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Ask the Lab: Low Carb Diets

PLEASE NOTE: The medical opinions in USTA.com's Ask the Lab are responses intended for the average player. Please consult with your primary physician before beginning any new exercise program.

From: Jon B., Madisonville, Ky: I have been on a low carb diet for an extended period of time and I have been successful with weight loss. I am a 3.5 level singles player. At times I feel that I don't have the proper nutrition before a match. What would be a proper pre-match meal or snack that wouldn't violate my diet,or do I just need to abandon my diet for the day of my match?

Page Love, MS, RD, LD, CSCS: Yes, you've seen the ads, the media attention...headlines in USA Today—“Pasta Makes You Fat”—and top selling books The Atkins Diet and The Zone, and South Beach Diet. Not only is the average American being drawn in for the kill, but even more so, the athlete. Tennis players must have muscle energy levels high enough to allow them to last 2-3 hours on the court at a time and this type of diet will quickly increase your chance of fatigue and dehydration if you fall prey to these latest fads.

Here is a list of five reasons not to adhere to the low-carbohydrate diets and how they may negatively affect both your tennis performance and health.

1. Most high-protein diets are also very low in calories, far below the recommended minimums for healthy weight loss without the risk of starving muscle and organ tissue and meet basal metabolism calorie needs (< 1200 calories). This low calorie level jeopardizes muscle energy levels and leads to earlier fatigue on the court.

2. Most high-protein diets have 2x to 3x the recommended dietary allowance for protein needs. They can put the body at increased risk for kidney problems such as kidney stones and kidney failure earlier in life, as well as increased problems with urinary tract function. For the tennis player, this leads to increased complications with maintaining a normal hydration status and increased heat stress.

3. Most high-protein diets are so low in energy and total food variety that you cannot meet your recommended dietary allowances for vitamin and mineral needs without supplementing the diet additionally. Because of the low fruit and vegetable intake, the antioxidant intake is also low potentially contributing to decreased immune function and ability to fight off illness and infection. This can be of extreme concern for the immune system of an athlete, causing slower healing and increased risk of injury.

4. Most high-protein diets promote high amounts of water weight loss leading to increased risk for severe dehydration and causing light-headedness, fatigue, cold sensitivity, and decreased metabolic rates. All of these would negatively affect your tennis performance.

5. Most high-protein diets are so low in carbohydrate intake that you do not receive adequate carbohydrate energy to keep your metabolism revved up. Over time, a player on a low-calorie high-protein diet may slow his or her metabolism so much that normal eating will cause immediate water regain as the body tries to establish a normal balance again. This can cause the tennis player to feel sluggish on the court. Remember here are the reasons you need carbohydrates:

  • Carbohydrates are main source of fuel for muscles and organs
  • Eating adequate carbohydrates will raise your metabolism
  • Used to maintain blood sugar and quick energy stores
  • Stored in our body to be used as an energy source between meals and snacks
  • An important source of fiber, B vitamins, and iron
  • "Bulk” source, helps us to feel full

As far pre-match nutrition choices, high carbohydrate choices are a must, as they quickly fuel the muscles for match play. Here are some guidelines for the best types of guidelines to follow for this:

Pre-Match Eating and Hydration Guidelines

Select pre-match meals and snacks that are:

  • Familiar and known to settle hunger
  • High in carbohydrates to supply energy for muscle reserves, moderate in protein and low in fat
  • Quickly digested (not too high in fiber or fat)

Meal Guidelines

LUNCH (3-4 hours prior to competition)
Turkey or grilled chicken sandwich with mustard
Saltine crackers
1 cup of skim milk
8 oz. serving of Gatorade

About the Author
Page Love, MS, RD, LD, CSCS, is a registered and licensed dietitian for Nutrifit, Sport, Therapy, Inc.

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