Monday, January 27, 2014

Low Carbohydrate Semantics

Most people find renewed motivation and hope in the new year and use this to focus on improved health, which usually includes a change in diet and nutrition. A focus on weight loss is the most popular approach for good reason: being overweight or obese directly influences your risk for chronic disease. However, in an effort to jumpstart weight loss and maintain motivation, many people focus on deprivation or removal of specific foods from their diet. This approach is not sustainable for most people (not all!) because behavioral and environmental factors are not taken into consideration. Removing that extra pint of ice cream, sugar laden cereal or nightly cookie binge is a respectable goal. One of the most popular regimens is to decrease or remove carbohydrates from the diet. 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 think or 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 carbohydrate diet. Instead, most people should follow a diet that consists of non-processed foods. Processed food does not contain a lot of nutrients, however, grains like amaranth, quinoa, millet, buckwheat and whole oats contain B vitamins (riboflavin, thiamin, pantothenic acid, B6,) folic acid, fiber, and fatty acids. This is one of the first clarifications I make when working with someone who is having difficulty losing weight and is interested in cutting out carbohydrates because they know someone else who had success doing so.

The most popular eating plan that focuses on unprocessed foods is the Paleo Diet. If you want to follow the Paleo diet 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 also 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 whole grains and recommends consuming gels (other sports supplements) during workouts. 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 during your workouts. 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 persons’ digestive tract can handle and many cannot break down and assimilate the fuel necessary from whole foods during their training. This can be trained and improved over time if steps are taken to improve the integrity of the GI tract, but in the meantime, it’s okay to eat gels and chews according to what is necessary to fuel your workout.  

People experience weight loss quickly when first implementing the Paleo Diet due to under-eating and not having the “allowable” foods on hand when they are hungry. It’s best to reduce your training volume when first implementing this diet so that adaptation to training is not compromised.

If your goal is performance you need to develop a plan to consume carbohydrate before or during your workouts lasting longer than ninety minutes. Be careful not to cut out all grains or that chocolate chip cookie post long-run. Not focusing on recovery (eating carbohydrate post workout) will have repercussions (e.g. malaise, muscle soreness) in your next workout.

Recommendations on how to implement the Paleo Diet will vary depending upon your training volume, health history, and daily life schedule.  These variables are important because of the physiological adaptations that occur when you gain or lose weight, and become fit. In addition, each person has his or her own goals (performance, weight loss), and life-work routine that may change on a daily basis. Just like in an annual training (running, biking) program, when working with athletes, I build an annual nutrition plan. This is because even during a microcylce, or week of training, you may implement different nutrition strategies depending upon your workout. 

Regina Hammond, MS, RD ( hammond) is the Director of Nutrition at Trismarter Triathlon Coaching and Nutrition ( When she isnt running up Pikes Peak Regina is creating custom hydration and fueling plans for triathletes racing in 1/2, & full IM distance races and  ultra running events. Staying abreast of the latest research she believes in an individualized approach to nutrition. With a background in competitive swimming, biking and running, she understands what it takes to be a competitive triathlete and works with clients on performance fueling plans, periodized nutrition plans, weight loss, and behavior change.  Follow her on twitter (/reginahammondMS), facebook (/trismarter), or email her at