Should Soccer Players Follow The Paleo Diet?

We all saw Tim Howard destrominate at the World Cup in Brazil.   Against Belgium he was a man possessed and kept the USA in the game with some breathtaking saves. He was moving like a cat. Guess what,  Tim Howard follows the Paleo Diet.


You may have also heard about Lebron doing a version of the paleo diet, and articles like THIS being published with NBA superstars like Ray Allen, Derek Rose, and Blake Griffin espousing the benefits of the paleo diet.

Sure, many World Class players and athletes do not follow the paleo diet.  However, the paleo diet is more than just a diet or a word that gets thrown around.  It is also a lot more than a low carb diet.  When one talks about paleo,  certain questions come to the forefront of the conversation.  Questions like what did our ancestors eat? What was their overall lifestyle in terms of sleeping, moving, and community?  What kind of health conditions did our ancestors face compared to what we see today? How does what we put into our mouths versus what our ancestors put into their mouths impact our general health, our brain health, and our well being as not just athletes, but as human beings?  Paleo on a whole considers all of those topics, but for this article I will focus mostly on food.  

When most people think of the Paleo diet, they tend to associate it with the word "caveman". The  debates continue about what our ancestors did and didn't eat, and whether or not they would have gotten cancer or other "man-made" diseases  if they weren't eaten by lions, tigers, and bears.  Personally, when I follow a version of the Paleo diet, I feel great, drop some excess L Bees, and my entire outlook on life seems to get better. It could be the placebo effect taking place, but after getting on and off the Paleo train so many times I think there is definitely something to it.

A lot of the top dawgs of paleo have their own ideas about what consists of the paleo diet and what doesn't.   Some paleoists include dairy, and  some don't.  Some say some corn in certain versions and doses isn't so bad, and others have it smack dab in the "NO" column.  I think each person needs to find what works best for them and that will certainly vary person to person.   After reading a ton of books, articles, listening to podcasts, and  interviewing Mark Sisson, I think the main take-aways from Paleo are as follows:

-avoid  processed, artificial, and pseudo-foods  

-eat tons of vegetables

-emphasize quality grass-fed meats and wild seafood

-You must  "earn your carbs" as Charles Poliquin says

-when you do consume starchy carbs, avoid gluten and grains  and eat "safer" starches like tubers and roots and white rice (and some versions of corn) 

-make sure you eat enough healthy fat in the form of fish, nuts, avocados, certain oils, and the fat from quality meats (and even butter and full fat and fermented dairy)



Let us go into greater depth:

With so much emphasis on the need for carbohydrates in the form of starches, grains and sugars (breads, rice, pasta, cereal, potatoes) to fuel high level performance, athletes have been preventing themselves from transforming into the athletic monsters they have always dreamed of becoming. While some carbohydrates in the diet may be necessary to fuel the brain and muscles for high intensity athletic events over 1 hour, simple sugars (think Gatorade) and refined carbohydrates (think white rice or most breads) IN EXCESS, can be problematic.

Every type of carbohydrate eaten is eventually converted to a simple form of sugar known as glucose, either directly in the gut or after a brief visit to the liver. While glucose is a fuel your body uses for soccer, it is actually quite toxic in excess amounts unless it is being burned inside your cells. The body has a way of getting it out of the bloodstream quickly and storing it in those cells. It does this by having the liver and the muscles store some of the excess glucose as glycogen, the muscle fuel that aerobic exercise requires. Specialized beta cells in your pancreas send the extra glucose to the bloodstream after a meal and secrete insulin, a peptide hormone whose job it is to allow glucose (and fats and amino acids) to gain access to the interior of muscle and liver cells. But here‘s the catch: once those cells are full, as they are almost all the time with inactive people, the rest of the glucose is converted to fat. Insulin was one of the first hormones to evolve in living things. In the past when food was often scarce or non-existent for long periods of time, our bodies adapted to become incredibly efficient at storing fuel since the next meal wasn't a guarantee.

With excess carbohydrate intake, the insulin helps the glucose find its way into your fat cells where it is stored as fat. This action is also inflammatory to the joints and muscles and turns off muscle gene expression (muscle growth and fast twitch fiber conversion and performance). Many soccer players have been taught to try to add extra glycogen (stored glucose) before a game or tournament to extend the length of time they can produce high levels of work. They do this by consuming extra carbohydrates in the days prior to the event. Now you might be wondering if I am about to recommend a low carbohydrate diet for soccer players. No, I am not. I am however recommending a smart carbohydrate diet. Although for the general population I recommend a low carbohydrate diet with emphasis on consuming vegetables, fruits, lean meats and healthy fats, with hard soccer training your carbohydrate needs will increase. The key is discovering how many additional carbohydrate grams you need each day to refuel muscles, but also to keep insulin and fat storage to a minimum. If you don‘t take in enough carbohydrates you will not recover as effectively as possible and your next performance may suffer. If you ingest too many, inflammation and unnecessary weight-gain increase in likelihood. Depending on the length and intensity of your practices and games you‘ll need anywhere between 60-100 extra grams of carbohydrate each day per hour of intense training.

