As millions pile on protein and cut back carbs, here's some sage dietary advice: Don't.
By Paul Scott
One of the key personal elements in outdoor sports is your strength-to-weight ratio. And the key to being lean and mean (other than working out, of course) is protein, the stuff of big muscles and gigantically successful diet gurus. You want a diet plan with that? Walk into any bookstore and you'll practically trip over protein-diet books: Sugar Busters, Protein Power, Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution. One problem is that these diets are written for people who surf channels, not breaks. What's more, nutritionists' critiques of the bestselling protein diets range from deep skepticism to outrage. The mechanics of how your body converts food into performance is a gnarly, jargon-filled subject. But fear not. Making protein work for an outdoors-oriented athlete—or someone who wishes to be one—isn't terribly hard.
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The first place to start in talking about protein diets isn't with protein but carbohydrates. Carbs are quite often the only macronutrients brought along for workouts in the wild; yet the argument underlying most of the protein plans is that starch is to blame for millions of bulging waistlines. Our bodies naturally respond to carbs by secreting the hormone insulin into the bloodstream. Too many carbohydrates, the protein-diet gurus theorize, means too much insulin, which causes carbs to be stored as fat. And this chemistry, they argue, is why Cinnabons will give you an ass like a bear.
While this is true enough for the xxl crowd, does carb-cutting help the aerobic set as well? Indeed, some athletes have found success in reducing their intake of starch and replacing it with high-protein foods. Six-time Ironman champion Mark Allen is a famous example: He maintains that increasing his protein intake helped him win the race in 1989. "You need a certain amount of complex carbohydrates to move, but protein is what builds your strength after all the moving," he says. In addition, Barry Sears, author of The Zone, a mega-selling protein-diet book, cites the carb-curbing Stanford swim team, which won the NCAA title three years in a row.
"It's been kind of crazy to behold," says Marcia Herrin, director of the Dartmouth College nutrition education program. "Just increasing your protein, if your calories remain the same, won't increase muscle," she says. "Your body will use it for basic energy needs first." Low-carb diets are especially inappropriate for athletes, she says, because "one, you need carbohydrates and two, high-protein diets are dehydrating. But balanced advice doesn't sell books."
Photo: Craig Cameron Olsen