Perfect Health Diet for Athletes

I’d like to bring a little information up from the comments so that it’s accessible to people using Search to find material. Today’s is about how competitive athletes should eat.

We’ve had several questions about proper diets for athletes, the most recent from Lindsay:

I was just having a conversation with a friend this morning about body fat % and BMI. She is an endurance athlete who is currently training for an ultra marathon. This means she is running about 15-20 hours/ week and weight training two days/week. I am generally the one to give her advice on food intake and so on, but with such a massive exercise load it has become tricky. She recently had her body fat measured and it’s 17% (pretty low for a woman). She was then told she needs to gain at least 10 pounds, preferably in the form of muscle. What is in your opinion the best way to do this for someone with such high calorie needs? Obviously the most calorie dense foods are generally grains, but logically that seems like a bad choice. Thoughts?

Our basic recommendations for athletic training diets don’t vary much for different sports. Diets are designed to meet the body’s nutritional diets; assure there are no nutrient deficits which might slow training progress; and prevent toxicity from too much of anything.

For people who are purely focused on athletic performance, we recommend carb intake of 500 + 50-100 calories per hour of intense training, protein around 600 calories, plus fats adjusted to appetite.

So for Lindsay’s friend this would translate to 600-700 carb calories and 600 protein calories and I would guess 2,000-3,000 fat calories daily.

Carb calories should come from our safe starches: white rice, taro, sweet potato, potato, cassava/tapioca, sago, etc., plus some fruits and berries. Rice is a good choice for runners, since with its low fiber content it doesn’t create a sense of fullness.

Protein calories should come largely from fatty meats plus a bit of whey powder. About 3/4 to 1 lb meat per day would provide optimal protein, plus maybe 100 calories whey powder.

Fat calories should come from fatty meats (ribs, bacon, fatty cuts of beef like ribeye, salmon, lamb), fatty plant foods (e.g. avocado, nuts), egg yolks, dairy (cream, butter, whole fat yogurt, cheeses) and low omega-6 oils: coconut oil, butter, beef tallow.

To make the fats more palatable, mix them into the other foods: e.g. make mashed sweet potato with coconut oil and butter, or put lots of butter or cream cheese on the potato. Put butter on top of the steak or salmon, if more calories are needed.

This should provide sufficient calories. If more calories are needed, just add more fat.

Some tweaks can be added to this:

  • Intermittent fasting enhances growth hormone levels and promotes muscle development. Fasting 16 hours and eating in an 8 hour window each day is one way to implement this. Another way is to implement a longer fast – 36 hours coconut oil and water only – one day a week. Athletes should continue normal training while fasting.
  • Carb loading before competition is often desirable. We discuss how to do this in the book. It basically involves very low-carb eating for a few weeks, to dissipate glycogen reservoirs, then extremely high carb eating a few days before an event to saturate them.

Athletes should also strive to be replete with micronutrients. We give micronutrient recommendations in our book, and I’ll put up a page with those sometime this week.

Leave a comment ?

17 Comments.

  1. Paul,

    Thank you for this post. There is a lot of press about hydration for athletes..Gatorade, etc..I was wondering your thoughts about coconut water (Vita Coco, etc..) as a drink after an intense practice session, I really enjoy it yet wonder about if the sugar content is an issue. Also, your thoughts on bone broth as a source of calcium and other minerals for athletes.

    Thanks!
    Devi

  2. Hi Devi,

    Hydration is very desirable for athletes. I don’t have a problem with coconut water unless it has too much sugar. In general, I would recommend water, but a little sugar is not a big deal.

    Bone broth is very good, we make a soup every weekend, often with beef bones. I don’t know exactly what the calcium and mineral content is however.

    We rely on a multivitamin, a few other supplements, and a generally healthy diet with a diversity of nutrient-rich foods to get nutrients into the optimal range. For calcium we don’t think the optimal range is that high, see http://perfecthealthdiet.com/?cat=53, and foods plus multivitamin are sufficient. We do recommend extra magnesium supplementation because water, the primary source of magnesium historically, is generally magnesium-free these days. I wouldn’t count on bone broth to supply enough magnesium.

  3. Love the blog, only been reading for the past two weeks. I been paleo on the strict side for nearly two years now. Love it. Anyway, I have a question about the carbloading you mention today. If one goes lowcarb for several weeks before hand (perhaps but not necessarily eating in a paleo manner) and then attempts to carbload before the endeavor how should one go about it? I mean in concrete terms. i ask because my experience has been that after living paleo (which has me eating generally low carb though im fit and don’t worry about %s too much) for so long if i try to eat a large bolus of carb (which would pretty much have to be from a grain or sugar source) my digestive system does not like it. it’d put me in a state not at all ready to compete. Love to know what i could do to alleviate this, though. Thanks very much -b

  4. Hi ben,

    Since our knowledge of carb loading is based on published papers, we don’t have the practical experience to know how common your experience is, and what steps are most likely to remedy it.

    However, here are a few ideas.

    First, rice should be the carb of choice for loading. Part of the trouble you’ve experienced may be due to pasta/bread/wheat based carbs. Wheat has toxins which impair digestion, so carb loading with wheat will leave a lot of undigested matter in the gut for race day. Rice should transit much faster and be digested much more thoroughly. Rice is relatively low in fiber and so the fecal burden shouldn’t be large.

