Protein Diets? Fat Chance!

Whether it’s the Atkins Diet, the Zone Diet, Protein Power or any number of low-carbohydrate/high-protein diets being touted today, more and more athletes are cutting carbs and eating more meat, fish, poultry and dairy products to try and decrease their fat levels and stay competitive.

How do protein diets affect athletes aside from weight loss?

An analogy which might help you understand how certain nutrients affect athletic performance is the comparison between a car and a human. Cars are made of steel, and gasoline or diesel fuel make them run. Athletes can be said to made of protein (muscle) and carbohydrates and fat make are the fuels that make them run.

During aerobic exercise, the body burns fat. During anaerobic exercise, the body burns carbohydrates.

Just as trying to put liquid steel into a Ferrari’s gas tank is not too bright, trying to fuel athletic performance using protein, instead of either carbohydrates or fat is also not a good idea.

Tennis points occur with high intensity for short durations, and draw on the body’s ATP-PC (adenosine tri-phosphate, phosphate-creatine) energy system.

This energy system is fueled by glycogen, which is how the carbs you eat are stored. Therefore, if you want your muscles to perform during a tennis match, you need to eat carbohydrates.

In addition to not helping tennis players perform better, a high-protein diet has other risks. Following are 10 reasons cited by the USTA’s sport science committee as to why high-protein/low carbohydrate diets are inappropriate, if not downright harmful, for tennis players.

#1 High-protein diets are too low in calories to support peak athletic performance.

#2 Athletes on high-protein diets do not provide enough vitamins and minerals, either requiring that supplements be taken, or increasing the risk of injury and injury recovery times by negatively affecting the immune system.

#3 Too much protein can lead to kidney problems and urinary tract problems, affecting an tennis player’s ability to stay properly hydrated during a match, increasing the risk of heat stress.

#4 Eliminating carbohydrates creates cravings which can lead to athlete’s eating too many simple sugars.

#5 High water weight loss can lead to severe dehydration, leading to a variety of serious consequences during a match.

#6 Carbohydrates are necessary for optimal organ and brain functions, yet protein diets label carbohydrates as obesity promoters — the last thing young girls prone to eating disorders need to hear. In fact, too many calories of any type of food is the cause of obesity.

#7 Protein diets slow the body’s metabolism so much that normal eating results in water weight gain, making it more difficult to burn fat.

#8 In order to get more protein, athletes will eat more meat, fish, poultry and dairy products and will greatly increase their intake of saturated fats and cholesterols, leading to heart problems and obesity.

#9 Fewer carbohydrates means less fiber and more intestinal problems, including constipation and colon cancer.

#10 High-protein diets actually accelerate calcium loss from bones and increase the risk of osteoporosis, leading to an increase in stress fractures, ankle fractures and vertebral fractures.

Based on the fact that the many doctors, research organizations and groups like the USTA Sport Science Committee who are attacking protein diets are not selling high-carb/low-protein books, videos or seminars, their motives in guiding athletes away from one particular diet toward another are obviously not as open to question and their recommendations should be given serious consideration.

The article from the USTA’s sport science newsletter cited in this article was originally written by USHSTA advisory board member, Page Love.

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