Overtime games or any intensive training sessions lasting over 90 minutes often call for added carb refueling during exercise. Drinking 10-20 grams of sugars every 15 minutes AFTER the first 60-90 minutes helps keep glucose in the bloodstream and thereby spares muscle glycogen. Any more than that and you run the risk of stomach upset. Sports drinks are probably the most efficient source for carb energy, electrolytes and hydration. Though a piece of fruit may work for some, eating solid foods during sport generally backfires.


There are many schools of thought regarding fuel intake after exercise ranging from not having anything for an hour after (to let phagocyte cells repair muscle damage that is possibly slowed by the ingestion of simple carbohydrates), to immediately eating carbohydrates and protein in a 3:1 ratio respectively. While I have tried not eating right after and I do find I recover a bit better especially in terms of muscle soreness, I think how soon after playing that you eat depends on how soon you have to perform again. If you are in a tournament and just played a game and you have another one in a few hours, eat as soon as possible so you have fuel for the second game and are more likely to be fully digested by the second game. It is true that immediately following a hard practice or game you‘re in an optimal period for glycogen refueling with much less chance of storing the carbohydrates as fat. The first hour is the best opportunity for glycogen storage, and many people give the ―ok‖ to refuel with simple (faster uptake) sugars. As you move past that first hour, it‘s good to include more complex carb sources. Ok, which carbohydrates should I eat then? It‘s best to avoid grain-products as much as possible when increasing carbohydrates.

Grain products include: • Amaranth • Barley • Brown rice • Bulgur (cracked wheat) • Whole-wheat pasta or couscous • Flaxseed • Millet • Oats • Quinoa • Rye • Spelt • Wheat berries • Wild rice

Some animals are clearly adapted to grain consumption. Birds, rodents, and some insects can deal with the anti-nutrients such as lectin, gluten, and phyate. Humans, however, cannot. Perhaps if grains represented a significant portion of our ancestral dietary history, things might be a bit different. Some of us can digest dairy, and we‘ve got the amylase enzyme present in our saliva to break down starches if need be, but we simply do not have the wiring necessary to mitigate the harmful effects found in grains.

-Lectins bind to insulin receptors and bind to human intestinal lining. They also cause leptin resistance. Leptin is the hormone that controls your appetite, so basically if you rely on grains too much you will require more food to turn off your hunger signal. This means cravings for more grain products that you don‘t need. Gluten might be even worse.

-Gluten, found in wheat, rye, and barley, is a composite of the proteins giladin and glutenin. Gluten attacks your small intestines by destroying the villi (finger-like projections on the intestinal surface) and leads to the formation of tiny holes in your intestines. The result is that food particles leak into your bloodstream and your body‘s natural defense system sees these particles as ―foreign invaders.‖ This creates two major problems: 1. you can‘t absorb important nutrients, and 2. your body seems to attack itself.

-Phytates are a problem too, because they make minerals bio- unavailable. Claims about getting all of the healthy vitamins and minerals we need from whole grains are ludicrous marketing schemes. Think about it, Lucky Charm‘s markets themselves as a healthy whole grain product! Food companies and drug companies will say whatever they need to get boxes sold off of the shelves.

Here are some recommendations for carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and other fuel sources...

Carbohydrates Daily life

The best carbohydrate sources are vegetables and fruits. Bananas and mangoes have a high sugar content that can spike insulin and cause fat storage, but on hard training days do not worry about it.

Pregame or training meal (leave ample time to digest) and as main meal after game:

1st choices - Sweet potatoes, yams, baked potatoes, yucca, fruit.

2nd choices –Ezekiel bread, rice and sprouted corn tortillas.

3rd choices - Pastas and breads, oats, cereal. During and immediately post hard training or game - Sports drinks, bananas, dried fruits.


Eating a high protein diet will help our bodies create and maintain muscle mass. If there is ample glycogen and the body is getting the rest of its energy efficiently from fats, protein will always go first towards repair or building cells or enzymes. Best sources (all preferably organic and not processed) - fish, lean meats such as turkey, chicken, pork, grass fed beef, eggs, nuts, cheese, whey protein powder.

Fats They are the fuel of choice for daily life and should become the balance of your diet. Fats have little or no impact on insulin and, as a result, promote the burning of both dietary and stored (adipose) fat as fuel. Healthy fats also help alleviate depression and promote good mood.

Fat does not mean the fat that comes from cakes, donuts, and other garbage foods, but healthy fats such as the fat found in: Fish, nuts, avocados, coconut, whole eggs, butter, olive oil, chicken, lamb, beef, etc.

Other Fueling Tips for optimal performance

Make sure you are not full of food when you are playing. In a study on rats, scientists could only get subjects to run the wheel in a state of hunger. In a fed state, the rats would not run the wheel. Think of our ancestors- when they were on empty was when they went out on the hunt and were most active. If you have not fully digested your food, blood flow to the working muscles is decreased and it is likely you will feel and be slower than if you were fully digested. Blood flow to the working muscles is crucial for oxygen delivery and nervous system function.    Personally, I play my best when I am hungry at the start of the match.