    Second, for athletes anyway we’re not a zero-carb or extremely low-carb diet. (Low-carb diets can be therapeutic for some conditions, but usually athletes don’t have those conditions.) If an athlete is generally eating 600 carb calories a day during training, then a week of zero-carb should not eliminate the ability to digest rice or handle excursions in blood sugar.

    I think if carb loading is done on Thursday and Friday prior to a Saturday event, and the athlete competes with very light food on Saturday, then the body should be well prepared to compete in an endurance contest.

    There are also foods and nutrients which increase insulin sensitivity and help move carbs into glycogen. These include micronutrients like chromium (one of our recommended supplements) and drinks like coffee. So nutrient deficiencies could be a factor, and tricks like coffee drinking might also help.

    I’m not sure if these steps would solve your problem, but they’re what I would try.

  5. Thanks for the post!

    Do you go into details in your book about this:
    Intermittent fasting enhances growth hormone levels and promotes muscle development.

    Can you give me some links that also promotes this idea?

    Thanks

    Healthy Paleo Guy

    • Hi Guy,

      Our book doesn’t go into that specifically – it does talk extensively about intermittent fasting as a technique for enhancing immunity to infectious disease, because its focus is more on preventing and healing disease.

      However, Art De Vany of http://arthurdevany.com and Martin Berkhan of http://leangains.com have written extensively about the relation between fasting, growth hormone, and muscle development.

      Best, Paul

  6. This site provides us for perfect diet plan. Thanks…

  7. Hi Paul,

    What is the preferred form of whey protein: concentrate, isolate, or hydrolysate?

    Thanks,
    Mike

  8. I don’t really have a preferred form of whey.

    Actually, though I recommended whey in this post, I’ve recommended BCAAs/leucine and maybe creatine elsewhere as alternatives. Perhaps the best source of whey would be the whole food form — eg raw goat milk.

  9. We are Primal/Paleo with some raw dairy. Our 16 month old has had raw milk since just before she tuenrd one (and I started working). We introduced it along with nursing, and she gradually weaned over about three months, and has been fully weaned for about four weeks now. It all happened very naturally, as she was used to drinking expressed milk from a cup so there was no issue with her feeling deprived of the boob! She drinks milk with meals and before bed, and water throughout the day.Along with everything we eat, she eats a ton of sweet potatoes, peeled and roasted in bacon fat in chunks. She’s also a big fan of liver.We live in London, UK and are very fortunate to have an excellent source of raw milk; we buy it in the farmers’ market but they also delivery all over the country.

  10. Hey Paul,

    I’ve read in various places the results of a study showing that consumption of pure glucose leads to a significant decrease in serum testosterone, for quite a few hours after drinking the solution. In general, I subscribe to a diet very similar to PHD, almost always including high fat whenever I eat safe starches so as to lower the spike in blood sugar. The only exception to this is on the tennis court, where I often consume a homemade sports drink containing rice syrup & electrolytes. Is this glucose syrup that I drink without fat causing a blood sugar spike & thus a decrease in favorable hormones such as testosterone? Thanks very much,

    JW

  11. When you suggest the carb and protein increase if you work out, is there a time before or after it should be taken. I mostly work out(7am) during my fast and besides BCAA before a workout, I don’t eat until noon (4 hours after my workout). Does it work that I increase my first real food meal of the day, or should I add those calories to my last meal the night before?

    Jon

  12. Hello Paul,

    I was wondering what should be the best strategy for athletes that train early in the morning (7 am) and again later in the day. Considering the morning training session to be most intense, how should intermittent fast apply here? Is there a specific type of meal that can be consumed after the morning training that does not affect the IF (considering that you should eat maximum 2 hours after a workout) and at the same time provides enough nutrients until the “real meal” around 1 pm?

    Best Regards
    /Hugo

  13. Paul,

    Your book is very informative and I really enjoy your work. I am an elite triathlete a after the 2014 season switched to high fat very low carb (after eating low fat and high carb!). It was very successful and my aerobic performances were improving very much. I started to have all symptoms that you described of glucose deficiency. I picked up a copy of your book and added 100-150g safe starch + 20-30g/hour of training. All issues I had with glucose deficiency subsided.

    However, in only a few weeks I began having very intense cravings for sugary food. I also developed all symptoms of major depression, which was absolutely horrible. I was unable to train due to such a severely compromised mental state.

    6 days ago I switched back to very low carb and as soon as I was producing a significant amount of ketones, all depression symptoms lifted. It was incredible. However, I now struggle with my physical training program but now for physical reasons as I adapt to ketosis again! I am going through the same process I previously went through when first adapting to low carb intake.

    It seems I was in a middle ground of carb intake. I like this way of eating but I would like to regain control of my training again. I feel that my 2015 racing season is in jeopardy and could use any suggestions you may have about how to manipulate my diet moving forward!

  14. Hi Dr Jaminet,
    I notice this article is older than your second edition. I consume around 2,400 kcals daily: 30% carbs, 18% protein, and 52% fats while doing up to 900 kcal cardio workouts most days.

    Do I have a bit more leeway with my fructose intake in the light of the heavy training regimen. For example, a sweeter choice of chocolate than 85%, an apple here and there?

    Regards,

    Stephen

    • Hi Stephen,

      Certainly. Standard PHD recommends 1 lb sweet plants per day which is about 3 pieces of fruit on a 2000 calorie reference diet. You are at least 50% above that caloric intake, so 5 pieces of fruit a day would not be out of place. Also remember that the slope at an optimum is zero and near it the slope is very small, meaning you don’t lose much if anything by varying to slightly higher fructose intakes.

      Best, Paul

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