Are you one of thousands of parents or coaches who have been told about the earth shattering benefits of a low carbohydrate diet?
Anything from cutting out carbs being a miracle weight loss cure to student-athletes having more energy than ever by completely avoiding carbs?
If you're like most people, you've heard the myths about how carbohydrates aren't a necessary fuel source and can even be bad for you. How about people mentioning that fat is a viable fuel source? Or protein?
Basically anything is better than carbohydrates, right?
Unfortunately, this is simply not the case for the majority of high-school athletes. Eliminating carbohydrates could actually be one of the WORST things your athlete could be doing for their performance-- and recruitment prospects.
At this point I bet you're thinking "Hey wait! I know PLENTY of people who follow a low carb/keto/atkins diet who have lost tons of weight and SWEAR they have more energy... so it should work for my student-athlete too, right?
Nope. Not the case.
I'm going to share with you how a student-athlete I worked with almost ruined his recruiting chances by following the wrong nutrition plan.
Earlier this year I was contacted by the mom of an athlete who was practically in tears. Their son had dedicated nearly a DECADE of his time to training and competing in his sport.
If you're like most parents, you have a good idea of what this looks like:
This kid did his regular training at school, games/competition, extra training on the weekends, putting together a highlight reel, studying for their ACT/SAT, etc. all with the hopes of getting recruited to a D1 college.
Sports was this kids life. And from what his mom told me, the whole families too.
A few months prior to getting in touch with me, they had been working with a new private coach who had suggested a low carbohydrate diet. They were told low carb was the way to go if they wanted to improve their son's performance and get recruited.
Something about being the best thing since... well, I guess 'not' sliced bread. But you get my drift. This athlete was being told carbs are some demonized food that will cause nothing but sorrow and ruin your performance and the only way to improve his game was to cut out most of his carbs.
Now being the dedicated player this kid was, he (and his family) followed these recommendations faithfully.
His mom said for the first week or two, her son said he felt pretty good. Great, right?
Unfortunately, it didn't stick.
What a low carb diet actually does to a student-athlete's performance:
He quickly began to complain of being tired all the time. He was performing WORSE, recovering SLOWER and even said he felt WEAKER during his workouts.
This went on for months, from mid-summer of his junior year to well into his senior year of high school.
Unfortunately, this was also a critical time for him.
He was trying to get recruited! And he was doing all the right things.
Contacting coaches, researching colleges, improving his grades/test scores, sending out his reel, etc.
His family even drove hours to attend specific showcase camps in hopes of getting some coaches from colleges he was interested in to see him play.
But he wasn't getting the recruiting attention or offers he was expecting.
At some point, his high school coach had called his family explaining how different his performance had been the last few months and asked if anything had changed.
They immediately put two and two together: it was his diet. This is about where I came into the picture.
After working together for a few weeks and putting together a sports nutrition plan for him (that was rich in carbohydrates), we were able to reverse most of his performance woes and even improve his strength, speed and recovery in a few key areas.
So why did cutting carbohydrates almost halt this athlete's college career?
Even the most well-educated parents and coaches hear a lot of conflicting information about diets and whats best to support their student-athlete's performance.
How carbohydrates work in the body
While in some cases, low carbohydrate diets may be successful in helping people lose weight and sustain a healthy way of living; research does not support that a low carbohydrate diet is the end-all-be-all of healthy eating.
It just so happens that some people prefer low carbohydrate and find it easily maintainable. Some people don't.
For athlete's in particular though, carbohydrate sources (fruits, vegetables, grains) are going to be their MAIN source of energy.
If your student-athlete is performing any type of high-intensity exercise or training then a high carbohydrate meal opposed to high protein or high fat foods are what is going to sustain their energy.
Simply put, the body cannot extract energy from fat (or protein) sources in a quick enough manner to sustain any type of moderate or intense activity. Anaerobic glycolysis (your bodies main energy metabolism source during most training) requires glucose/glycogen, i.e. carbs.
So if you want your student-athletes to improve their speed, have energy to go through their training and competitions and even to recovery properly-- you need to be fueling your student-athlete's with carbohydrate based meals (think pasta, rice, fruits, vegetables) opposed to heavy meat dishes, salads or fatty meals.
What happens if you don't eat the proper amount of carbohydrates?
Your athlete's are going to burn through the glycogen stores and be depleted. This is going to lead to things like fatigue, reduced recovery time, increased injury risk and worse performance.
All the things this student-athlete experienced despite being dedicated to his sport.
Need to rely on short bursts of power? Sprint to your finish line? Pick up your speed in the last few seconds of the game? Your body is going to need those carbohydrates for fuel.
The exact amount of carbohydrate needed for student-athlete's is going to depend on their sport, position and training length and intensity among other factors, but regardless, if a competitive athlete wants to play their best, then they need carbohydrates to sustain their performance and recovery.
What about other fuel sources though?
I'm sure some of you have heard people who claim they can burn fat as energy and still perform well, right?
This is particularly debated in the circles of people who look towards following a keto diet as superior. For those of you who aren't familiar, a keto diet is a type of very low carbohydrate diet (typically <20g per day; as an example, that's about one slice of bread) that people will follow in order to burn fat instead of carbohydrate as fuel.
Many people refer to this as being "fat-adapted".
The hope is that your body "adapts" to burn fat as fuel, and is less reliant on carbohydrate. The problem with this particularly in the content of athlete's is that your body cannot produce energy (ATP) quick enough to sustain anything higher than low-intensity exercise. Simply put, energy from carbohydrates can be used 2-4 times as fast as fat.
So unless you're exercising at an extremely leisurely pace and will never have an instance where you need to pick up your speed or intensity, a low carbohydrate is not your best bet.
What types of carbohydrates should be consumed?
Since student-athletes are still growing, they have very unique needs in that their energy and nutrient requires are much higher than even their non-athletic peers.
Consuming a wide variety of carbohydrates from sources such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains is important to get a balance of vitamins and minerals while providing the energy for them to play their best by providing key vitamins, minerals and nutrients necessary to optimize performance.
Have any crazy stories about low carb woes? I'd love to hear them!
P.S. If you're a parent whose student-athlete is stressed out or struggling with the recruiting process, click here to register for a FREE sports nutrition training where you can learn the EXACT process I take my clients through to get them from being second-string to a full ride.