In this short article I am going to share with you what I have learned about low carb diets and sodium depletion and why they are both dangerous to your health. Just not having enough sodium in your diet is dangerous to your health; it doesn't have to necessarily be a depletion. In all of my articles I do not clam to "know it all" but I do speak a lot from personal experience, research, and also from other competitors that have contacted me to share their stories as well. I have also attached some example meal plans in this article of what NOT TO FOLLOW for any reason or duration of time. These are examples of DANGEROUS meal plans. I personally do not believe in any crazy diet methods… just plain whole balanced nutrition with the proper balance of micro-nutrients or "macros", your carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats.
First let’s start by going over why carbohydrate intake is so important whether you are a competitor or not. Carbohydrates serve as the principle source of fuel for our bodies and brain function. Basically, having no carbohydrates or not enough is like trying to run a car on no fuel. Without enough carbohydrates in our diets and too high of protein intake it causes a major strain on the kidneys and causes your liver to work harder also. The strain on the kidneys will decrease their functioning and could lead to things like osteoporosis (no matter how many weights you lift) and kidney stones in the future.
When your carbohydrate intake is too low and protein is too high it causes you to excrete more calcium. This in turn throws off your electrolyte balance causing extra strain on your body and heart. I previously had this happen to me. Too high of protein intake and not enough carbohydrates caused to me to have a major imbalance in my electrolytes, causing me to have severe cramps no matter what I did until I found out the source of the problem.
Eating too much protein and not enough of anything else will also raise your liver enzymes dramatically which is EXTREMELY DANGEROUS. I do have medical proof of this and that is one of the reasons I am so eager to help others. That and the amount of competitors that contact me sharing their bad experiences with a "coach" also.
Now let's touch on why sodium is a must in your diet, especially if you are an athlete, but important regardless! You need sodium in your diet for things like muscle contraction and that includes your heart function because your heart is a muscle. Sodium is a mineral that your body needs to function properly. Sodium is also needed for things like regulation and concentration of our electrolytes, nerve transmission and proper balance of water and body fluids. Sodium helps keep your bodies PH levels balanced. Sodium also plays a crucial in regulating our blood pressure and blood volume.
The following are symptoms of being sodium deficient in extreme cases: (HYPONATREMIA) Dehydration, low blood sugar, heart palpitations, muscle cramping, weakness or being lethargic, confusion or feeling disoriented, slurred speech, nausea, seizures, coma, and even death if left untreated or for an extended period of time. SCARY!
For extreme cases, for instance competitors cutting out sodium or even doing a total sodium depletion for a period of time, there is a condition called HYPONATREMIA that I just mentioned above which can also lead to brain damage in severe cases. This condition is basically when your sodium levels are abnormally low (which if you have muscle cramping then that is most likely the case – your levels are too low). Most people think that adding potassium in will cure this issue when actually that is not the case!
Before thinking potassium is the problem make sure you have enough sodium in your diet. Actually, adding potassium in when you are sodium deficient could cause your aldosterone levels to increase (this is a hormone that regulates the amount of electrolytes in our bodies) and throw off or reduce your ADH output (our anti diuretic hormone that causes us to retain water) which will obviously lead to more trouble.
HYPONATREMIA is caused when not having proper sodium intake in your diet or possibly having sodium flushed out dramatically with a very strong diuretic like possibly Lasix (very common in the bodybuilding world); also, being active while not having enough sodium in your diet and drinking too much water flushes your system of any extra sodium that you may have in your body. If you are active and do not properly get enough salt intake this is a time where I would recommend a sports drink – they do serve a purpose – or add sea salt into your nutrition daily in moderation. The sports drinks lower in sugar are typically better for you unless you NEED the sugar also.
I am sure you have heard of competitors having strokes at a very young age while competing. HYPONATREMIA can also cause brain swelling and STROKE. I am not saying this is exactly what has caused the competitors to have strokes, but I do hear of some "gurus" cutting out competitors’ sodium way before it is even show time then having them drink 2-3 gallons of water a day (VERY DANGEROUS). I have personally seen this!
Again, this FLUSHES YOUR SYSTEM OF ANY SODIUM YOU MAY HAVE. Cutting sodium out during a competition depletion is also not necessary and can be dangerous. Sodium and water are what keep the muscles looking full, not necessarily carb loading. I also believe that complete sodium depletion is an old school method. We are in a sport that keeps evolving and science proves this. In my opinion, I would not cut sodium from my diet EVER. Like I mentioned, sodium is a mineral that our bodies need to function properly and that means for contest prep as well.
I would suggest to always KEEP sodium in your meal plan no matter what any "coach" says and, as far the competition depletion, you would be better off doing a light sodium load than cutting sodium out completely. Cutting it out completely throws off the hormones that I mentioned above (aldosterone and ADH). Then if you carb deplete on top of that and also cut water it can be EXTREMELY dangerous! By doing this it will also make your muscles appear flat and probably make you cramp up on stage. Too many diuretics make you appear flat and almost saggy looking not to mention the strain it puts on your heart.
If you are working with someone YOU HAVE TO MAKE SURE THEY KNOW WHAT THEY ARE DOING. More diuretics, less water, less sodium, and fewer carbohydrates are never the correct solution. Also it is pretty hard to trick your body that much because it is incredibly smart!
INTERESTING FACT: Water follows glucose (carbohydrates) in the body, so it is not necessarily the carbohydrates that make you have that full tight look before you hit the stage; it is the water following the glucose that makes you look full and tight. Long story short, it doesn't seem at all logical to cut water and load carbohydrates. It seems logical to keep water intake at a good amount to even high and manipulate carbohydrates so the water is stored inside the muscle and not on the outside or (subcutaneously). Of course the sodium plays a roll, too. Possibly do a light sodium load then bring it down some, but DON’T CUT IT COMPLETELY.
The more I become involved in this sport the more I become blown away at the methods I see being used on competitors when it comes to cutting carbs, cutting sodium, and cutting water. I am also amazed at the amount of people that think sodium is bad for you because of what a "trainer" or "coach" has told them. It makes me very happy to share what I have learned along my journey and I continue to learn and better myself and that allows me to continue to help many more people.
Saving people from making the same mistakes I have made from a previous "coach" – and some I haven't made – because I have studied. My advice would be to research everything, especially when it comes to your body and your health. It is easy to trust someone when they should know what they are doing, but you only have one body and your health can be gone before you know it! Also realize that your body is smarter than you think it is, so listen to it CLOSELY! Stay safe.