We now know that exercise is primarily a wellness tool and will not help most of us lose excess body fat. But, let’s say you are a professional athlete, or perhaps a recreational athlete, focused on training for an endurance sports event. Can you alter the composition of your diet to improve your performance?
Sure you can. Do you want to make the dietary change to do so? Read on to see if it might be of benefit to you. Before we dive in, note that I use the term carbohydrates and sugar interchangeably because in the body, they are the same thing.
Athletes, especially endurance sport athletes, can teach their bodies to become “fat-adapted.” Fat adaption means your body gains the capability to utilize fat as fuel rather than sugar. When you reduce carbohydrates in your diet, you force your body to upregulate fat metabolism. In other words, you can begin to exercise at higher intensities and for longer durations while still burning fat rather than stored carbohydrates. You are no longer dependent on sugar to get through a training day or race. This metabolic shift also decreases inflammation and allows for speedier recovery.
Here is an interesting fact: You have a maximum of 2,000 calories of stored carbohydrate available in the body, which would fuel you for 90 to 120 minutes of vigorous activity. The leanest person has fifty to sixty thousand calories worth of fat to burn, which would fuel you for 100 hours of marathon running.
There are three groups of athletes who will benefit from this metabolic shift: those who want to lose weight, those interested in enhancing health and longevity, and those who experience gastrointestinal distress during training or racing.
For athletes interested in dropping weight, research shows low-carb lifestyles are more effective and efficient at reducing body fat and enabling weight loss. Appetite decreases, as do cravings, and satisfaction increases. As an added benefit, the potential for “bonking” or “hitting the wall” is significantly reduced.
When you burn sugar, you create more free radicals. Free radicals are dangerous to normal cellular processes. Athletes already create more free radicals than the average person, so adding large amounts of sugar and starches to the mix can lead to disaster, including increased risk of injury, faster aging and general inflammation.
Many of those with GI distress find relief through fat-adaption. For some individuals, certain forms of sugar, like fructose, cause the distress. These carbs can also cause bloating, abdominal discomfort and diarrhea from the bacterial fermentation of carbs and shifts in gut content.
Now on to the “how to” for implementation:
First, change your diet. Eat lower-glycemic-index carbs (high fiber, lower sugar) such as green leafy veggies, asparagus, broccoli and cauliflower. Reduce or eliminate grains. Choose full-fat plain Greek yogurt with berries, seeds and nuts. Eat fatty cuts of meat with your lower glycemic veggies. Add butter, MCT oil, olive oils, avocado and cheese to your plate.Next, focus on nutrient timing. Following exercise, backload your carbs without overestimating your needs. Have more carbohydrates with your evening meal. If you have muscle fatigue during your next workout, you may need more post-activity carbs. Focus on berries, sweet potatoes, winter squash and rice when you need a carbohydrate source.It’s important to note that it takes the body about 6 weeks to successfully shift the metabolism. For the first 4 weeks, decreasing duration and intensity of exercise sessions is key. Before you know it, you will be a fat-burning machine. Also, recognize that a well-formulated meal plan may be essential to your ultimate success in fat-adaptation.
Ashley Lucas has a doctorate in sports nutrition and chronic disease. She is also a registered dietitian nutritionist. She is the founder and owner of PHD Weight Loss and Nutrition, offering weight management and wellness services in the Four Corners. She can be reached at 764-4133.