Carbs: To Cut or Not?

That is the question many athletes are wondering these days as everyone and their best friend seem to be losing weight on low-carb diets.

By Laura Smith

Laura Smith is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management.

Coaching Management, 12.11, November 2004,

For decades, sports nutritionists have been preaching the same message: To fuel working muscles, athletes need to get the majority of their calories from carbohydrates.

Lately, though, carbohydrates’ reputation has taken a hit as a new message has been gaining volume: Carbohydrates make you fat.

No one can blame student-athletes for being confused, but what do they really need to know about finding the optimal nutritional balance? And how can you help them separate out the messages that pose risks to their health and performance?

Debunking Myths
Hoards of American dieters are taking carb-bashing to heart, gobbling up 10 million copies of low-carb guru Dr. Robert Atkins’ New Diet Revolution since its release in 1992. Models and celebrities continue to add themselves to the list of those attributing their million dollar-physiques to cutting carbs, and a dizzying array of "low-carb" products compete for space on supermarket shelves.

So should athletes looking to lose a little weight consider low-carb diets? Sports nutritionists have a clear answer: no, never.

Gale Welter, Nutrition Counselor for the University of Arizona athletic department, explains: "Very-low-carbohydrate diets were designed for people who are very overweight and have insulin resistance. Student-athletes, even ones who want to lose weight, are incredibly unlikely to have insulin resistance. Their glucose uptake is going to be fantastic, just by virtue of their high activity level. These diets were not designed for a population of college athletes."

But student-athletes are certainly not immune to the marketing. "Student-athletes see their peers losing weight fast on low-carb plans, and they want to try them too," says Matt Radelet, Assistant Athletic Trainer at Arizona. "Along with wanting to lose weight to perform at their best, there are powerful social pressures to look a certain way, especially for women in this age group, and that can add up drastic dieting.

"Over the past year or so, it’s become tough to combat the messages they’re getting," he continues, "but it’s critical that we educate athletes about the risks."

Those risks can be both short and long term. A diet that severely shortchanges athletes on carbs saps their muscles of needed glycogen, compromises their performance, and can lead to health problems.

"Carbohydrates are the primary source of fuel for working muscles," Welter explains. "Athletes trying to eat very-low-carb diets are taking away their primary fuel and making their bodies jump through additional hoops. They’re at greater risk for losing lean mass. I tell them, ‘Sure, you may lose some weight—you’ll lose some water and some muscle—weight you didn’t want to lose.’"

"A very-low-carb diet is not going to give them the energy they need, so they’re not going to make the strength gains they need to perform at their best," agrees Susan Nelson Steen, Director of Sports Nutrition for the University of Washington athletic department. "By limiting their carbohydrates, they’ll limit their glycogen stores, which will limit their ability to exercise at a high intensity. And if they can’t train at a high intensity, they won’t be able to perform at a high intensity. In addition, they’ll be more prone to injury because they’re fatigued."

The long-term health consequences are just as damaging. "The biggest danger is that if you’re eating all protein, you’re cutting out foods like bagels, bananas, and breads," says Nancy Clark, Nutrition Counselor at SportsMedicine Associates in Brookline, Mass., and author of the best-selling Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook. "This means you’re not getting enough fiber or cancer protective phytochemicals. Every major medical association recommends fruits and vegetables and whole grains as part of a healthy diet—and those contain carbs. To eliminate them is counter to a plethora of health wisdom."

Caroline Hodges, Nutrition Counselor at the Elmira (N.Y.) Nutrition Clinic, who works with Cornell University student-athletes, finds that eating-disordered athletes can be particularly susceptible to the low-carb message. "Athletes with an underlying eating disorder are the most likely to want to severely restrict carbs, and that is a huge concern," she says. "Eating-disorder patients are typically very sensitive to serotonin level changes, and because serotonin is a byproduct of carbohydrate metabolism, a low-carbohydrate intake depletes the serotonin levels in the brain. With lower serotonin, these athletes become more depressed and more obsessed, and that makes their eating disorder worse."

Most sports nutritionists recommend athletes follow a diet that takes 65 percent of its calories from carbohydrates, although they sometimes advise going a bit lower for athletes whose aerobic output is low. Leslie Bonci, Director of Sports Nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, suggests that, to help athletes put this percentage into practical terms, athletes might visualize their plate as divided into thirds. "The protein should fit on one third, while the rest of the plate should be covered with carbohydrate-containing grains, fruits, and vegetables," she says.

Smart Carbs
But what can you do when an athlete is set on trying out a low-carb diet? The best approach is to ask them to first examine the type of carbohydrates they are consuming.

Many college-age students consume a lot of empty calories. If athletes can recognize which of their carbohydrates are coming from refined sugars and replace them with healthier carbs, both weight loss and increased energy will follow.

"When we tell athletes ‘high carb,’ they tend to hear ‘high sugar,’" Nelson Steen says. "I think the best message is, ‘It’s important to eat sufficient carbohydrates, but you’ve got to think about the kinds of carbohydrates you’re eating.’"

"Student-athletes tend to get an overwhelming amount of sugar in their diets," Clark agrees. "It’s important that we educate them about the fact that carbs come in many different categories, and they aren’t all created equal. You have fruits and vegetables and whole grains, which are very health-promoting. Then you have Twizzlers and Big Gulp sodas, which is the logical category for an athlete to limit."

