Friday, February 22, 2008

How much should you eat?

A reader asked me to comment on how much an athlete should eat. Obviously, it is not possible to recommend an amount that works for every athlete. There are too many variables.

For example, yesterday I saw that Deena Kastor, the American women's marathon record holder, eats about 5,000 calories a day when training hard and about 3,000 when recovering or tapering. She is 5'4" and probably weighs less than 100 pounds so that is a lot of food. But I expect she runs in the neighborhood of 100 miles a week. This is probably about 10-12 hours weekly of training, much of it done at moderate to high intensity (the more intense the workout, the more calories are burned).

On the other hand, I coach a 56-year-old triathlete/road cyclist who weighs in at 156 pounds. He also trains, on average, about 12 hours a week with a significant amount of moderate to high intensity and eats around 2500 calories day, I expect. If he was to eat 5,000, or even 3,000, calories daily he'd soon look like the Michelin tire guy. He basically has to watch how much and what he eats every day, especially in mid-winter when he is trying to get back down to race weight after the holiday season and a break from training.

In terms of how much to eat, I like the Okinawan way of being aware of food intake. I understand that they stop eating when satisfied and about 80% full. We Westerners tend to eat until everything on the plate is gone regardless of how we feel. And the portions we consume, especially in restaurants, are huge. If weight control is an issue for you as it is for many of my client-athletes, following the Okinawan example would help a lot. You don't need to "clean your plate." Stop eating when no longer hungry.

But it isn't simply how much you eat, but also what you eat. My pet peeve with athletes is that they eat way too much starch. Starchy foods such as rice, bagels, bread, cereal and corn are the staples in many athletes' diets. Such foods are great for recovery. Eating them in the meal following a long and/or intense workout is a great way to restock your glycogen stores in preparation for the next workout. But contiuing to eat such foods as a significant source of calories outside of the narrow recovery window is a sure way to pack on excess poundage. And to make matters worse, most starches are very low in micronutrients (for example, vitamins and minerals)compared with vegetables. Once beyond the recovery window, micronutrient intake is the key to becoming more fit and healthy.

And to make matters worse, eating a high starch diet upsets the body's acid-base balance which ultimately results in the loss of bone calcium and muscle nitrogen. The only exceptions are potatoes, yams and sweet potatoes which raise body fluid pH levels and help to maintain bone density and muscle mass. This is what makes these particular starches the best possible recovery foods. All other starchy foods (along with dairy, legumes, meats, fish, nuts and eggs) have a tendency to increase acidity forcing the body to react to maintain pH balance by pulling calcium out of the bones and nitrogen out of the muscles (Remer and Manz 1995). Only fruits and vegetables have a net alkaline (acid-lowering) effect on the body's pH level. There is a great deal more that could be discussed on this topic and perhaps I will in a future post. I'd strongly recommend that you read Dr. Loren Cordain's and my book, The Paleo Diet for Athletes, for more details on this important topic and more.


At February 22, 2008 10:10 AM , Blogger Larry J Moray said...


Thanks for your comments on diet, I couldn't agree more! The other issue that really bugs me is the widely variant view on nutrition during exercise. My concerns are specifically directed towards cyclists. My personal feeling is that you can't replace what you burn during a ride or race, but you do need to keep some calories, fluids and electrolytes coming in to maintain performance. This is dependant on the intensity and length of the ride of course. For me, anything longer than 2 hours includes water bottles containing a mix of protein, carbs and electrolytes totally around 300 calories (I use HammerNutrition products, but there are a lot of options out there). I go through one bottle per hour. I cannot remember the last time I 'bonked' and I almost never finish a ride hungry. (this includes hard 7 hour rides/races).

The thing that gets me is that my cycling friends don't take in much on the bike. Usually it's one or maybe two water bottles for a intense 2 to 3 hour ride, and for calories they nibble on 'bars'. I don't believe the solid food is digested/absorbed during this time frame and level of effort. I've also had people tell me that you don't need to take in any calories for the first 2 hours of a ride, but it seems to me that you don't want to create a deficit, but rather maintain a steady state of nutritional intake.

