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The recent popularity of low-carb diet plans for weight loss has presented a challenge for athletes at all levels. Is a low-carb diet safe for athletes? What effect will it have on performance?
Yes, eliminating carbohydrates from your diet will cause the human body to shed fat, but doing so can cause a harmful change in your blood’s pH levels. In chemistry class, you learned that acids have low pH numbers and alkaline substances are high in pH. Your blood prefers a more alkaline pH level, but a diet high in traditional protein sources like meat can dramatically lower the blood’s pH. A highly acidic pH level can cause the body to lose bone and muscle tissue, which hinders athletic performance, muscle development and recovery.
The hormone insulin introduces another tricky complication to low-carb diets. Insulin helps muscles repair themselves and ultimately grow by introducing protein, carbs and fat into muscle cells. Too much insulin, however, and the body will start retaining fat. Carbohydrates cause the body to produce insulin, so reducing carbs will slow fat gain, but it can also lower insulin to unhealthy levels.
If you’re going to reduce carbohydrates in a healthy way, you’ll need to balance protein, carb and fat intake to:
- Lose body fat
- Gain and repair muscle tissue
- Maintain bone and muscle mass
With pH levels and insulin in mind, it’s possible to create a low-carb diet that works for sports performance. You can balance out acidic foods in your diet by including plenty of fruits and vegetables, which are extremely alkalizing. Think of fruits and vegetables as “super foods,” which are perfect for every meal since they add few calories and help balance the blood.
If you’re training or competing, you’ll need to get carbohydrates at the right times during the day through a process called “carbohydrate timing.” Think of your grain- and pasta-based carbohydrates as "insulin spikers," useful for muscle growth and recovery. Eat these carbohydrates only after a hard practice, game or workout to elevate insulin when you really need to it to put nutrients back into your muscles.
Carbohydrates are crucial for sports performance, but with a little preparation, you can eat a modified low-carb diet and still perform at a high level. For best results, plan your meals and discuss your nutrition with a registered dietician.