Low Carb Diets For Athletes

Countless studies have confirmed that low carb diets are superior to the Standard American Diet (SAD) when it comes to metabolic function, diabetes, cholesterol, blood pressure, and triglyceride levels. But athletes are not “the average American” – and that’s why we’re talking about low carb diets for athletes in this post.

This may surprise some, but the “bread of life” isn’t bread at all! Unlike oxygen, water, essential fatty acids, and essential amino acids, carbohydrates are not essential for life. 

Compared to the SAD (Standard American Diet) properly implemented low carb diets can:

  • Improve metabolic function,
  • Keep blood sugar and insulin low (which prevents energy swings and helps with fat loss & weight management)
  • Improve health markers (lower triglycerides, better cholesterol, lower blood pressure)
  • Reduce body fat stored around midsection
  • Improve brain function through the aging process.

So WHO needs carbs & HOW MUCH?

When it comes to athletes, we do need to take a step back and reassess their needs for carbohydrates

MOST active people can do just fine on low carbohydrate diets. 

Low intensity exercise, like yoga, jogging, golf, walking or hiking does not require carbohydrates and athletes do not need them the same way intense weightlifters do. If they WANT TO, adding 1 serving at dinner is ideal as carbohydrates are tolerated best in the evening meal.

The biggest factor in determining carbohydrate need is exercise intensity. The higher the intensity of exercise (think Crossfit for an easy example) and the more frequently it is practiced, the more the athlete needs carbohydrates.

These guys NEED carbs!
These guys NEED carbs!

Continuing with our Crossfit athlete example – or a basketball player – an athlete participating in daily sessions will do best with at least 1-2 servings of carbohydrates (potato, rice, oats for example). If the athlete has multiple sessions in a single day, multiple meals should contain carbohydrates – preferably the two post-workout meals.

Another sport that has higher demands for carbohydrates is bodybuilding, where stored glycogen and muscle size are factors in both performance and appearance. Again, on days where the sport is practiced – weights are lifted in this case – the post workout meal or dinner meal is a great time to include 1 serving of carbohydrates. (My favorite sources again are natural sources like potatoes, rice, or oats that also happen to be “Paleo friendly”.)


When these athletes don’t get enough carbohydrates, performance suffers. Glycogen stores are depleted which reduces power output in the weight room, muscles appear flat and endurance suffers. Recovery can also be compromised, as can sleep.

Individual needs will vary from person to person and will fluctuate with intensity and frequency of workouts (as noted earlier) so an exact amount is tough to recommend. Start with the servings suggested above and increase from there if needed.

Need For POWER Output & Glycogen
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  1. Science overwhelming supports the fact that the average person experiences better health with FEWER carbohydrates.
  2. Athletes who engage in HIGH INTENSITY activities (basketball, Crossfit-style weight training, bodybuilding, football) have an increased need for carbohydrates.
  3. Those athletes should start with 1 serving rice, potatoes, or similar natural carb source at the meal(s) following exertion(s) and slowly increase to find individual carb tolerance.
  4. TAG an athlete you know in the comments below and let’s continue this conversation.