Even foods that don’t appear sugar-laden can be replaced with more nutritious carbohydrates. "They may not be eating chips and cookies, but they may be living on white bread, bagels, and cereal," says Welter. "If that’s the case, they probably don’t realize how many calories they’re taking in, and that could be the source of the unwanted weight.

"Cutting back on simple sugars will facilitate weight loss without sacrificing energy, so I advise them to make some substitutions," she continues. "Instead of two big bowls of cereal, how about whole wheat toast with peanut butter and a cup of yogurt or some scrambled eggs? The traditional bagel with cream cheese packs 500 calories. Instead, they can have a piece of fruit and yogurt, a slice of whole wheat bread, and a soft-boiled egg for fewer calories than that one bagel. They’re always amazed when I point that out."

Timing Is Everything
It’s not only the quantity and quality of carbohydrates that matter for student-athletes. Timing is another key piece of the puzzle. In order to fuel themselves for their activity and then recover, athletes need to be eating carbohydrates throughout the day.

"With their crazy schedules, that issue can become even more important than numbers and percentages," Nelson Steen says. "I tell our student-athletes they need to be grazing. It’s really important to help them build frequent meals and snacks into their busy schedules because they’re constantly going through the cycle of getting fuel to exercise and then recovering from exercise."

Along with eating carbs throughout the day, nutritionists have suggestions for what to consume during the time immediately surrounding practice. Pre-exercise, athletes need foods high in carbohydrates along with some protein, Welter says, and during practice, she suggests a small amount of a high-carb food.

Post-workout meals and snacks should contain about 6 grams of protein, along with about 35 grams of carbohydrate, Nelson Steen says. "It’s also important for them to eat their post-workout carbs within 15 or 30 minutes, because there is an enzyme active in their bodies at that time that encourages glycogen repletion," she explains.

Educating Your Athletes
Getting your athletes to understand the science and not believe the hype can be done through workshops, handouts, and individual counseling. The key is making the information easy and convenient.

"I try to give my athletes very practical strategies," Nelson Steen says. "I give them recipes and quick, easy ways they can get fuel so they can feel better during practice and make the strength gains they need."

Knowing what’s in your school’s cafeteria can be another great way to help student-athletes choose healthy carbs throughout the day. "I have listings of foods that are in every dining hall and eating area," says Nelson Steen, "so we can talk about what their actual choices are."

Even if your educational efforts cannot include guidance from on-staff nutritionists, you can still inform your athletes with a simple message. "It’s all about balance," Nelson Steen says. "The next extreme diet they come across may look attractive, but it’s up to us to arm them with the information to choose reasonable behaviors that are going to be best for their health and their performance."

This article originally appeared in Coaching Management’s sister publication, Training & Conditioning.

Sidebar: Handouts
At the University of Arizona, Nutrition Counselor Gale Welter helps her athletes make good food choices through handouts she posts on her department’s Web site. Topics include "Fast Food Best Bets," "Pack & Go Foods," "Power Switches," and guidelines specifically for volleyball players. They can be found at:
‡ click on Online Library
‡ click on Nutrition
‡ click on Sports Nutrition.

One of the best ways to steer weight-conscious athletes away from diets dangerously low in carbohydrates is to offer tips for a healthy alternative plan. First, it’s important to encourage them to restrict weight-loss efforts to the off-season.

"The first thing I tell them is, ‘Don’t try to lose weight during your season, or you will end up decreasing your performance,’" says University of Arizona Nutrition Counselor Gale Welter. "It’s a difficult message to get across, because during their season is exactly when they are under pressure to improve, and they think that they can do that by losing weight. But to lose weight, they have to create an energy deficit, and that really risks decreasing their performance."

Then, instead of restricting carbs, Welter offers other suggestions. "I tell them to get very tight with the quality of the foods they’re eating, reduce their calories, and depending on their sport, consider increasing the aerobic work they’re doing," she says. "Athletes in power sports who want to lose fat may think they’re getting a lot of exercise, but they may actually need to get more cardio output going."

Welter also cautions against trying to lose weight too quickly. "If an athlete chronically over-restricts their calories, the body can over-ride it for a while and get the work done," she explains. "But they will eventually fall apart, because they can never fully recover until they re-fuel themselves."

Encouraging athletes to consider their body composition rather than their weight is another way to promote healthy eating. "Body comping is always my preference, instead of looking at a number on the scale," says Caroline Hodges, Nutrition Counselor at the Elmira (N.Y.) Nutrition Clinic. "It can be very helpful with athletes who think they need to lose weight, because it gives them accurate information about exactly where they are."

Often, a closer look can reveal that an athlete’s weight is fine as is. "If an athlete believes they should lose weight, I first ask them, ‘Okay, why do you need to do that?’" says University of Arizona Assistant Athletic Trainer Matt Radelet. "‘Are you saying that because your performance has dropped off and you think there is a connection? Or are you just saying that because you’ve gained a few pounds over the season?’ If we can’t make a connection between performance and the need for weight loss, we have to seriously ask why they think they need to lose weight."