Should Athletes Use Low-Carb Diets?



The debate between low-carb diets and low-fat diets has been raging tornado topic since the founding of the fitness industry.  What is the debate all about? Simple.  Which one works the best?  In the real world, outside of academia, the reality is that they both work.  Every diet works.  At least temporarily, that is.  Unfortunately, that is the problem.  Since all diets work nobody can find out which one to use for a specific situation.  Therefore, the question should be:

If all diets work, how do I know which one to use for my goals?

That is the right question! Now where finally getting somewhere.  In particular we want to know about athletes.  Should athletes use low-carb diets?  In this post I hope to share some knowledge and enlighten the reader on this topic.

The Breakdown Of Carbohydrates

What are carbohydrates (CHO)?  They are essentially sugars.  CHO are made up of several types of sugars.  There are simple CHO and Complex CHO.  Let’s look at these in more detail:

Simple CHO are sugar molecules in their smallest form (1-2 molecules) and consist of the molecules glucose, fructose, galactose, sucrose and lactose.  These types of sugars are easily digested into the body and cause a sharp spike in insulin levels, which can cause a “sugar crash”.  Simple CHO are best consumed during exercise and immediately after exercise.

Complex CHO are big long strands of sugar molecules that are strung together and take longer to digest than the simple sugars listed above.  There are two types of complex CHO, starch and fiber.  Starch is made of strands of glucose molecules; these are found in foods like bread, pasta, rice and potatoes.  Fiber is made up of a sugar molecule called cellulose.  The human body posses no enzyme to break down this sugar molecule.  Therefore, these types of complex CHO provide no calories whatsoever.  Complex CHO are energy dense nutrients and should be consumed throughout the day for athletic populations, especially strength/power athletes.

The Importance Of Carbohydrates

  1. CHO, particularly glucose, is essential to fueling the brain and nervous system.
  2. CHO is stored in the muscle as Glycogen.
  3. CHO is the only fuel that can be used for anaerobic exercise.
  4. CHO is necessary for optimum thyroid hormone function.
  5. CHO helps to balance the free testosterone/cortisol ratio.

Obviously CHO play an important role in the body, but they are especially important for anaerobic athletes.  Remember, CHO is the only fuel that can be used for anaerobic (strength/power) exercise.  Which begs the question, why would an athlete want to use a low carb diet?

Reasons Athletes Use Low-Carb Diets

To Cut Weight

This is probably the most common of all the reasons an athlete would want to use a low-carb diet.  Sports that have weight classes, such as combat sports, will require weigh-ins prior to competition.  Low-carb diets have a vast array of success for getting athletes to lose weight quickly.  This is due to the fact that when glucose is converted into glycogen in the muscles, it is stored with a good quantity of water.  Most people don’t realize how heavy water is.  One cubic meter of water weighs one ton (2,000 lbs).  Therefore, to reduce weight rapidly eliminating CHO from the diet will help to remove much of that glycogen as well as the water it is stored with.  It is no secret that carry around excess weight will hinder an athletes ability to run faster and jump higher.

This is in no way what I would recommend to an athlete as it may have major consequences on performance.  I would recommend more of a gradual approach to lose body fat.  After all, muscle strength and power is the secret to who is going to dominate their sport.  Does it really make sense to drain the energy for those variables?  ABSOLUTELY NOT!  If you have to make weight in a hurry and have no other option.  Then you might just have to bite the bullet and do it anyway.

To Lose Body-Fat Percentage

This is probably the most justifiable of all the reasons.  Now am I saying that a low-carb diet is better for losing body fat than a low-fat diet? No.  I’m just saying that for some athletes, a lower carb diet is more tolerable than a higher carb diet.  It all depends on the individual and what works best for them.  Whichever diet is chosen, the main point resides, calories are being reduced and less calories are being stored as fat and more fat cells are being drained for fuel.

With that said, this is the most practical and responsible way an athlete can reduce weight.  Unlike the previous reason, this weight loss approach is more of a long term approach.  Instead of draining water and glycogen reserves, fat cells are drained.  Protein intake is still relatively high and the carbs that are eaten is mainly from fruits and vegetables (mostly vegetables) with a limited amount of starch (1-2 servings).  This approach helps an athlete to lean out and lose weight without sacrificing performance or training.


This reason is mainly for physique athletes (bodybuilders/fitness models).  With this approach, CHO is limited mostly to vegetables with limited amounts of fruit and very limited to no starch.  Protein intake still remains high.  This helps to lower body fat levels even lower (i.e. ~4% body fat) than the previous example.  If you are a physique athlete, or want to look like one, then this is perfectly fine.  For other types of athletes, attaining an extremely low level of body fat will have a detrimental effect on performance.  For optimal performance, a normal athletic level of body fat will be necessary.

What Athletes Should Do

Since rapid weight loss leads to muscle loss and decreased performance and too much body-fat loss leads to decreased performance; most athletes should work on losing body-fat percentage in a slow and controlled manner.  This will help ensure more fat burning and less muscle loss.  This will also keep the athletes overall weight down and will help to increase performance on the field.  If the athlete is preparing for aesthetic/physique goals then lower body-fat percentages (~4%) are acceptable.  It all depends on the athletes’ goals and it is important to remember what you are training for.  CLICK HERE to read an article I wrote about this topic.


Diets are extremely important.  Most athletes/trainees believe that the most important work is done in the weight room.  This is not true, the most important work is done in the kitchen.  Your diet provides the building blocks for your body to repair itself from brutal workout sessions.  If you feed your body crap you will get crappy results.  If you feed your body correctly, you will get great results and be at the top of your game.

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