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Athletes: abandon Atkins! Why sports-active people shouldn't go low-carb.

"I don't know how to lose weight anymore. Should I avoid carbs? Eat more protein? Just eat smaller portions? I am so confused ..."

My teammates think they will lose weight if they eliminate carbs. They're just losing their competitive edge!"

The Atkins diet worked for a while, but then I regained the weight ..."

As a sports nutritionist, I am hearing an endless stream of confusion regarding what to eat, how to lose weight, what foods to avoid, which carbs are good and which are bad. I find myself repeatedly begging sports-active people to eat carbs if they want to enjoy optimal performance, reminding them excess calories are fattening, not carbohydrates. More than any other time in my career, I'm having trouble convincing athletes to include carbs as the foundation of each meal so they can enjoy high energy, stamina and endurance. I reiterate:

1) only carbs are stored in the muscles as glycogen and;

2) depleted muscle glycogen stores are associated with fatigue.

Thanks to the Atkins revolution, an extraordinary number of today's athletes are experiencing needless fatigue. They are out of energy half an hour into their workout. Marathoners run only five miles before complaining about feeling tired. Soccer players wait listlessly for the ball to come to them, lacking energy to attack.

Hopefully, the following Q&A will counter the high-protein hype and convince you (or your carb-evading friends) that pasta is important for athletes and bagels are not evil.

Q. If carbs are good, why is the food industry creating so many low-carb products?

The food industry is frantically jumping on the consumer bandwagon. With an estimated 59 million people avoiding carbohydrate-type foods, the bread, bagel, cereal and pasta industries are feeling the pinch. The food industry's scramble to produce low-carb products reflects a drastic need to generate income. Even Burger King has resorted to selling bun-less burgers!

With dieters avoiding sandwiches like the plague, bread companies have created low-carb bread. They slice the bread thinner, so it has half the carbs and calories, or add fiber. Bread with eight grams of fiber can be wholesome and hearty, yet have fewer carbs than the standard fare (carbs from fiber don't count). Add some high-protein soy flour--and voila--the bread industry's answer to the anti-carb crusade.

Q. Can I really eat as much protein as I want and lose weight?

Of course not! Countless new clients have complained to me the Atkins Diet isn't working any more. Why not? They have been eating plenty of calorie-packed cheese omelets, fried chicken and crustless quiche. They fail to understand that Atkins doesn't work. With no calorie deficit, there's no weight loss apart from the initial water-weight loss that occurs with carbohydrate restriction (with the depletion of each ounce of carbs stored as glycogen in the body, you lose about three ounces of water.)

Low-carb does not mean low-calorie. That low-carb crustless cheesecake loaded with cream cheese, eggs, sour cream, saturated fat and cholesterol is also loaded with calories, as are "Atkins Friendly" meals (i.e., steak with butter sauce and salad with blue cheese dressing). No diet foods there! Today's dieters need reminders: carb-free is not calorie-free. You will not lose fat if you eat too many calories of steak and cheese. Calories count!

Carb-avoiders, please use common sense. You cannot eat copious amounts of protein and fat and expect to get leaner. You should also think twice about eliminating orange juice, bananas and carrots. Does that really sound like a healthy thing to do? Of course not! Fruits and vegetables offer abundant nutrients that protect against cancer, hypertension and heart disease. Losing weight should not just be about losing fat, but about gaining health.

Q. What is the best way to lose weight?

Not with the Atkins Diet--or any diet, for that matter. Research suggests when dieters eat a well-balanced sports diet with 55 to 60 percent of the calories from carbs (110 to 120 grams carb) versus a low-carb, high-protein diet (20 grams carb), fat loss is similar. There is little metabolic advantage to manipulating the ratio of protein to carbs. The disadvantage is denial and deprivation of favorite foods. Do you really want to never eat a bagel again? Do you want to endure workouts that are harder and less enjoyable because your body is carb-depleted?

Granted, including protein in each meal offers some weight loss help. Protein lingers in the stomach, providing a pleasant "full" feeling. But you need not eat only protein. If you are currently on the Atkins Diet, please add oatmeal, brown rice, sweet potatoes, multi-grain breads, fresh fruits and colorful vegetables--wholesome, nourishing foods that once filled cupboards before the onslaught of soda, Frosted Flakes and Twinkles. The obesity epidemic is fueled with highly processed foods that are easier to overconsume than whole foods.

By eating fruits, vegetables and unrefined grains, you are likely to feel satiated from fiber and be better able to lose weight by simply consuming a few hundred fewer calories per day--no extra beer, four fewer Oreos, only three small spoonfuls of ice cream. Weight loss does not come via a diet, but with mindful eating.

If you want to lose body fat, I highly recommend you consult with a registered dietitian (RD) specializing in sports nutrition. This professional can design a personalized eating plan that works for you and your lifestyle. You'll learn how to lose weight while maintaining energy to exercise. You'll also learn how to manage the American food supply and find a lifelong eating plan you can maintain. To find a local RD, simply enter your ZIP code into the referral network at

Wake up, America. Do you really think you'll win the battle of the bulge with bacon, cheese and cream? Wheaties is the better choice for champions and diligent dieters as well.

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, is author of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook, 3rd Edition ($23) and Food Guide for Marathoners ($20). Both have an informative section on how to lose weight and have energy to exercise. They are available at or by seceding a check to Sports Nutrition Services, P.O. Box 650124, West Newton, MA 02465.
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Title Annotation:Nutrition; weight loss program for Athletes
Author:Clark, Nancy
Publication:American Fitness
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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