Paleo has taken the fitness world by storm and for good reason. The paleo diet has moved us in the right direction with many things. It has eliminated GMO, synthetically derived and hormone loaded foods. It has switched our focus to organic naturally grown foods instead. It has strengthened our bonds with our local farmers and promoted agriculture as well as encouraged us to grow more of our own foods. The paleo diet has also brought back fats, which support a healthy heart, healthy hormone production and more.
However, there is one area the paleo diet didn’t get right when it comes to athletes and athletic performance. That is the area of carbohydrate consumption for peak performance and recovery. Keep in mind, the paleo diet was originally designed for diabetic patients and people who live very sedentary lifestyles and not for athletes who are trying to maximize athletic performance. Just like any other diet, we can’t expect the paleo diet to be perfect for everyone.
For athletes, the extra fuel is critical to support high-intensity training sessions which demand a high level of output as well as the replenishment of glycogen for recovery. By eliminating grains, legumes and starchy carbs from the paleo diet, athletes are often riding on the border of a state called ketosis. Ketosis occurs when there isn’t enough glucose or glycogen in the liver or bloodstream. This forces the body to turn to blood ketones and breaks down muscle tissue for energy. Being in a state of ketosis in the short-term can be an effective way to lose weight, but if done often or too long, it can have serious health risks.
Athletes need extra fuel, which is best supplied by carbohydrate-rich sources such as grains and starchy carbohydrate. The problem with these carbohydrate sources is they come along with unwanted side effects like blood sugar spikes, gluten, increased inflammation and a high risk of unwanted weight gain, which is why they are eliminated from the paleo diet. However, there is a natural carbohydrate source that is eliminated from the paleo diet that provides the carbohydrates athletes need without the unwanted side effects that grains and starchy carbohydrates provide. That carbohydrate source is legumes.
Simply a legume is a dry fruit contained within a shed or a pod. The most well-known legumes are beans, lentils and peas. They are a great source of slow digesting complex carbohydrates, proteins and fiber. Legumes provide athletes with a carbohydrate dense food and a sustained source of energy that other foods in the paleo diet don’t provide.
Where fruit provides mostly a fast digesting carbohydrate source in sugar, which leads to fast rise and fall in blood sugar and unwanted weight gain; legumes are mostly complex carbohydrates and provide a steady source of energy for hours without the risk of unwanted weight gain.
With the average legume providing 115 calories, 9 grams of protein, less than 1 gram of fat and 20 grams of mostly complex carbohydrates per half cup serving, it’s hard to argue the nutrition value of legumes. Additionally, legumes are a cholesterol-free food that contains virtually no saturated fat. A half-cup serving of cooked black beans provides 32 percent, 15 percent and 14 percent of the daily value for folate, magnesium and thiamine, respectively and about 10 percent each of the daily value for iron and potassium. Most legumes provide at least 8 grams of fiber per serving or 31% of our needed daily value. Opting for legumes instead of higher cholesterol meat sources two or three times a week promotes healthy cholesterol levels and helps protect against heart disease.
Legumes also provide antioxidants which help athletes fight free radicals that can build up from intense training sessions and help promote a healthy body. Much like vegetables, brighter colored legumes provide more antioxidants, with kidney beans providing more antioxidants than blueberries.
For all these reasons legumes are the perfect addition to complement a paleo diet and deliver the additional carbohydrates and energy athletes need while keeping their diet low glycemic, free of GMO and synthetically derived or hormone loaded foods.
To read more about ketosis, see our article "Ketosis: What Athletes Need to Know" HERE
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