I'd appreciate your thoughts and commnets.

Larry J Moray
Chapel Hill, NC

At February 22, 2008 2:08 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Larry--I generally agree with you that it is wise to start taking in calories right from the start of a long ride. There are a lot of individual differences when it comes to what should make up the calories.

At February 23, 2008 9:30 PM , Blogger Jot said...

Joe -

So I've read your books and listened to you talk (in RL and here virtually :) ) about the acid-base issue.

I have to admit, I'm a bit skeptical. I appreciate that you cite your beliefs, which makes me less skeptical, but if this is such a big deal, then why are the sources from 1995 and 1997? Why hasn't there been any peer reviewed publications on this ln the last decade? (The cite in the article in '95. I think you have a second in Going Long that is '97).

I look forward to reading your future post, which I have to assume will now address some of this. :)



At February 25, 2008 7:06 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Jot--Good point. I'm a little lazy when it comes to posting all the refs sometimes. Remer and Manz was one of the first of these studies to examine the effect of diet on calcium, nitrogen and magnesium loss due to acid-base balance. There are quite a few more. Here are some of them...

Jajoo et al. Dietary acid-base balance, bone resorption, and calcium excretion. J Am Coll Nutr 2006 25(3): 224-230.

Kiwull-Schone, et al. Food composition and acid-base balance: alimentary alkali depletion and acid load in herbivores. J Nutr 2008 138(2):431S-434S.

Tylavsky, et al. The importance of calcium, potassium, and acid-base homoeostasis in bone health and osteoporosis prevention. J Nutr 2008 138(1):164S-165S.

Maurer, et al. Neutralization of Western diet inhibits resorption independently of K intake and reduces cortisol secretion in humans. Am J Physiol Renal Physiol 2003 284(1):F32-40.

Macdonald, et al. Low dietary potassium intakes and high dietary estimates of net endogenous acid production are associated with low bone mineral density in premenopausal women and increased markers of bone resorption in postmenopausal women. Am J Clin Nutr 81(4):923-33.

Prynne, et al. Dietary acid-base balance and intake of bone-related nutrients in Cambridge teenagers. Eur J Clin Nutr 2004 58(11):1462-71.

Remer. Influence of nutrition on acid-base balance--metabolic aspects. Eur J Nutr 2001 (40(5):214-20.

Bell, et al. Effect of fruit on net acid and urinary calcium excretion in an acute feeding trial of women. Nutrition 2004 20(5):492-3.

Buclin et al. Diet acids and alkalis influence calcium retention in bone. Osteoporosis Int 2001 12(6):493-9.

Remer. Estimates of renal net acid exfretion and bone health. Am J Clin Nutr 2004 80(3):786.

Hu, et al. Dietary intakes and urinary excfretion of calcium and acids: a cross-sectional study of women in China. Am J Clin Nutr 1993 58(3):398-406.

Remer. Influence of diet on acid-base balance. Semin Dial 2000 13(4):221-6.

At February 25, 2008 8:40 AM , Blogger Jot said...

Thanks. I look forward to reading some of those. That is certainly a more comprehensive list. :)


At February 25, 2008 6:04 PM , Blogger triblog carol said...

Hi Joe...thanks for your thoughts on this issue. I can vouch for the fact that the amount of food required is extremely variable.

Today, I rode my bike for 3:20 at an average speed of 16 mph on rolling hills, average heart rate of 142 bpm (Zone 2). Most calculators would estimate that I burned 2500 calories during that workout. I never believe those numbers, actually!

It's 8pm and I ate 2300 calories today and I feel slightly full right now, and have plenty of energy. I eat roughly according to your book (the 30-30-40 rule). On days that I only work out for 1 hour, I eat closer to 1500 calories. On the day I did a 1/2 ironman race (in 6.5 hours) I ate maybe 4000 calories.

I have never heard of the Okinawan principle, but that's pretty much what I do. Some people tell me I'm not eating enough food for my workout levels. But the truth is, I feel completely satisfied and full of energy at the moment.