Here is a summary of research as well taken from

(1) A randomized controlled trial with the Paleolithic and the Mediterranean diet showed that the former was more effective in improving insulin resistance and heart disease risk factors in people with type 2 diabetes.


The average amount by which the waist circumference shrunk in four different studies, measured in centimeters. Note that the studies differed in their length.

(2) People who had to follow a Paleolithic diet for 7 weeks observed improvements in their fasting and post-meal glucose blood levels, an increased insulin response, and considerably lower fasting plasma triglycerides.

(3) Healthy-weighted sedentary people who had to eat a Paleolithic diet for only 10 days, after a three day preparation diet which included increased fiber and K+, modestly but significantly reduced their blood pressure. Moreover, their caloric intake was controlled - they were not losing any weight yet observing these changes! Such reductions are associated with improved arterial distensibility.

This means their arteries were better at expanding and contracting under increased or decreased workload. There were also large significant reductions in LDL cholesterol (16%) and triglycerides (35%),they found no differences in HDL cholesterol. All of this was accompanied by a significant reduction in fasting plasma insulin concentrations (good) and improved insulin sensitivity (good).


Average reductions in blood pressure following the paleo diet for the same four studies.

(4) A randomized controlled trial included patients with either ischemic heart disease, glucose intolerance, or type 2 diabetes. They were divided into a Paleolithic and Mediterranean diet group for 12 weeks. In the Paleolithic group, glucose levels dropped by 26%, while in the Mediterranean group they dropped by 7%. Greater decreases in waist circumference were observed in the Paleolithic group (5,6 cm).

In the Mediterranean group it was lower (2,9 cm). And the most interesting thing is, the lower glucose levels were independent of the waist circumference reduction. The Paleolithic diet also appeared to bemore satiating. They consumed less food during the day. This could have been a consequence of a 31% decrease in leptin levels in the Paleolithic group, and a 18% decrease in the Mediterranean one.

(5) A comparison of the Paleolithic and the standard diet for diabetes showed that the former produced lower average levels of glycated hemoglobin, triglycerides, diastolic blood pressure, weight, waist circumference, and a higher average HDL cholesterol level. Not bad when we consider the other is the STANDARD diet for diabetes, huh?

Furthermore, fasting glucose and systolic blood pressure tended to decrease more with the Paleolithic diet. It was lower in total energy, energy density, carbs, and higher in unsaturated fatty acids, dietary cholesterol, and several vitamins. Moreover, it had a lower glycemic index than the diabetic diet.


Average decreases in triglycerides in the same four studies.

(6) In a study that lasted three months, there were noted improvements in glycemic control (0,4%) and several heart risk factors in the group of diabetes patients who consumed a Paleolithic diet, as opposed to the group who ate under the guideline of a standard diabetes diet. The Paleolithic diet was also observed to be less energy dense and more satiating. The satiety factor seems to occur in a few studies and can play a big role for certain people who would report feeling hungry when trying to lose weight.

(7) Recently, the first longitudinal study concerning itself with the Paleolithic diet, was released. Loren Cordain wrote about the study on The Paleo Diet. To keep it short: a randomized clinical trial that lasted2 years showed the superiority of this eating pattern once more.

This time it was compared to a low fat and high carb diet. It was observed to be better for losing weight at three different time intervals; three, six and twelve months. It was also better for losing body fat and waist circumference at six months. There were also greater improvements in triglycerides. Due to a smaller sample size it was hard to determine statistical significance.

However, there was a trend towards a better systolic blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and LDL cholesterol. It also resulted in a healthier eating pattern; increases in dietary protein, less carbs, more mono- and polyunsaturated fats, and with that more omega-3 fatty acids, and less omega-6 fatty acids. These changes are known to benefit our health by reducing the risk for the metabolic syndrome disease, different types of cancer and autoimmune diseases.


Average weight lost after the end of each study, measured in kilograms.

The last study

“But eating Paleo is really expensive”

It is possible to consume a Paleolithic diet given the constraints of the USA's thrifty food plan, which addresses the problem of consuming a healthy diet given a budget constraint. A Paleolithic diet with the same budget is nutritionally adequate, the only shortcoming is noted in calcium, fiber, and iron. However, keep in mind that the typical Western diet fails to hit the RDA for any micronutrient for 20 to 80% of the population, depending on the micronutrient.

The constraint was set at 3,89$, if it were lifted to 4,25$ per day, it would provide enough income for a Paleolithic diet that would meet all micronutrient standards except for calcium – this would represent a 9,3% necessary increase in income. Despite a lower calcium intake - net calcium balance in the body also depends on the systematic acid-base balance. The high amounts of fruits and vegetables in a Paleolithic diet are proposed to result in a positive calcium balance, despite a lower calcium intake. A high protein intake together with a high fruit and vegetable intake may improve dietary calcium absorption and whole body calcium retention.