The Pros and Cons of a High-Carb/Low-Fat Diet: Diet and Athletic Training Part 2

This is Part 2 of a three part series on diet and athletic training.
Part 1
Part 3


We continue our series on diet and athletic training with today's post, which focuses on high-carb/low fat diets. I’ll talk about why this kind of diet is absolutely optimal for people undertaking moderate levels of physical exercise.

Like most people, when I was in my teens and twenties, I paid absolutely no attention to my diet (one of the luxuries of youth!). But at around age 22-23 I began running seriously, and I decided I’d like to try to train for and run a marathon. Of course, being the type-A corporate tool that I am, I started studying books on distance training as well as books on optimal diets for runners.

And I happily fell under the influence of Dr. Robert Haas’ book, Eat To Win. Haas made his name in the early 80s as one of the key people behind Martina Navratilova’s dominance of professional tennis at that time. His highly useful and readable book advocates coupling exercise with a diet low in fat and rich in complex carbohydrates. His slogan "fat burns in the flame of carbohydrate” pretty much says it all. I started dramatically cutting back on my junk food intake (yes, even dark chocolate), and I paid very close attention to, and ruthlessly limited, how much fat I ingested. And I ate a lot more pasta.

Furthermore, I started paying much closer attention to how well I ran under various dietary circumstances. I started to put more effort into noticing* how my body handled itself during my runs after a few days of excessive high-fat eating, compared to days when I ate more healthily.

I had never really paid that much attention to my body's physical performance in the context of my diet. But once I started noticing, the conclusions were obvious: runs after “bad diet days” were universally awful compared to runs after “good diet days.”

Elsewhere in this blog, I’ve talked about how if you exercise regularly and eat energy-dense foods sparingly, you will experience profound changes in your body. You'll begin to feel better, you'll begin to sleep better, you'll have more energy, and you'll feel lighter on your feet. You will begin to metabolize your excess body fat.

Granted, when you exercise, your appetite increases also. But the ironic secret of this diet is this: you don't really need to eat that much less food! As long as you exercise regularly and reduce the fat content and overall energy-density of your diet, you will see results.

Moreover, many people who embark on this diet and exercise combination even find that their body simply stops craving high-fat foods. That bag of Doritos just doesn't look as appetizing when you think about how it will clog up your cardiovascular system during your run tomorrow morning.

And this is where an amazing virtuous cycle begins. Your improved diet leads you to feel better, which leads you to have better and better workouts, which leads you to crave fewer high-fat foods, which leads you to feel even better, which leads you to have even better workouts, which accelerates the metabolization of even more body fat. Rinse and repeat.

That, in a nutshell, is the primary “pro” argument for a high-carb/low-fat diet and exercise combination. You will be astounded at the improvements in your physical fitness after just a few weeks of maintaining an Eat to Win-type diet combined with light to moderate exercise.

What I did, however, was take this diet to an extreme. We'll discuss the "cons" of this diet in the next post in this series.

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* NB: I've talked very briefly about the concept of “noticing” (some psychologists use the term "attention") in Ten Strategies to Stop Mindless Eating. This is a powerful concept that has applications in life far beyond the scope of this blog, but I hope to return to it in a cooking context. You can find a powerful, although non-food related, introduction to this concept in Timothy Miller's mind-opening book How To Want What You Have.


Anonymous said...


Dude, I lived by Eat to Win when I played hockey in high school and college. I still remember my mom scolding me for "wasting" the egg yolks when i made my egg white omelets (Haas was 20 years ahead of his time and should be collecting license fees from just about every midtown deli that caters to you... ok "us" corporate tools).

I know Haas has been criticized over the years for his monolithic view (and for the noticeable absence in his client base of any noteworthy athletes other than Martina and CK). As you say in the keilbasa post, I think many sports nutritionsists now support limited high-fat intake. I guess my view is that these diets, whether they be Haas or Atkins or whomever - tend to be extreme at first view. Then, over time, we hopefully take some of the revolutionary wisdom from each and incorporate it into a more modest overall diet. I still remember my boss a few years ago, crazy on Atkins and fresh off a plate of bacon for breakfast, walking by my desk and noticing that I was eating a grapefruit. "Fruit," he said, "Carefull, that's stuff's a killer..."

In Haas's case, I think the idea that whole grains and low fat could help your performance instead of the standard Steak n Eggs was at the time revolutionary.

Daniel said...

Mr The Sieve:
Thanks for your comment! Absolutely love the grapefruit anecdote.