Q: Lately, I’ve become confused and overwhelmed by nutrition advice directed at athletes. I’m not sold on Paleo because I think it’s too limited to support peak athletic performance, and my goal is to compete. Are there non-Paleo foods you can recommend for a competitive CrossFit athlete looking to improve performance while sustaining good health?
A: In an ideal world, there would be a perfect diet that equally promotes optimum health and peak performance. In the real world, unfortunately, that diet doesn’t exist, which means you must prioritize your goals before choosing the foods that best support them. If your goal is to train and build, you need to fuel adequately and be fully aware that the food choices you’re making may not be ideal for your long-term health. Performance-based recommendations for athletes can be divided into two main categories: dairy and starches.
This is probably the most controversial food group eliminated from the menus of people following a strict Paleo diet. But interestingly, some of the reasons that dairy is barred from Paleo make it a recommended food when performance is a priority. For example, dairy is considered to be highly insulinogenic (meaning it induces insulin secretion) and it can activate growth factors — two things that support building and recovery. But not all dairy is created equal. Hard-training individuals trying to build muscle and put on weight can benefit from consuming full-fat dairy from grass-fed cows, which seems to be less problematic and more nutrient dense than the low-fat version.
Many people identify brown rice with health and terms like fiber and low glycemic index, but it may not be the superfood it’s chalked up to be. When brown rice is processed for consumption, most of its structural layers remain intact. This does offer enhanced nutrition over white rice but with the potential consequence of exposure to “anti-nutrients” — i.e., potentially inflammatory peptides. For some people, brown “whole-grain” rice can have nasty effects similar to gluten — not to mention reports that rice absorbs more arsenic from the soil than other grains — some varieties of rice were found to contain at least 50 percent more arsenic than the safe limit per serving.
White rice, on the other hand, has been stripped down to endosperm — the carby, energy powerhouse. Many in the Paleosphere actually consider white rice a “safe starch” because it doesn’t seem to bother those who consume it and has been shown to have relatively low levels of arsenic. White rice also boasts advantages over brown rice when chasing peak performance because it provides essentially purified carbohydrates, so competitive athletes looking to make gains could benefit by strategically consuming it after workouts. In fact, being a high-glycemic food makes white rice a hero rather than a villain in the context of intense sport, in which stimulating insulin secretion after a workout for purposes of growth is favorable. Think about the common practice of using whey protein and BCAA supplementation to stimulate insulin postworkout — insulin equals building.
As an athlete, if you’re going to eat rice, it’s because you want and need more carbohydrates, not because you’re looking to increase your daily fiber intake or to consume something that digests particularly slowly. White rice (and white potatoes) also can help mitigate weight loss for athletes trying to support training with a diet of “clean” whole foods. This, of course, is in contrast to the average person focusing on optimal health, who wants to avoid huge insulin spikes and limit consumption of carbohydrate-dense foods.