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Wrestling with the low carb diet

Regimen keeps WCW star Marcus Bagwell "buff"

By Mike Falcon
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.
A Doctor In Your

What does a big-muscle professional wrestler eat?

Anything he wants.

But after living that punch line for a few years, World Championship Wrestling star Marcus "Buff" Bagwell found a better answer, at least for him: the individualized low-carbohydrate diet.

"I was always just a little puffy, and I had begun to see the beginnings of what could become 'love handles,'" admits the 240-pound grappler. "When you figure everyone watching sees it too, it becomes an issue."

Marcus attacked his bodyfat the way he faces opponents: straight ahead, no holds barred.

"The only trouble was that it didn't matter what I did in terms of exercise. No amount of running, walking, or weight room work changed it. Neither did cutting down my calories. Then I started a modified low-carbohydrate, high-protein sustained eating plan."

That did the trick.

Why does it work?


The theory behind carbohydrate-restricted diets is that the sugars in high carbohydrate foods prompt the body to elevate insulin levels unnecessarily. The result is the creation and storing of unneeded fat. High carbohydrate foods typically include pasta, breads, fruits, sugars, and even a few vegetables, like carrots.

By reducing daily carbohydrate intake to what most dieticians consider unusually low amounts, insulin levels remain fairly steady, and fat is not created or stored. Conversely, the body must burn fat reserves for energy.

Depending on which low-carb diet guru you ask, when daily carbohydrate intake is limited to somewhere between 10-60 grams, this fat-burning effect occurs. Marcus hovers towards the high end of that scale, and occasionally exceeds it.

"If I'm facing a particularly tough opponent in the ring that night, I might go a little 'over' because I know I'll burn it up. And I am a good ol' Southern boy, so you have to figure on the occasional beer. But those are the exceptions, not the rule."

"Listening to what he eats, I'd have to say that what he may have is a calorie intake that is very much attuned to his needs," says Dr. David A. Levitsky, professor of nutrition at Cornell University. "Lean meats, lots of vegetables and water - and excluding large amounts of pasta and breads - makes me suspect he may be on a low-calorie, low-fat diet sort of disguised as low-carbohydrate. He's definitely at the highest end of what many would consider a low-carbohydrate diet."

"That's why I consider it an individualized program," says Marcus. "It's the amount of carbohydrates that work for me. And it's coupled with a low-fat content as well. So maybe it is the best of both worlds. But when I counted calories, it just didn't get the job done."

Two years into the eating regimen - which Marcus emphasizes is a diet plan rather than a diet - he's five pounds lighter than before, but with some noticeable changes. "I look a lot different, "says Marcus. "My body fat is way down, I can see my abdominal muscles, and I have significantly more strength and muscular mass."

Is it healthy?

Despite Marcus' success with a low-carbohydrate diet - and the loose pants syndrome enjoyed by untold others following the plan - most dieticians vigorously oppose the idea. The traditional food pyramid is rich with the very grains and fruits low-carbohydrate diets seek to restrict.

"It runs counter to many long-held beliefs about healthy eating," says Levitsky, "and I don't recommend it. But in fairness, the low-carbohydrate diet has found a lot of popularity because of its quick and noticeable effects within the first few weeks, which are apparent both visually and on the scale."

These rapid initial results are due to the depletion of the body's glycogen stores. Since sugars are vastly reduced in a low-carbohydrate diet, the body breaks down stored fat to release glycogen into the system. The liver in turn converts the glycogen into glucose, the sugar it burns for energy.

"Glycogen is heavy because it includes a large number of water molecules," says Levitsky. "When the liver converts the glycogen to glucose, this water is excreted from the body. It makes you look leaner fast, but it's basically a water loss."

The popular wrestler and the internationally recognized nutrition expert do not exactly see eye-to-eye on low-carbohydrate regimens, but both recognize there are individual differences that must be addressed in any successful longterm nutritional plan. And in between their collective observations, a solid middle ground seems to be emerging.

Controversial issues

High cholesterol - High intakes of animal and saturated fats can lead to unhealthy cholesterol profiles. High cholesterol is linked to heart disease. Since most low carbohydrate dieters find most of their calories in meat-source protein and fat, this has been a longstanding concern.

"You don't have to eat the fat," says Marcus. "Trim it away and stay with lean meats, like turkey, chicken, and fish." When fish and lean animal meats are the primary protein source, HDL "bad" cholesterol often goes down.

About half of the daily protein intake for Marcus comes from low cholesterol powdered whey protein, blended into a shake. "You could substitute or add a soy protein powder if you were a vegetarian, or if you were convinced that soy should be part of your diet," he adds.

