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Low Carb for Athletes?

Nina Anderson -- Athletes, and anyone who participates in an active sport, may be at risk if they follow a strict low-carb diet and eliminate the low-glycemic "good" carbs.

As we mention in our book, Low Carb and Beyond, a new trend in athletic endurance considers the release of fatty acids as an energy source (your fat cells actually have energy catalysts stored in them). If we exercise after a high-glycemic carbohydrate-rich meal (example: pasta, white bread, sugared dessert), fatty acid release is slowed and energy production is compromised.

However, if you eat a low-glycemic carbohydrate food (brown rice, green veggies, oatmeal, apples), prior to exercise, it will help to stimulate the release of fatty acids. This process increases the body's rate of energy production known as ATP (adenosine triphosphate), thus improving our stamina and shortening recovery time after exercise. It also helps to prevent the stiffness we get in our muscles after a long day of exercise. In order to boost our levels of fatty acids, we can add foods such as flaxseed to our diet.

Low-glycemic carbohydrate meals may be used for post-exercise (physical) replacement of muscle glycogen used up during exercise. Carbohydrates assist in this process and therefore should be eaten shortly after exercise, whereas protein should be eaten for energy before exercise.

A better course of action is to prevent muscle glycogen depletion in the first place. One of the key factors in recovery and maintaining a high energy level is to produce more energy containing molecules (ATP) and creatine phosphate. ATP is generated by the oxidation of carbohydrates, fat, and protein, and is used up in great quantities during exercise. It needs to be constantly replenished and depends on the burning of fatty acids for this process. Creatine helps to maintain ATP levels.

According to Dr. Zakir Ramazanov, Ph.D., who is one of the foremost biochemists and molecular biologists in the world, there is an alternative for long-term stamina. "Sports" nutrition experts are changing their minds on the need for high carbs during exercise -- good news for low-carb addicts.

"Sports and fitness enthusiasts consider carbohydrates as the best source of energy, when they actually are relatively poor sources. Glucose is considered a fast, easy source of energy. Fatty acids are the richest source of energy. The use of more fatty acids for energy production is far better than relying on carbohydrates alone.

Fatty acids are activated by L-carnitine before they enter into the cells where these rich-in-energy compounds are metabolized. Liberated energy is eventually used in the product of ATP (the universal source of energy generated by the oxidation of carbohydrates, fat and proteins) and Creatine phosphate (a reservoir of high-energy phosphoryl groups that can eventually accumulate as ATP).

"In fact, fatty acids play a greater role in supporting the energy demands of the body during long-term exercise than glucose alone."

During times of high physical activity, energy and macronutrient needs must be met, and fat intake should be adequate to provide essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins for energy. When more fat is burned, less muscle glycogen is used. This "glycogen sparing" effect aids endurance because glycogen stores are limited, but fat stores are abundant.

One of the most important tasks for athletes is to stay hydrated. It is important to replace nutrients that are used up due to exercise, stress, or mental strain. Water is the number one replacement item. Rehydration is extremely important to facilitate restoration of muscle tone and bodily function. Exercise can make us lose the equivalent of one and one-half gallons of water through perspiration. Marathon runners metabolize about three-quarters of a pound of fat, but they lose up to ten pounds of water weight.

A major part of the sports drink market is geared towards carbohydrate drinks with replacement levels of sodium and potassium. Carbohydrates are considered the principal dietary source of energy. If a sports beverage that is too high in carbohydrate content (normally glucose or sugar) is taken during exercise, it will increase the time it takes the stomach to empty. This prolongs the time for absorption of needed water for rehydration.

It is essential for sports enthusiasts to use a sports drink that does not have a high-carb content and includes more electrolytes than just sodium and potassium during the exercise period. The body sweats more than just two electrolytes, therefore, it is prudent to replace all of them. This will assure proper levels of rehydration.

Multiple electrolytes facilitate the removal of lactic acid build-up in the muscles, which contributes to the soreness and stiffness we feel the day after our workout. Replacing the glycogen lost from muscles in the first two hours after exercise is the primary usage for carbohydrates during heavy exercise. Our diets should provide moderate amounts of energy from fat (20-25 percent of energy). Consuming adequate food and fluid before, during, and after exercise can help maintain blood glucose levels, maximize performance and improve recovery time.

Since most people's diets are fatty acid deficient, it would follow that their structure is more prone to muscle breakdown. Carbo-loading (eating lots of carbohydrates) before a sports event has been a common practice to "shore up" the muscles. However, current research is casting doubt on its effectiveness and nutritive benefit. Maintaining a higher fatty-acid base will strengthen the muscles without excessive carbo-loading.

Nina is an International Sports Science Association certified Specialist in Performance Nutrition. She is a corporate jet pilot and has been an active researcher in the alternative health field for over twenty years. Nina has co-authored 17 books including Low Carb and Beyond, Cancer Disarmed, ADD, The Natural Approach, Super Nutrition for Dogs n' Cats and Analyzing Sports Drinks. For more information on low carb nutrition and other health issues, visit

© 2004 Nina Anderson

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