Is a Paleo Diet Safe (Or Smart) For a Cyclist?

“My wife is a light eater. As soon as it’s light, she starts to eat.”
– Henny Youngman

In November of 2015, my wife stated she wanted to make a somewhat drastic change to her diet. Her skin was acting up and dermatology visits were amounting to a whole lot of nothing in terms of progress. Her employer at the time swore by adopting the Paleo lifestyle and she figured cutting out dairy, as this diet requires, may help with her skin situation.

What did all of this mean to me? Well, as the human who makes 98.76% of all meals consumed in our house, I needed to learn the rules of this new food consumption plan.

The general premise of this eating regime is–for the most part–the removal of dairy, grains, processed foods, and refined sugars.

No more putting in full cups of sugar when baking. Instead, its honey or pure maple syrup. No more using enriched flour. Instead, we now use coconut flour. And so forth.

The big draw to eating Paleo for my wife was that it avoided counting calories and otherwise tracking of what she was eating. My wife had tried in the past to track her calorie intake and like most humans, found this to be cumbersome and difficult to maintain. I still adhere to this method as I highlighted in my Bike Gear and Tech post, discussing my use of the MyFitnessPal app.

So my wife decided to try this new method of eating by adhering to a set of rules and letting that dictate what and how much to eat. I remember one day a few months after she started this process, she wanted a “cheat” day, a classic staple for anyone on a diet, and so we got pizza. She ate a slice and a half and within 20 minutes, she was complaining of feeling bloated and uncomfortably full, something she had not experienced in months of eating Paleo. She had felt satisfied after a big Paleo dinner but never full to the point of discomfort and that was both a huge wakeup call and a now tangible reason to keep going.

One of my favorite aspects of this change in lifestyle for my wife is how it provides me with a chance to experiment with cooking. I try to make one new dish a week, something we have never had before. One challenge is snack food because almost everything you want to buy is going to be processed so she is relegated to raw almonds, frozen grapes, or Larabars, which are mainly date based. The problem with Larabars are the exorbitant cost. But, if you have a food processor, you can literally throw some dates in with dried apples and wind up with an apple pie Larabar knockoff in no time.

One of my favorite challenges was conforming an entire Thanksgiving dinner around what my wife can actually eat because the American version of Thanksgiving is almost 100% not Paleo friendly. And with a mass of non-Paleo friends coming over for dinner, this was going to be tricky.

Sub in sweet potato muffins for biscuits, ground beef-based stuffing in place of bread stuffing, and deviled eggs with homemade paleo mayonnaise and we were off to a delicious start. Not everything went according to plan, however: Thanksgiving pie. Well, pie requires flour and loads of sugar for the filling so how to get around that for a Paleo-friendly pie. Enter in a hazelnut crust and a pumpkin pie filling with honey instead of cane sugar. The verdict: Awful. I was forced to consume the pie mostly by myself because I wasn’t about to waste that much food and it required copious amounts of cool whip to make it salvageable. Bottom line is the switch my wife made has resulted in much more creative cooking outings on my part.

Why is any of this relevant to me and to biking? I do not adhere to this eating style as stringently as my wife does. My biggest “crime” is drinking 1% milk. Although I do not mind cashew or almond milk, I can power through two gallons of milk a week so using those alternatives can get expensive. I also eat oats and chocolate and regular yogurt and standard granola bars and cereal.

51+aFBvAcuL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_My main meals, however, are very much in the Paleo realm with mango chicken salads and salmon with maple bacon butternut squash and coconut flour pancakes, but I think it would be very difficult to maintain the strict Paleo lifestyle and still get enough carbs on a daily basis and during long rides. In fact, articles about the Paleo lifestyle may highlight more of a need to tweak the process around biking. One particular article points out the need to consume more glycogen than is generally possible through the consumption of fruits and vegetables. However, others have written books on how to maintain the Paleo lifestyle while maintaining athletic performance. As the book describes, the general premise of the Paleo diet results in a lower carb intake than what athletes are told to consume.

One of my favorite stats from The Paleo Diet for Athletes is the amount of sugar the U.S. consumes, which the authors state is 152 pounds and 18.6 percent of daily caloric consumption annually.

I will not go into all the details the book has to offer as to why the Paleo lifestyle is sustainable for athletes, but I do think it is worth a read. The book puts forth a dietary notion that fights against the current dogma of carbs all day every day and so may seem like such an attempt is not feasible.

One current issue I have with switching to a full-blown Paleo rule book while training to the extent that I am lies in my concern about VO2 Max. The (hopefully not too) common effect of “running out of energy” is called “bonking” in the cycling world. This happens when your body runs out of carbohydrates so only fat stores are left to burn. Although we humans have enough fat calories to sustain us for hours and hours, we cannot perform to the same level as when we have carbohydrates on board. One measure of performance is VO2 Max, which is how much oxygen one can use while exercising. Superior athletes are often working to increase their VO2 Max, allowing them to perform better for longer. When you run out of burnable calories and switch to burning fat, your VO2 Max max suffers and may be cut in half. Therefore, once you pass a certain amount of time of intense exercising without supplementing your glycogen stores, you will “bonk.” That is why eating while biking is so important.

The body can use about 60 grams of ingested carbs per hour to restore glycogen within the muscles. In fact, so much emphasis is put on carbohydrate replacement that including protein may not even be necessary, according to some. You can find numerous articles highlighting the exact amount of carbs you should be eating per hour while biking, most putting it at 30-60 grams per hour. In total caloric intake, the estimates change based on how long you plan to bike with some clocking in at up to 400-800 calories per hour if you are biking over 6 hours. The quest now becomes how to consume that much for hour after hour while adhering to the Paleo rules.

In my current state, I like the idea of maintaining my Paleo-ish lifestyle with tweaks surrounding my time biking, specifically pre-ride consumption and consumption while riding.

The only drawback I have found from my quick glimpse at The Paleo Diet for Athletes is that no full blown studies seem to exist comparing a fully regimented Paleo diet versus the standard high-carb diet most athletes adhere to. The book provides anecdotal accounts, which are currently compelling, but not enough data. Another article provides only anecdotal success stories rather than experimental data comparing dietary rules.

My wife has her own anecdotal evidence of the Paleo diet working granted she is no athlete. She lost 20+ pounds in minimal time by switching what types of foods she consumes. Additionally, as mentioned already, she has noticed a big difference when she goes back to eating “normal” food in how she feels afterward.

But all of the anecdotal stories are not enough to convince me of anything. I hope to find a full-blown experiment comparing the Paleo diet to other notions of how best to fuel one’s body while pedaling for 15 hours a day.

Some studies I did find, including one from 1983, found that cyclists can adapt to a low carb diet without consequence and instead may enter something called “fat adaptation” where not providing a sufficient amount of carbs teaches your muscles to burn more fat. These studies do not directly test the idea of the Paleo diet versus a traditional carb-loading diet, but they do provide some idea for reducing carb intake not having detrimental impacts on cycling performance. Additionally, these studies do not make any claims to how successful this diet could be in the long term; whether such an eating style may be maintained for months and years through hundreds and thousands of pedaled miles remains unknown.

Until we have a better, more clear picture of the effects of this lifestyle on cyclist performance for long-distance riding, I will maintain my Paleo-ish lifestyle making my own energy bars with honey instead of refined sugar and dates instead of corn syrup and other processed foods.

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