4 Tips for Paleo Athletes Trying to Lean Out

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This is a super-dooper radical guest post written by Neely Quinn at Paleo Plan. SOOOOO STOKED! I really needed this info! Read it. Love it.

It’s a balancing act trying to lean out as an avid athlete. And by athlete I don’t mean Olympian: I just mean one who exercises rigorously on a regular basis (2-7 times a week). And by balancing act I mean that for those athletes it can be incredibly challenging to cut fat in a healthy way while trying to keep up their normal activity levels.


Let’s look at this a little more closely. Say you’re a distance runner. You’re going along with your normal routine, eating lots of rice, pasta, beans, along with fruits, veggies, and some meat. Your running performance is pretty good and you really enjoy it, but you decide you want to skim some fat off of your belly’s edges, so you look around on the interwebs and find Paleo.

“Hmmm, this looks interesting! It seems to be working for a lot of people…” you might say to yourself.

So you cut out the rice, pasta, bread, and beans, and just eat the meat, fish, eggs, veggies, fruits, and nuts & seeds like you’re told to on a Paleo diet. But you’re actually eating very little in the way of fruits and sweet potatoes because you did your reading on the Internet about Paleo for sedentary people – not athletes.

In the first month, you start losing weight – pretty quickly, actually. The fat starts falling off, and your belly flattens out. You can see some definition in your arms and legs, and your old jeans fit. You buy a new bikini. You look in the mirror triumphantly, do some above-the-head fist pumping, and resist the urge to scream out in your best Ron Burgundy accent, “Hey, everyone… come and see how good I look!!”

And then you have to sit down because all that fist pumping made you feel weak and dizzy. You’re tired all the time. In fact, you’re not just tired: your runs suck. You have to stop and walk all the time now when before you could run for miles, and you get light-headed throughout the day… every day. You took a nap on a bench in that park you always run through the other day because you felt like you were running through oatmeal. You dreamt about chocolate chip cookies.

So what’s the problem? Paleo is supposed to be healthy and good for you, right?! It’s supposed to cure all that ails you, and make you into the leanest, fastest, meanest machine your genes are capable of being. Just like your super ripped Paleolithic ancestors. Right?

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But it’s not really that simple.

Some people can get away with eating chicken and broccoli and running a whole lot. Those people probably have quite a bit of fat reserves on their bodies. But most people (in my experience) need to pay close attention to their diet and their performance in order to lose fat and keep up their athletic performance at the same time. That goes for runners, cyclists, CrossFitters, rock climbers, and everyone else who exercises a lot.

Here are some tips for you if you’re an athlete on Paleo.

1. Eat enough food. Before you switch to Paleo, record how much you’re eating for a few days using an online diet tracking tool like www.myfitnesspal.com. Get a baseline for how many calories, carbs, fat, and protein you’re eating. Then record your diet for the first week or so of going Paleo. Try not to make drastic changes to the amount of food you’re eating, unless you find out that you’ve been grossly overeating. Feeling weak, dizzy, and tired can all be signs of detoxing in the first couple weeks on Paleo, yes, but they can also be signs of not eating enough food, and in particular not eating enough carbohydrates for your needs.

2. If you’re craving carbs, you probably need more carbs. As an athlete, you’re going to want to start out with about 100 grams of carbs a day. Read this article to find out what that looks like. Basically, you’re looking at veggies (starchy and non-starchy), fruits, and even Paleo sweeteners like honey for people who are very active. Beyond those 100 grams of base carbs, you’ll want at least 50 grams of carbs for every hour of working out you do that day.

I know, I know: carbs are what make us fat, right? Well, yes and no. Eating too many carbs, and eating carbs that your body is probably sensitive to (grains, gluten) are what make us fat. Just try this whole moderation thing out. You may be surprised with your results. A lot of people who go too low carb fail at leaning out because it stresses their bodies out too much.

Read this article by Mark Sisson for more info on fueling properly with carbs as an athlete. If you’re diabetic, just ignore this. You’re different.

3. Eat more fat than you ever have in your life. This is assuming you’ve been fat-phobic your whole life, using non-stick pans instead of actual non-stick fat, and opting for fat-free options instead of the real thing. The point here is to get your body using fat as fuel very efficiently, as opposed to almost exclusively using carbs for fuel, so that you can cut back on your carbohydrate addiction intake and lose body fat. So olive oil, bacon, lard, tallow, egg yolks (don’t throw them out!), coconut oil, avocados, and animal fat in general are all going to be your friends here. Don’t be scared. Embrace the fat – it will fuel you.

4. Listen to your body! Eat when you’re hungry. Don’t eat when you’re not hungry. Eat what your body tells you to eat. If your body says it wants a steak at 10 at night, eat some steak. If your body says it wants to drink a can of coconut milk, give it what it wants. And if your body says it wants a Snickers bar, eat some Paleo muffins instead.

You’ll figure out what your body needs soon enough. This all just takes some time to experiment with, but if you stick with it and take the time to learn about your body’s needs, you will indeed be the leanest, fastest, meanest machine your genes are capable of being.

Neely QuinnNeely is a nutrition therapist who works at PaleoPlan.com, which offers a Paleo meal planning service, ebooks that she wrote, and a fitness plan. At Paleo Plan she sees clients, writes, answers people’s Paleo questions, and does marketing. She’s also the co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Eating Paleo. She’s seen amazing health and athletic improvements in herself since she started eating Paleo in 2009, and has passionately endorsed it since then. She lives in Boulder, CO with her husband, where she rock climbs and enjoys the mountains on a regular basis. To read her full bio on Paleo Plan, go here.