Thursday, March 3, 2016

Sport Nutrition: To Carb or Not To Carb?

Today I'm going to talk about how carbohydrates influence our health, sport and in particular our squash game. I am not a nutritionist, but I have always looked into and read up on different areas of food for improving performance, energy levels, recovery and just being healthy. A lot of us have lost weight from taking up squash and have packed it back on after taking a break. I naturally assumed this was the lack of rigorous exercise that causes the weight gain.

Some of us are predisposition to gain weight because of our genetics, but that doesn't account for all of the obesity in our society. As athletes we need the proper fuel to perform. Glycogen is the stored version of fuel in our muscles. We get glycogen from carbs, so clearly carbs are important to an athletes diet, correct?



I just finished a book my brother lent me called, 'Why We Get Fat And What To Do About It' by Gary Taubes (a link to the book below). I should first mention that I never read dieting books, I just am keen to learn more about nutrient. In this book it's discussed how it's not the fat or calorie content in food that make us overweight, it's the sugar and carbs (namely easily digestible carbs). I'm going to get a little bit into the details of why he claims we get fat. If you don't care to know the science behind it, feel free to skip the next 2 paragraphs!



Taubes discusses how this raises the glucose levels in our blood causing insulin levels to rise. He claims that 'the more insulin you secrete, the more likely it is that your cells and tissues will become resistant to that insulin. That means it will take more insulin to do the same glucose-disposal job, keeping blood sugar under control.' You see, too much glucose is toxic for cells so when glucose levels are elevated the pancreas excretes even more insulin to get the glucose out of the bloodstream and into storage. As this occurs (namely after eating easily digestible carbs) your cells are likely to resist the effects of the insulin because they're getting enough glucose already. These cells can then become resistant to insulin and then more insulin is required to keep blood glucose levels in check. As this happens you secrete excessive amounts of insulin and this is then stored as fat and the cycle continues.

He gives many examples of how avoiding carbs allows you to use your fat for an energy source instead of the easily digestible carbs which spike blood glucose levels, which we normally have aplenty of in our bloodstream. Humans have had little carbs and mostly fat and protein in their diets for generations until more recently. Now with the easily accessible amount of products, even if we believe them to be good, like margarine instead of butter, or skim milk vs. 2%. Are we getting healthier avoiding certain products which have higher a fat content? It seems that we have been misled to believe that we are not burning as many calories as we consume when really it's about the carbohydrates that are make us fat. So how does this influence our squash nutrition? Let's get to that.

I'm not here to promote a low carb diet, just to report on what I've read and my experience with sport nutrition. I took a sport nutrition course that I took while doing my masters degree and after looking into the research, carbs was the most important aspect of a squash players diet. The literature indicates that low glycemic and slow digestible carbs are better consumed before activity and higher glycemic and easily digestible carbs are helpful to eat after exercise to restore glycogen levels rapidly and to promote recovery. But now it seems that carbs are dangerous to consume especially excessively; can you see the dilemma? Here is my previous post on Squash Nutrition: http://www.serioussquash.com/2014/08/squash-nutrition.html

The book I'm discussing does make compelling arguments for why carbs and sugars are so toxic and how they not only make us fat, but also negatively impact our health. I think we all know drinking sodas and eating sweets aren't good for us. But now hearing that bread, cereal, rice, pasta and even fruit all have tons of carbs and will make us fat and will lead to health problems!

Can an elite squash player actually perform properly without carbs (or very few of them)? If we cut the carbs from our diet is it possible to have enough fuel by burning our fat storage for energy? I wouldn't say humans have evolved through the generations to perform extreme physical actives such as squash so it's hard to say if a diet from a few hundred years ago would be sufficient for a modern day elite athlete. My initial guess is that if we went carb free our body would eventually adapt, but I don't know to what extent. Taubes says there are many side effects to eliminating carbs from your diet and it takes time to adjust so if you are thinking about doing this please do so cautiously.

I feel like this book got me thinking about what I eat, but also left me with unanswered questions as to how it relates to sport. What do you think? Have any of you played and trained at an elite level without carbs in your diet? Do you think it's possible to recover and fuel properly on a low or no carb diet? Could an elite player consume only low glycemic carbs and recover well enough to play again that day? Perhaps there is a better method for measuring the number of carbs we consume so we don't eat them excessively? Especially if we don't even realize the harm they are causing. I guess this is why many retired pro athletes pack on weight later on; they've kept up with their high carb eating habits, but not the training regiment.

If you're interested in improving your nutrition, health and squash performance I recommend picking up this book, but also discussing the impact of a low carb diet with a professional before making a drastic change. This is just one book of many on nutrition and evidently nutrition is pretty complex for all of us, especially for athletes. I'm sure there are some examples of other athletes experimenting with a low or no carb diet, but squash is the toughest sport in the world, so I don't know if any other sports would give us a definitive set of answers. I don't have any answers for you today, just questions. Hopefully I've got you thinking a bit about this subject and you can do some of your own research. As I learn more about the topic I will continue to update you.

13 comments:

  1. Hi Chris, you should take a look at some rebuttals of Gary Taubes' claims by
    Anthony Colpo http://anthonycolpo.com/why-you-cant-trust-the-abc-to-report-the-truth-about-diet-exercise-fat-loss/
    Thanks for the great squash articles.

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    1. You're welcome and thanks for the link. I'm definitely going to check this out!

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  2. I have been on a Low Carb High Fat (LCHF) diet for over a year now and I have been playing squash consistently 5 times a week. I am not en Elite player by any means but like you, after having read a lot about how we've been sold lies over the decades (i.e. fat makes you fat), I gave LCHF diet a try. I found that was a great way of eating for me, I shed fat quite fast and felt healthier than ever.
    It's true that you have to get properly adapted and that could take weeks if not months but once you are it feels like having infinite stores of energy while when on carbs we are highly dependent on how much and when we get them before a performance. There are variations that suggest getting 25gr of carbs with high glycemic index before and post work out but after having given that a try as well I haven't noticed any huge difference in how I did on court. I feel like there are no absolute truths and each one of us is different. Some people might feel sluggish or lacking of explosiveness when on court, it just hasn't been that way for me. I strongly suggest watching the documentary Fathead as well.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the feedback. Good to know you've lost weight and can still play squash almost every day. I haven't heard of Fathead, but I will look into it!

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