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Questions from An Athlete Dealing with G.I. Inflammation

By Loren Cordain, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Founder of The Paleo Diet
November 25, 2009
Questions from An Athlete Dealing with G.I. Inflammation image

I've read your books The Paleo Diet and The Paleo Diet for Athletes, and I find them very interesting. I am a 22 year old full time athlete from Norway, and my goal is to compete in the World Championship in Cross country skiing in 2011. Last year I got to represent Norway in the U23 WC in France, and now I put all of my energy in taking new steps towards my goals every day!

But.. I have a problem, that doesn't seem to go away. And it frustrates me!

After a lot of stomach trouble as a junior (18-19 years old), I've been focusing a lot on what to eat, and after reading your books, I think I've found the answer.

The doctors told me back then that I had an inflammation in my rectum (about 4 years ago). They gave me some medication and told me that it would go away, and it did. For a while... When it came back it got gradually worse, and I was pretty depressed at the moment. (My athletic performance wasn't very good either.) I became aware of what different foods do to your body, and a long story short, I cut out dairy products, wheat and rye. (I also started taking NDS probiotic.) Now I am mutch better, but not completely well. Sometimes I'm good, and sometimes I have symptoms again. And it wears me out!

Therefore I want to follow the guidelines of The Paleo Diet®, given that I probably have a chronic inflammatory condition, and see if I can take out the rat once and for all! I hope you can be so kind to give me answers to a few questions that I have:

  • You say in your book that lectins from grains, dairy and legumes may be a "villain" in my situation. When I train a lot, I need to get some protein in step 3 (food system in The Paleo Diet for Athletes). Now I have soy protein powder and pea protein powder. Is there lectins in these products? And do you know of any other products to replace them?
  • When I train alot, I need a satisfying amount of carbohydrates. Is it ok to use potatoes and white rice (and starch/syrup)?
  • Is corn ok? And corn products (starch and syrup)? I read something about avoiding corn in the book.
  • I've cut out normal table salt, and replaced it with Himalaya salt (I'm told it contains more minerals). Should I also cut that out?
  • I have been making bread from amaranth, quinoa and other naturally gluten-free flours. Do these products also contain lectins, or other bad sources?
  • And at last: Would it be necessary to completely avoid grains, dairy and legumes if I want to get rid of this plague? Or can I sometimes, for example with friends, enjoy a pizza or a beer?

PS: Is there anything else I should be aware of?

Dr. Cordain's Response:

Thanks for your interest in the Paleo Diet and I wish you well in your quest to compete in the World Cross Country Skiing championship.

Diet can have an impact upon athletic performance, and in my book, The Paleo Diet for Athletes, we show how a 1-2% performance difference can make or break whether or not an athlete places in a race. Gastrointestinal problems certainly can adversely affect performance,and as you have outlined in your case, a number of foods and food groups may promote GI upset. We do not recommend that dairy, grains or legumes be consumed by normals as well as athletes because of the numerous potential adverse health effects that these foods may elicit -- including GI inflammation and distress.

Whole grains and legumes contain not only lectins, but also saponins which adversely affect human gastrointestinal physiology as well as that in animal models. In my book, The Paleo Diet for Athletes, we recommend that in order for you to get sufficient carbohydrates in your diet you replace grains with high glycemic fruits including bananas, raisins, dates, dried fruit, and fresh fruits. Yams and sweet potatoes are also a good source of vegetable high glycemic load carbs. White potatoes can be problematic as they contain high concentrations of saponins which may exacerbate GI tract problems. Of all grains, rice seems to be the least problematic in terms of interacting with the immune system and GI function. Do I recommend it? Try it & see how you feel -- same advice for all dietary suggestions -- listen to your body -- it is the final judge. Corn and corn products also have been shown to adversely affect human GI tract function & you may want to experiment with eliminating these products. Endurance athletes in training may need additional sources of dietary salt to prevent hyponatremia (low blood salt) -- see my book for recommendations. Amaranth and Quinoa may contain high concentrations of saponins which as I pointed out with potatoes have the potential to adversely affect GI tract function by increasing intestinal permeability. These grains are also net acid yielding -- root foods like sweet potatoes or yams are better choices as are bananas and other fresh fruits and fruit juices. Food supplements containing soy or legumes should be avoided as they contain high concentrations of both saponins and lectins, which have been demonstrated in human and animal models to increase intestinal permeability, which concomitantly increases low level gut inflammation.

Yes, go out with your friends and enjoy a pizza and beer occasionally. It will do your spirit well. Life is also about fun and enjoyment. But know that when these foods become staples, your health may suffer. I suggest red wine and smoked salmon rather than beer and pizza. SALUD!!


Loren Cordain, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus

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