An Imbalanced Discussion

One size never fits all, but that’s not what sells
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I’m invited to sit on more discussion panels than I could ever possibly attend. Some of these excite me; others, I decline. The rest of these invites, I accept simply for the entertainment value of it all, because for whatever reason, I enjoy listening to otherwise perfectly nice, rational people debate topics about which they don’t have a clue.

Here, I’m referring to the role of carbohydrates in these nebulous “balanced diets for athletes” that everyone’s espousing these days. And as an athlete, what you need to realize is that for all the bluster from all these so-called “experts,” our idea of what makes a diet balanced is vague, at best.

I’m not going to attack Paleo here, but let’s examine this monolith as an example, because it’s the primary topic at pretty much every seminar, panel, and conference I attend—even ones geared to bodybuilders. If you’re Paleo, your notion of “balanced” simply means you’re going to avoid grains, artificial foods, and anything you think you’re allergic to. The literature on it goes a bit deeper, but that’s really all you need to know.

WAY OFF BALANCE

As I sit on these discussion panels listening, however, one question always occurs to me: Who the hell ever decided that usable carbs—starches and sugars—are part of a “balanced” diet? This doesn’t make any sense, because none of the diets these experts are trying to throw at you tie everything together. In other words, there is no “balanced” diet, because the only realistic option here is a diet that’s balanced in nutrients such that it adequately meets the needs of the specific athlete in question.

One size doesn’t fit all, because different athletes have different requirements, and nothing is universal. If you’re reading FLEX, you’re not the average person. You’re not sedentary, your time in the gym is precious to you, and you’re looking for performance, and not some minimal plan that simply keeps your body burning fat for energy. And for the average person, stripping carbs from your diet—with a carb splurge at the end of the week, à la the Carb Nite Solution—will solve most of your problems.

If you’re busting your ass in the gym every day, however, there’s no single, correct approach to balance, because hardcore physical activity is a force that throws us massively out of balance on a regular basis. You’re essentially doing far more in a day than your body is meant to do. Although, as a species, we’ve always done physical labor. Humans didn’t evolve by running marathons, bench-pressing, or doing biceps curls.

THROW IN SOME CARBS

Carbs are hell on sedentary people in terms of making them fat, but they give athletes the ability to repair, recover, and excel. The harder you train, the more carbs you need, which is the entire point of my carb back-loading plans. When you’re constructing a diet you’re going to label balanced, athletic training needs to be taken into account in a major way.

When you consume carbs at the appropriate times, and in appropriate amounts, they release insulin. This accelerates tissue growth and healing, and it also acts as an anti-inflammatory. Glucose, one of the few nutrients that activates the TOR pathway of growth and tissue repair, refills your intramuscular and liver glycogen stores, helping your body prepare for its next bout of intense physical activity. Brain hormones and chemicals adjust to reduce stress, creating a sense of well-being and promoting sleep. Carbs also suppress ghrelin, our main hunger hormone, and cause an even bigger ghrelin spike a few hours after eating—an effect that can cause an acute rise in growth hormone.

By all accounts, carbs are the magic bullet when it comes to athletic nutrition. Think of this in terms of cars. When you drive your Honda Accord to and from work every day, all you need to do is have it inspected once a year, keep it gassed up, and change the oil every 3,000 miles. A Formula One racer, in contrast, requires more maintenance over the course of an hour than your Accord would need over a period of multiple years. As an athlete, you’re that racer—and carbs are your pit crew.

STARK REALITY

Research supports all of this. When your carb intake is on the money, your performance will always increase. When you take in carbs post-workout, your results will accelerate, assuming you take in some protein, too. When you don’t, your results won’t be as positive. These are simple facts. If you’re an athlete, you need to add carbs into your diet on some level. The absolute level will depend on your goals, the way you train, and the amount of body fat you carry.

My purpose, then, is to engage the scientific community, the fitness industry, and the athletic population in a conversation about what a "balanced diet" really is. This is because it makes no sense to me to discuss balance for bodybuilders, CrossFitters, and sedentary office workers in the same conversation. The only “expert” who’s wrong in this case is the one who claims such a discussion is a rational one.

In reality, very few of us in the fitness and nutrition communities have experienced extensive success over a full spectrum of clients from the morbidly obese to Olympic gold medalists. If someone with those credentials exists, I’d be more than happy to go work as his or her apprentice. At this point, however—based on what I’ve heard in these discussion panels—I think it’s safe to say I’ll never have to do that. FLEX

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