I am 45 year old female triathlete, 5'6", 146 pounds. I am trying to get below 140 for my race weight, and so try to eat until I am "slightly less than satisfied".

At February 26, 2008 10:01 AM , Blogger Sarah said...

I can't believe I just NOW found your blog. I've been reading your book for the last couple years and have really been following your plans closely this year. It's amazing how following a plan really works. :)

Anyway, I'll be linking to this blog from mine and look forward to your future posts. I really appreciate the clarity of your writing and the great pointers.

On the nutrition topic, the differences in nutritional needs between athletes that you noted is really so true. Even in my fourth year of racing, I still have a hard time given the volumes of literature and research on the topic.

I find I fall more in line with the second athlete you noted, whose caloric needs are absolutely less in spite of having 10-12 hour training weeks.

I'm interested to pick up The Paleo Diet and find out more about the starchy food subject.

Have you heard of the Blood Type Diet? Do you have any thoughts on it? At this point I feel like I'm grasping at straws trying to understand what my individual needs are in terms of carbs, protein, etc. I finally feel like I have the workout side of things much more figured out, but when it comes to nutrition, it feels like there's still so many variables and I just know my performance could be a bit better if I narrowed some of those variables down.

Thanks again for passing along all of your knowledge on this subject. I simply can't say enough for how happy I am with the improvements I've made already this season and my first race is still 4 1/2 weeks away!


At February 26, 2008 12:48 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Sarah--Thanks for your comments. I am familiar with the blood type diet. Non-sports-related nutrition topics are outside of my realm but I've talked with Dr. Cordain, my co-author of The Paleo Diet for Athletes, about the concept. He points out that the research contradicts much of what is used as the basis of this diet. Since this really isn't our focus here and I'd be treading on thin ice I won't go into details. But it seems like he wrote on this topic in his newsletter once. If you'd like to check that out go to

At February 26, 2008 12:56 PM , Blogger Sarah said...


Thanks for the feedback. I thought perhaps it might be of some relevance in terms of eating foods that would be 'better' for one given their blood type, etc. and therefore possibly help contribute to the body's ability to maximize on the food intake.

Still, I'm not one to follow any sort of fad diets and tend to be cautious about things like that. I will check out your link and appreciate you taking the time to respond.

Thanks again!

At February 28, 2008 5:22 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have tried the Paleo Diet for Athletes several times and after about a week, I usually crave non-paleo foods and go off the diet. Also my energy levels feel really low. When I am on the diet, I follow it very strictly. I follow all the guidelines that I should in each stage very closely. I eat plenty of calories and the right percentages for fat, protein, carbs, etc. Is there an adjustment period of some sort that I must overcome in order to feel good on the diet, like 2 or 3 weeks?

At February 28, 2008 1:31 PM , Anonymous Blaine said...

Hi Joe -

I picked up Paleo for Athlete's and really liked it. I've been following for a couple days and honestly have been feeling a little sluggish during my workouts. At first I just thought it was lack of recovery, but today it just felt sluggish. Two questions for you:

1. I've been following for only 3 days, is it normal to feel sluggish then all the sudden better? In the book you mention that you didn't feel good for the first couple days.

2. What do you recommend eating before moderate workout? Since you're following it, what do you eat?

Thanks a lot Joe - I appreciate your books and blog.

At February 28, 2008 7:55 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Anon--Everyone tells me they experienced much the same as mine back in '95. It took me about 3 weeks to adapt.

At February 28, 2008 8:00 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

1) Yes, it takes days if not weeks to adapt. This is the hardest part.

2) Depends on what time of day the moderate workout is for me, what type of workout (bike, run, ect) and how long it is. If first thing in the morning and it's a short ride (I'm a roadie) I'll have a banana and a cup of coffee. If late morning (very common for me) I have a paleo breakfast. If afternoon I seldom need anything because I've already had bfast and perhaps a light lunch. Realize that my lifestyle may be entirely different from yours, however.

At March 3, 2008 5:20 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any thoughts on how differences in diet/work patterns between Paleo men and women might lead to different dietary needs now.. I came across some interesting research recently on the different carb needs of women in endurance sports, and wondered if this fitted in with your own experience.

