Whether it's through TV ads, fitness publications, the news or even the most popular weight loss reality show, we are bombarded with all sorts of "do's and don'ts" when it comes health. The media is over-saturated with advice and opinions on what constitutes a healthy diet. The problem with this is that all of these viewpoints are coming from different sources, making it hard to know what is the right path for you and your health. In all of this noise, where is the truth?
Honestly, in my opinion, the truth lies within. There simply isn't one, flawless diet or meal plan that works the same for everyone. We are all very unique and have different needs, based on our own physical make-up, lifestyle or activity level. I often tell people who are interested in a particular diet to "try it out and see if it works for you." If you are on a diet, you've given it a substantial amount of time and effort, and are seeing no results, then cut it out. The time to try something different is when it becomes fairly obvious that it isn't working, regardless of who told you it should.
One of the most popular (and greatly misunderstood) diets is the "Low-Carb" diet. For many people, cutting out carbs has yielded some positive results. However, many have found that these results just plain don't last, plus the path taken to get there is just too hard to continue long term. So, let's dig into the facts about carbs, how they function in our body and why they are necessary to you as a fighter.
Carbohydrates are the primary source of fuel used by our bodies for multiple functions. Although proteins and fats can be converted to energy (as seen with The Atkins Diet), carbohydrates are the body's more common and preferred source of fuel. When we ingest carbohydrates, they are broken down to form glucose (commonly referred to as "blood sugar.") Glucose is the fuel the body uses to produce energy. Part of the carbs you ingest are immediately converted to glucose, and some are converted to glycogen and stored in the muscle tissues and liver. Storing the glycogen insures that there is a back up source of fuel that the body can use when glucose levels get low. It serves as a "safety net," so to speak. So when you're training, and fatigue begins to set in, your body has used up the available glucose and then begins to retrieve the stored glycogen from your muscle tissues and liver that will allow it to press on. This helps allow you to get in those few extra rounds, call on your body to give just a little bit more and rise to the physical challenge.
With this perfect, built-in survival mechanism, why is it that so many health/exercise aficionados want to limit carb intake? Because carbs that are not used immediately for fuel, or stored as glycogen, are stored as fat. That is why foods that are high in sugar should always, if at all, be consumed just after exercise. The body's muscles have been depleted of the glycogen that now needs to be restored, but if you continue to eat high sugar foods throughout the day without burning it off, it will build up and be stored as fat.
The remedy is ingesting the right kind of carbohydrates. Although limiting carb intake may or may not be necessary, depending on your current diet and activity level, the type of carbohydrate you are eating certainly is. Making a transition from "simple" to "complex carbs" is essential in lasting health. Complex carbs include whole grain foods (oatmeal, barley, brown rice, buckwheat, pasta, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and beans). These have not been refined or stripped of their natural vitamins, minerals and fiber. These complex carbs are metabolized at a much slower rate and will provide a more lasting flow of energy. Foods that are laced with sugar such as refined carbohydrates (candies, pies, honey, white rice, potatoes, pasta, soda and fruit juices) are all very high in glycemic index and cause a rapid conversion to glucose and encourage fat storage. By eating the bulk of your carbs from healthy complex carbohydrates, you are taking a step towards better health, weight control, and more energy.
Carbs can be an enemy or your greatest ally, depending on how you use them to enhance your workout. Time your meals and tailor your post-training snacks to take advantage of their valuable energy-producing benefits. Just like your arsenal in the ring, keep your carbohydrates complex. You can make educated decisions about the types of carbs you incorporate into your diet. You can choose to not indulge in empty calories, you can also decide to cut the carbs altogether and live on meat and vegetables or if you want to eat pasta three times a day, be my guest. The main thing is that now you have options, but you also know that the one you choose can also affect your performance in the ring. Carbs are either in your corner or they're like a bad referee, working against every good thing you do in training and in competition. Do you want to make the call or take it out of his hands? The choice is yours.
Spencer Ward is a boxer and nutritionist currently residing in Los Angeles, CA.