Athletes and golfers alike have always known that carbohydrates are essential to producing energy. In the late 90’s our society was overtaken by the low carb diet trend, causing athletes of every sport to scratch their heads and wonder if maybe they too were eating too many carbs.
As a nutritionist, I totally agree with many of the proponents of the low carb diets. I believe as a society that we eat too many carbs. To be truthful, we could stand to cut back on all food – the calories we are eating as a society are exceeding the calories we are burning, which is leading to the obesity epidemic we are facing around the globe. Even professional golfers are faced with the challenge of preventing obesity from happening to them. What I don’t agree with is cutting out carbohydrates completely from anyone’s diet.
Low carb diets gained in popularity after the low fat diet trend started to fade. Back in the 1990’s, we thought that fat from food was what was causing us to be overweight and causing high levels of heart disease. Food manufacturers became obsessed with the “fat-free craze,” coming out with everything from fat free cookies to fat free margarine. We thought that as long as it was fat free, we could sit down with a whole box of fat free cookies and not gain weight. Alas, we still gained weight. Then came the revival of the low carb trend that was so popular in the 1970’s. Instead of demonizing fat, we starting thinking carbs were the evil foods making us so fat. We lost weight, only to gain it all back as soon as we went off the impossibly low carb diet.
Research studies have proven that it is not the carbs that make us fat—it is total calories. People on low carb diets lose weight because they are eating fewer calories than they were before. A lot of the weight lost is also water weight because our glycogen stores (carb stores in our body) are very water rich. When we reduce carbs, we lose water weight. It is physiologically impossible to lose 5-10 pounds of fat in a week, yet the scale would reflect weight losses of that magnitude for some people when embarking on a low carb diet.
The differences between cutting back and cutting out are two totally different approaches. In order to meet your body’s energy demands, you need to ensure that you are getting enough carbs in your diet. If you do not get enough carbohydrates in your diet, your body will use the protein in the diet for energy. Using protein for energy prevents the body from using protein for building and repairing the muscles that you are using and abusing during tough workouts, rounds of golf and just daily life. This ultimately leaves you left with low energy and greater potential for injury on and off the course.
Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy. Carbs come from sugar, starch, and fiber in our diet. Sugar and starches are broken down into glucose, which is energy for our cells. Our bodies need glucose every second of the day to keep our brain functioning, to tell our heart to keep beating, and our lungs to keep breathing.
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends that everyone over the age of one year get a minimum of 130 grams of carbohydrate daily. In terms of percentage of calories, the IOM recommends that 45-65% of our calories should come from carbs.
For an active male eating 2500 calories, that equates to 281-406 grams daily. For an active female eating 2000 calories, that equates to 225 to 325 grams daily.
Low Carb Foods
Even though the low carb craze is fading, I still sense a fear of high carbohydrate foods. I often hear from clients, athletes and non-athletes alike, that they avoid bread, pasta, and potatoes because they are concerned that eating them will make them fat. Instead, many people are opting for the low carb varieties of these foods. While some reduced carb foods can be healthy, many have ingredients in them that can cause some unpleasant side effects, and often, more times than not, low carb foods have just as many calories as the original food, so read labels carefully!
A common way to reduce the carb content of food, is to replace sugar with sugar alcohols. These sugar alcohols read on a food label with words like maltitol, mannitol, lactitol, sorbitol, xylitol, and erythritol. With the exception of erythritol, these sugar alcohols are not absorbed in the small intestine. Because they are not completely digested, the large intestine produces gas when the bacteria come into contact with these sugar alcohols. The result is gas, bloating, and potentially diarrhea in people who eat these sugar alcohols. So if you have been eating low carb candies and other treats and not feeling so good afterwards, now you know why. Check labels for sugar alcohols and avoid them if you find that they give you these unpleasant side effects.
All carbs can fit into a healthy diet, so the idea of some carbs being “good” while some are “bad” is not the best way to think. Classifying foods as “good” and “bad” promotes guilty feelings when we “give in” to the “bad” foods. Instead of trying to find low carb versions of your favorite high carb foods, enjoy the original version in moderation. Refined carbs such as cakes, cookies, and candy should be limited in our diets. Use these high sugar foods as treats in small quantities. Just because something is white does not mean it is bad, though. White potatoes often get lumped into the “bad carb” list, but white potatoes are actually one of the highest antioxidant foods in our food supply and a great source of complex carbs, especially for a golfer.
Choose whole grain varieties of bread, pasta, rice, cereal, and other grains whenever possible. Whole grains are hot in the marketplace right now, so it is not hard to find whole grain varieties of your favorite foods. There is more to whole grains than whole wheat bread and brown rice. Experiment with whole grains you may not use often or have not tried before. Quinoa, spelt, and millet are whole grains that are extremely versatile and can be used in salads, soups, or as a side dish. Don’t forget about barley, rye, popcorn (yes, it is a whole grain!), and corn.
Fruit and vegetables are rich in carbs and also rich in very important vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. All fruits are good, even if you hear that they are too high in sugar. They are indeed high in sugar, but it is natural sugar and along with that sugar comes a nice package of fiber and other nutrients.
All vegetables are good, too – even the starchy vegetables like corn, peas, and potatoes. Starchy vegetables will be slightly higher in calories than non-starchy vegetables, but both are high in nutritional value and should be a part of your diet.
Another source of carbohydrates that many people don’t think about is milk. Milk has 12 grams of carbohydrates per 8 oz glass. Milk, cheese, and yogurt are all foods that have significant healthy attributes and should also be included daily in a healthy diet.
Just because you are eating “good” carbs doesn’t mean that you can eat them in unlimited quantities. Remember that all calories, regardless of whether they enter your body as carbs, protein, fat, or alcohol, have the potential to cause weight gain when eaten in excess of the calories burned..
Carbs are necessary in your diet to provide energy to fuel your brain and muscles, prevent injury and help maximize your time on or off the course. Without carbs, you will be low on energy and your golf game will suffer. Examine what you eat to determine whether you are getting the right balance of carbs, protein, and fats in your diet. If you are gaining weight and don’t want to, cut back on your portions of all foods in your diet, not just carbs. Look for opportunities to have high quality carbs such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to replace high sugar and refined grains.
Tara Gidus, is a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, a nutrition consultant and a member of the Golf Fitness Magazine Advisory Team.