I feel that a failure by some to critically evaluate the new trends in dietary approaches could be robbing many bodybuilders and strength athletes of the their best performances both in the gym and on the competition field.
Most people familiar with trends in the nutritional aspect of the fitness field have seen a shifting of views regarding carbohydrates. In the 80's fat was the bad guy and carbs were the macronutrient of choice. The lower an athlete's fat intake was the more dedicated they were to their diet. Things like pasta and bagels were staples of many athlete's diets.
Now it seems the views have changed completely on the subject. Carbs have become demonized for their insulin spiking and fat storage properties and are now to be avoided at all costs.
Athletes are now passing on the bagels and instead eating an MRP with a tablespoon of flax seed oil, making sure to keep their carb intake to a minimum. Proponents of low carb diets claim that one of the biggest advantages of such a dietary approach is that it switches your metabolism from one that favors carbs, an inefficient fuel source, to one that prefers fats, a more efficient fuel source.
While the scientific premise for this diet makes sense on the surface, upon looking a little deeper a few questions arise as to the efficacy of such a dietary approach for some, especially strength and power athletes.
Overview Of Energy Metabolism
As anyone familiar with the sports sciences will tell you, power and speed sports, along with the vast majority of activities in a weight room, emphasize the anaerobic pathways of muscular energetics, namely the ATP/CP and the glycolitic pathway.
In a nutshell, all movement is powered by splitting off a phosphate molecule from an Adenosine Tri-Phosphate (ATP) molecule, forming an Adenosine Di-Phosphate (ADP) molecule.
ATP is replenished initially by Creatine Phosphate (CP). CP is what creatine monohydrate turns into after being absorbed by the body. CP stores are very limited and can only replenish enough ATP to power less than 10 seconds of intense activity, like weightlifting, sprinting, jumping and other such endeavors.
After the initial CP stores are exhausted your body begins to break down large amounts of glycogen, your body's storage form of carbs, to replenish ATP. This process is known as glycolosis, and represents the glycolitic pathway of muscular energetics. This pathway can power movement for about 90-120 seconds.
If your sporting activity and/or a set in the weight room rarely lasts longer than 120 seconds, then what is the benefit of a metabolism that favors fat for energy over carbs? You would need to perform an activity non-stop for 2 minutes or more to allow your aerobic system to catch up and begin to be a major player in powering a movement. Only at that point would a metabolism that runs efficiently using fats be a benefit.
Endurance athletes would benefit from such a metabolism, but bodybuilders and strength athletes need something very different. We want a metabolism that runs best on the bodies hard and fast fuel source, also known as carbohydrates.
In addition, once muscle glycogen has been used to power a workout that glycogen will need to be replenished. Low carb diets make it very difficult to optimally replace spent muscle glycogen. This means that you will need more time to fully recover from your last workout or your performance will drop off. If carbs are so valuable then why has the majority of the fitness media given us the impression that eating carbs carries all sorts of negative consequences?
Carbohydrates have been sorely misrepresented in a lot of nutrition articles and books in the recent past. Like many other aspects of fitness, an author can take information, isolate it from the context in which it was presented, and use it to "prove" his point.
Sometimes, though, that information can be misleading in the way it is presented. When the whole story goes untold it is usually very hard to make an informed decision on a subject. Carbohydrates and their role in nutrition are a prime example of how some information can be twisted and taken out of context.
There is nothing inherently evil about carbohydrates. A lot of people get the impression that eating carbs will automatically make you gain large amounts of unsightly fat, ruining all that time and effort in the gym.
The fact is that the over-consumption of any macronutrient will lead to fat gain, not just carbohydrates. While products that use highly processed carbs, such as bread and pasta, can be deceivingly high in total calorie content, it is the total calories and not the carbs themselves that are the real culprit. It strikes me as funny that a few years ago the sports sciences community was using this same argument in the defense of consuming dietary fats.
The glycemic index (GI) is another way that carbohydrates have been misrepresented. By themselves some carbs can cause a large insulin spike and interfere with fat metabolism, but most people eat a variety of macronutrients with each meal. The proteins and fats slow down the absorption rate of the carbohydrates, therefore blunting any insulin spike.
Few people realize that the GI is a basically worthless tool when all three macronutrients are eaten together as they should be, yet it seems that the anti-carb crusaders will not pass up a single opportunity to bring the GI up.
Besides the fact that the value of the GI is questionable, when you add proteins and fats to a meal, insulin is a very valuable hormone. It is one of the body's most anabolic agents and necessary for muscle and strength gains. If you are going to use all of the insulin that is produced by the pancreas in response to eating a meal, it is not the bad boy hormone that will put those saddle bags on you in record time.
Yes, a large insulin spike in response to eating a meal comprised of mainly high GI carbs can cause fat storage. Yes, a lifetime of eating in such a manner can cause serious long term health problems. But not everybody falls into the segment of the population that needs to worry about such things.
Some people metabolize carbohydrates very efficiently and do not have the problems others do with fat storage and disproportionate insulin responses. My question is why fix something that is not broke? If your metabolism can metabolize carbs efficiently, why change it?
Those with sluggish metabolisms and endurance athletes may benefit from such a change, but others require something different. Fat loss is not a problem for them, weight gain is. Another thing a lot of people do not realize is that most low carb diets were intended for and researched using diabetics and endurance athletes. These individuals have different problems and dietary needs than a lot of bodybuilders and strength athletes. So why are these bodybuilders and strength athletes following diets not intended for them?