At March 3, 2008 8:35 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Anon--I don't know the answer to your question or that there is an answer known. I've always been interested in that topic myself but have never come across any research that addresses it. I've not seen anything in working with athletes that would lead me to believe this. But it appears, for example, that paleolithic men and women had differing roles within their small groups. This in itself may have led to different ways of eating and survival traits that accompanied them. But pure conjecture on my part. And this is way outside of my small area of expertise so I'm a bit uncomfortable even commenting on it. Very interesting topic, however.

At March 4, 2008 5:49 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

THere are some references on the female male issue on a site I came across in table 1....

At March 5, 2008 8:45 PM , Blogger Sandra said...

Hi Joe,

I have been participating in a study with a local Boulder company, BalancePoint, to determine the effects of the cholesteral reducing program on endurance athletes. With the 10% protein, 65% + fat (olive oil, avocadoes, nuts), and 25% carbs I've found that I am okay for endurance training but cannot maintain high-intensity efforts. I'm at the end of the study and while I've enjoyed the weight loss from the study I realize that I need more carbs for performance and have been considering the Paleo Diet for Athletes. From the book I am unable to tell what the daily nutrient %s should be (I am 115 lbs, female).

What are the daily nutrient % guidelines when not in the pre, during, and post workout periods?

This week is a pre-race week for me but I'm thinking I may still have time to employ the carb recommendations from the book in time before my Sat. 1/2 marathon and re-gain some carb stores so I don't suffer like a dog having been depleted of carbs during the 14-day study.

Any feedback is appreciated and the book looks great!


At March 7, 2008 3:18 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Sandra--Eating a strict Paleo diet typically produces a high (relative to standard recommendations) protein and fat intake and a low carb intake. For athletes this would only happen during the day when in stage 5 recovery. At those times you may be eating 25-35% protein (see table 4.8 in book), 25-35% fat, and 30-50% carbohydrate. Again, this is only in stage 5 recovery. You will need more carb than that (and less protein and fat) in the other 4 stages daily.

At March 22, 2008 1:27 AM , Blogger Jo said...

I have recently read your book The Paleo Diet For Athletes and have been following your guidelines for the past few weeks. I have a question regarding the sample eating plan on page 79 where 150lb athlete who trains for 15 hours per week eats such and such. This athlete would be training maybe twice a day at least a few days per week? How does the plan fit in when there are 2 (or even 3) Stage I,II,III and IV in the one day. I usually train twice daily most days of the week and get up at 5am, train from 5.30am to 7 or 7.30 and then again at maybe 1 or 2pm and bed at 8.30-9.00pm. This doesnt leave much time for Stage IV paleo eating. How do I fit in all the vegies and lean meat that I need? I am feeling very full all the time. Any ideas would be appreciated.
By the way, I felt pretty crap for the first week, but am starting to feel a good now. I am only training once per day at the moment as our triathlon season has just ended, but will be upping to twice daily soon and am not sure about the timing etc.
Jo Australia

At March 22, 2008 8:11 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Jo--Training more than once each day may mean spending time in stages 1-3 and possibly 4 multiple times. This is necessary to keep carbohydrate stores full. But realize that not every workout demands stages 3 and 4. Low training load workouts require little in the way of carb level restoration. Assuming that some of your workouts are low intensity, low duration you would go into stage 5 soon after.

At August 21, 2008 11:39 PM , Blogger steve said...

Hello I have just read the Paleo Diet for Athletes book and was wondering about the subject of ketosis. There is no mention in the book at all? Is that topic covered in Cordain's Paleo Diet or is it simply that you are not supposed to enter Ketosis when following the diet? I train hard for 60 minutes twice a day and I work as a labourer between workouts. I don't reach the threshold for carbohydrate restoration in stages 3 and 4. I'm losing weight, workouts are dreadful and have no energy.
Please help Steve

At August 22, 2008 10:05 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

steve--It sounds like you need more carb. Training for sport isn't the only thing that requires energy. As a laborer you are undoubtedly burning a lot of carbohydrate aside from your training.


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