be refilled by your next workout regardless of when you eat your carbs. So most recreational athletes should be fine just getting enough carbohydrate in their daily diet, regardless of timing.
- Most of the studies that show a benefit from post-exercise carb loading had the subjects exercising in a fasted state. This leaves the benefits unclear for the majority of people (who don’t).
- Most studies also tend to study untrained people (who may or may not represent trained people), and use both a pre- and post-workout supplement (thus making it hard to tell which one caused the benefit).
The authors concluded that “these findings support the broader objective of meeting total daily carbohydrate need instead of specifically timing its constituent doses:” in plain English, it’s more important to get enough carbs every day on average than it is to get them right after you work out.
It’s also not necessary to drink special “sports beverages” to replenish your carbohydrate stores: they’re mostly sugar with no nutrients attached. Eat a banana or something with some actual nutrients in it – it’s better for you.
Paleo Recommendation: Paleo is flexible enough to accommodate many levels of carb intake. You do not have to “eat Paleo, except for carbs.” Carbs are Paleo. Eat a moderate amount of safe starches (starchy vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes), and if you feel run-down or exhausted, try adding more. And don’t worry about timing them unless you personally notice a difference.
Fat: An Important Fuel for Athletes
Fat is underappreciated in the mainstream “nutrition for athletes” advice, but there’s actually a substantial body of evidence that this is a big mistake. For one thing, if you’re not getting jaw-dropping levels of carbohydrates, you need to make up those calories somewhere, and fat is the way to go.
Fat is particularly important for aerobic exercise (like long-distance running), because fat is the fuel your body prefers to burn during this kind of activity. The studies on this are complicated, because low-fat diets are also high-carb diets, so it’s pretty hard to distinguish the effects of the individual macronutrients. It’s also tough to get a clear picture because so few studies have actually examined high-fat diets. But take a look at some of the evidence below:
- This study found that athletes did just as well on a high-fat (53% energy) as a low-fat (17% energy) diet.
- This study suggests that adequate fat is necessary for recovery (although their higher-fat group was still only 35% fat by calories)
- This study found that the a high-fat, low-carb diet during training, followed by a high-carb diet only during the race, was better than eating just carbs all the time.
- In this study, subjects who ate a medium-fat (31%) diet for four weeks had 14% improved endurance time compared to subjects who ate a low-fat (16%) diet.
For a slightly more casual but still well-researched take on the power of adequate fat intake for athletes, take a look at this six-part series.
Fat quantity and quality is where a Paleo diet really shines in comparison to the standard “healthy” diet: you’re getting a lot more of the good stuff, and a lot less of the bad stuff.
Paleo Recommendation: Fat is important fuel for athletes, and Paleo provides it in spades. Eat plenty of healthy fats to fuel your performance goals.
Macronutrients: What’s the Upshot?
The short version of all these studies boils down to:
- Protein: 15-30% of calories from protein is plenty, and there’s no need to stockpile chicken breasts or canned tuna. It may be helpful to eat protein right before and after you exercise, but if you can’t, don’t sweat it.
- Carbs: Athletes generally need more carbs than sedentary people. The more intense your exercise, the more carbs you’ll need to maintain peak performance. Eating your carbs right after your workout may be slightly preferable but your muscles won’t waste away if you don’t.
- Fat: Fat is important clean-burning fuel; eat lots of it!
It’s also pretty clear that a Paleo diet can be tweaked to provide just about any combination of macronutrients an athlete might need. Want more protein? Just add some additional animal foods. More fat? More butter. More carbs? Try a potato or two. Paleo nutrition is flexible enough to encompass all kinds of activities without an issue, giving you room to experiment within the range of healthy foods. You don’t have to resort to non-Paleo foods to get anything if you don’t want to.
On an even more basic level than getting the right macronutrient ratios, optimum athletic performance requires that you eat enough, period. You need adequate calorie intake to support your athletic goals – and you might be surprised to know how much that actually is.
Just for example, let’s take an average woman. Say she’s 28 years old, 5’4”, and weighs 130 pounds. She knows there’s nothing wrong with cardio, so let’s say she likes to run – she gets up in the morning and goes for a 5-6 mile jog (about an hour) 6 days per week. She works a sedentary office job, so her energy expenditure isn’t huge the rest of the time – say 2 hours a day doing household chores or otherwise moving around and the rest of the time she spends sitting.
According to the Health Calc, that woman needs over 2,500 calories on workout days to maintain her weight and keep performance at optimal levels. If she’s trying to build muscle, she needs more. A far cry from the 1800, 1500, or even 1200-calorie diets so many women are on!
Men need even more. Change that 5’4” 28-year-old to a man doing the same exercise, and he needs over 2,700 calories on workout days. Without plowing through piles of pasta and bread, those calories might be harder to come by than you think.
This doesn’t mean you need to count calories. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. But it does mean that if athletic performance is a priority for you, you need to make a big effort to eat enough food. On Paleo, eating enough food means eating enough fat: take the skinless chicken breasts off your shopping list, and replace them with pork shoulder, avocados, bacon, and eggs (with the yolks!). If you’re starting to feel exhausted after workouts, or your performance is suffering, eat more.
Summing it All Up
There are two big caveats to this entire article:
- It doesn’t address professional or elite athletes. It’s not intended to. If you’re trying to push the boundaries of what the human body can accomplish, you’re doing something that is “unnatural” in a certain sense. You will probably need a more tightly controlled diet to accomplish this.
- It doesn’t account for individual variation. For every rule, there’s an exception. Maybe that exception is you! There’s nothing wrong with that; do what works for you, not what works for “the average person” in studies.
Caveats aside, though, it’s clear that in general, Paleo provides a healthy mix of macronutrients for a wide variety of recreational activities.
- Protein: eating animal foods at every meal automatically gives you plenty of protein without worrying it.
- Fat: high-quality fats are a Paleo specialty!
- Carbs: you do not have to “cheat” on Paleo with carbs, because Paleo is not a low-carb diet. Enjoy your potatoes!
Don’t stress the details. Complicated schemes of nutrient timing might make the difference between an Olympic gold and an Olympic silver, but they just aren’t necessary for most recreational athletes. Eat enough food; eat enough protein, fat, and carbohydrates without obsessing over any one of them, and spend your time thinking about more important things – like how much fun you’re having moving your body around and seeing what you can do.