Putting It All In Perspective
Now, before those of you who have had great success using a low carb diet get ready to string me up from the nearest tree, let me say that I do think that the low carb diet is a valid and valuable dietary approach.
For some individuals, particularly those who have trouble metabolizing carbs or who have problems with insulin sensitivity, a low carb diet is most likely the best thing for them. The problem is that a lot of people, especially naturally lean bodybuilders and strength and power athletes, will not benefit from such an approach.
Let me also say that this is far from a call for "the good old days" when carbs made up 80% or more of an athlete's diet. It is all about perspective.
Bodybuilders and athletes started to read about some of the negative effects associated with chronic carb overdosing and then they subconsciously cut out most of their dietary carbs. I have spoken with athletes who thought they were getting plenty of carbs through their vegetables and rice. When these same athletes finally counted how many carb grams they were consuming, they found out they were lucky to get 150 grams a day, or less than 25% of their total calories.
Without realizing it, they had slowly dropped most of the carbs from their diet and instead ate a diet made up of primarily protein. Most sports science experts will agree that 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is usually sufficient for a hard training athlete to maintain positive nitrogen balance.
Normally this will come out to 25-30% of an athlete's total caloric intake. Any more than this is unnecessary and potentially counterproductive. Your body will have to expend energy to turn some of that protein into glucose for fuel and then into fat for storage if necessary, and that energy could be put to a much better use, like recovery and growth.
I also agree with the contention that a bodybuilder or athlete will need extra protein from time to time, depending on their training stress. But that is far from an excuse for consistently consuming 50% or more of your total calories from protein. Your body will respond very specifically to your dietary approach. In other words, your body will eventually adapt to the high protein diet.
This means that when you really need the extra protein to offset increased training stress, your body will not respond as efficiently as it would have if you had saved the high protein intake specifically for those periods of increased training stress.
Much like steroids, the more you use it the less sensitive you are to it, only in this case the "it" is protein. Several authors have touched on the merits of protein cycling and from this viewpoint the consistent use of a high protein diet is actually detrimental to a bodybuilder's and strength athlete's goals in the long run.
If you feel that you are always on a heavy training cycle and need that extra protein all the time, either learn to properly periodize your training or else get ready to take some time off when you eventually injure yourself and/or hit the point of severe overtraining.
Putting It Into Practice
So what does all this mean? I am not suggesting that you eat a ton of carbs. I am also not suggesting that you eat a ton of protein all the time either. I have said that I believe that a low carb diet is a viable option for some, and yet I have also said that I feel too many people follow such a diet.
So which is it? Well, my friend, there is something called a middle ground that few people find but is usually the best approach. In this case the middle ground is somewhere between having carbs comprise 80% of your total calories and having them only make up 20% of your total calories.
My personal feeling is that most strength and power athletes and some bodybuilders should have between 50-60% of their total calories coming from carbs, 20-30% coming from a variety of quality proteins, and 20% coming from fats, especially the essential fatty acids.
Why most strength and power athletes and only some bodybuilders? Strength and power athletes are worried primarily about performance and not physiques. As I pointed out earlier, a higher carb diet and the metabolism associated with it is more conducive to performance in events and activities that require a large portion of energy to be delivered via the anaerobic pathways of muscular energetics, as the vast majority of strength and power sports do.
Bodybuilders, on the other hand, are worried more about how their physique appears as opposed to how well it performs. While the majority of their activities in the gym are anaerobic as well, minimal bodyfat is usually a primary concern and in this case a metabolism that burns fat efficiently would be a benefit.
However, there are still some bodybuilders who would benefit from the higher carb approach. Who are these individuals? In my opinion there are two types of bodybuilders who would get the most from a higher carb approach.
The first type is the individual who is naturally very lean. This person has never had to worry about fat loss a day in their life, even before they started to work out. The reason for this is that they have a very high metabolism. Their training goals usually revolve around weight gain. In this case, the higher ratio of carbs will keep their metabolism from raising even higher by not forcing it to expend energy converting protein to glucose and fat. Besides higher carbs calories, these people also need higher calories period. Carbs are the easiest and cheapest way to get extra calories, and without the extra calories the weight gain will not happen.
The second type of bodybuilders that would benefit are along the same line. Although they have to worry about gaining fat from time to time, they still want to put on some mass. In this case a cycling of a higher protein/lower carb diet and a lower protein/higher carb diet would work best.
Keeping it in perspective, though, this is not a suggestion for the old tradition of "bulking up". There is no real benefit to letting your bodyfat percentage climb to unsightly and unhealthy levels.
If you are currently 12% bodyfat and want to gain some mass, give yourself an upper limit of 15% bodyfat. Once you reach that level you know that it is time to go back to a lower carb/fat burning diet. That way you can consistently add muscle and yet remain fairly lean. Too many bodybuilders today want to always sit on that fence between gaining weight and losing fat. Although it is possible to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, you will never be able to maximize either if you do not eventually get off that fence.
The main point I would like to drive home is to think about your dietary approach. If you are a strength and power athlete who gets 30-40% or less of your calories from carbs you might want to consider that a higher carb diet and the metabolism associated with it might be more specific to your sport or event.
If you are a naturally very lean bodybuilder or have been following a lower carb approach recently and are frustrated with your lack of muscular gains consider a higher carb diet to add some mass. The key word here is "perspective".
Somewhere between the super high carb diet and the super low carb diet is a middle ground that we should all seek to find. That middle ground will be different for us all, but hopefully this article has given you some fuel for thought and the motivation to find yours.