For reasons not entirely understood, low carbohydrate dieters often see the benefit of
a drop in triglyceride levels, the blood fats created by the combination of fatty acids and glycerol, a natural oily alcohol in our systems. Lower triglycerides decrease the risk of arteriosclerosis, heart attack, and stroke.

Because of his emphasis on fish and lean meat, Marcus has found he actually needs to add some fats to his diet for fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K as well as essential fatty acids. He uses both flaxseed and cold water ocean fish oils, high in unsaturated Omega-3 fatty acids, which have been demonstrated to reduce the accumulation of arterial plaque.

Elevated blood pressure - "Eating a high-fat, high-calorie diet often does raise blood pressure," says Levitsky. "And adding salt to high fat meat is going to make it even worse. But Marcus may have struck a nice compromise by staying away from high fat meat and reducing his salt intake."

Marcus reports that his blood pressure "is actually a little bit lower than it was before, and just absolutely normal."

Excess uric acid - In some people, uric acid levels may be increased by eating liver and kidney meats, as well as fish and fowl. Gout and kidney stones can be exacerbated by high levels of uric acid.

Adequate amounts of water may assist in flushing uric acid from the kidneys. "For people with normal kidney and liver function who are not predisposed to gout, this shouldn't be a problem, " says Levitsky.

Osteoporosis - Excess protein over a long period of time can produce lower calcium levels, but most experts see this argument against low-carb diets as a weak one. Calcium supplementation easily keeps levels where they need to be for good bone health.

Nutrient loss - The wide array of phytonutirents found in fresh grain, fruits, and vegetables is frequently absent from the low-carbohydrate diet. Bagwell's modified approach includes three helpings of whole grains - oatmeal, grits, and toast for breakfast - plus additional supplementation with grain-derived vitamin E and a tocotrienol complex. Tocotrienols have been shown to inhibit the initial formation of certain cancers. Other antioxidants found in some fresh fruits can also be taken
in capsule form.

To get the cancer-fighting phytonutrients usually found in salads - which can be bland without dressings laden with sugars or fats - Marcus goes for a salsa recipe he learned from his friend Joe Wells, the former Oakland Raiders linebacker, now an engineered-food entrepeneur.

"It's hard to think of Oakland Raiders and salad at the same time," says Marcus. "But
Joe just takes a bunch of onions, tomatoes, celery, and cilantro and chops it up with some chiles. Except for the lettuce - which is basically just water - it's pretty much a salad. I eat it by the spoonful."

Ketosis - When stored fat is burned instead of dietary glucose, fatty acids are released into the blood stream which break down into ketones. When too many ketones accumulate in the system, a condition called ketosis develops which can lead to kidney damage that can ultimately be fatal. Carefully maintained fluid intake during the low-carb regimen flushes excess ketones from the body, avoiding any potential problems.

"If your family doctor doesn't find any evidence of kidney or liver dysfunction, and everything else is in good working order, then I don't see an inherent danger," says Levitsky. "But again, you need to ensure that the kidneys have a lot of water to keep waste materials moving out."

"This is the one area I have had difficulties with," laughs Bagwell. "When I have to drive to a match a couple of hundred miles away or fly somewhere and get a seat by the window, taking in a gallon of water a day can be a real big problem."

Electrolyte imbalance - Because the system must be flushed with fluids, mineral imbalances or shortages can occur because these vital substances are being washed away with the waste products. Numerous low-cost mineral supplements are readily available which can keep the electrolytes optimally functional.

Boredom - The chief barrier to longstanding success with a low carbohydrate diet may be loss of interest. "For most people, it is a monotonous diet," says Levitsky. "Because it's usually meat proteins, you do get a full and satisfied feeling. But longterm, it's boring, and when people 'cheat' on this diet they immediately replenish stored glycogen and they tend to put the weight back on quickly."

"It can get monotonous," admits Marcus. "I face pretty much the same foods day in and day out. But for me a modified low-carbohydrate diet is all about balancing the needs for nutrients in a 240-pound very active athlete. In the end, I simply came to realize that eating what looked appealing was not a plan, but a reaction. I've got more than enough excitement in the ring, so I don't need to look for it on my plate."

For more information:
Dr. Levitsky's extended cautionary evaluation of low carbohydrate diets via Cornell University:

The official site of the Dr. Atkins Diet, a mainstay of the low carbohydrate, high protein diet theory:

Marcus Buff Bagwell's page on the World Championship Wrestling site:

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