As the triathlon season heats up many athletes want to trim down and become more lean to improve performance and self esteem. Eliminating carbohydrate is a common approach, but typically not sustainable for most half and full ironman distance athletes during their highest volume training periods. Removing that extra pint of ice cream, sugar-laden cereal or nightly cookie binge is a respectable goal, however, when it comes to removing an entire food group, one should be clear on what foods and nutrients they are actually eliminating.
The term “low carbohydrate” is technically defined by a diet that is low in fruit, starchy vegetables, and grains. However, most people actually visualize a “low carbohydrate” diet as one that eliminates processed foods. Since most people eat a substantial amount of processed grains (bagels, breads, pastries), there is a generalized mindset of bad carbs and, therefore, one should be on a low carb diet. Instead, most people should follow a diet that consists of non-processed foods. Processed food (listed as “enriched” in the ingredients) does not contain adequate nutrients, and tends to cause sharp spikes in blood sugar. Unprocessed grains like amaranth, quinoa, millet, buckwheat and whole oats contain B vitamins (riboflavin, thiamin, pantothenic acid, B6), folic acid, fiber, and fatty acids. Clarifying the difference in terminology between “low carbohydrate” and processed grains is one of the first discussions I have with someone who is having difficulty losing weight and is interested in cutting out carbohydrates because they “know someone” who had success doing so. When it comes to grains in general, there is also discussion on acidity and inflammation from consuming them. In general, ancient grains (older than 7000 B.C) are the best ones to consume (e.g. einkorn, emmer) because they have less than half the number of chromosomes (e.g. 14 compared to 42) than modern day wheat, making them less prone to causing allergies. Acid versus alkaline foods is beyond the scope of this article.
The most popular eating plan that focuses on unprocessed foods is the Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain. The Paleo Diet has become mainstream due to the endorsement of Cross-Fit. The Paleo Diet for Athletes, written with Joe Friel, targets endurance athletes. The scope of the Paleo Diet is too comprehensive to fit into this article, but if you want to follow it, be prepared to be prepared! You have to make time to create most of your meals, which could be a very significant lifestyle change. You will need to increase the servings of fruits and vegetables you consume on a daily basis to fuel and recover from your workouts. In addition, purchasing lean sources of protein can be costly, and, if you are vegan or vegetarian, the ability to consume complete proteins is limited if you avoid rice, barley, quinoa, or legumes. The Paleo Diet for athletes does allow carbohydrates in the form of sports supplements if consumed before, during or after your training. This is because if your goal is performance, nothing beats a variety of simple sugars for fuel. If you are extremely focused on a “clean” diet and will not eat anything in a wrapper, there are whole food options available for your workout duration. However, it must be noted that if the majority of your normal intake of food is not processed, using sports supplements during your training, isn’t “unhealthy.” There are limits to what each person’s digestive tract can handle, and many cannot break down and assimilate the fuel necessary from whole foods during their training.
Athletes who have had difficulty implementing a form of the Paleo Diet struggle with finding balance between consuming enough carbs to fuel their workouts (and feeling satiated) and feeling like they are not deviating from the guidelines too much. People tend to restrict too much, not feel well, and then binge on carbs. Food is personal and if you have a love/hate relationship with sweets (or reward-centered eating), the Paleo eating paradigm may not be the right fit for you at this time.
Instead, focus on replacing one or two processed meals (frozen dinners, fast-food) or snacks with unprocessed (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds) foods and begin to reconnect with your food.