Does this line sound familiar?
“Just stay away from carbs at all costs and then you can eat as much fat as you want.”
As diet philosophies have evolved over the years, we’ve somehow gotten into the world of extremes. We either cut out all of our fat intake … or, due to the most-recent and ever-growing religion of low-carbers, we’ve been convinced to step away from the breads and the potatoes and the rice.
The carbohydrate has been made the scapegoat for our increasing waistline.
On the surface, it makes sense. As the low-fat diet trend became popular, the big food industry put a premium on highly-processed foods filled with all sorts of sugary garbage, which typically includes that nasty ingredient: high fructose corn syrup.
As a result, obesity rates are rising all across the land. And now the standard American diet now sees most individuals eating close to 300 grams of carbohydrates a day … that’s 1,200 calories from carbs alone!
The truth is that people don’t get fat from eating carbs. People get fat from eating way too many calories by either eating too many carbs; eating too many of the wrong carbs; eating too much fat; eating too much protein or some sort of collection of ALL OF THE ABOVE.
So the solution is not as simple as just removing all starch from our diet. In fact, the solution may even be to include MORE carbs.
Let’s look at some sciency stuff (I promise not to get too carried away here): In the digestive process, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which becomes the preferred fuel of choice for our bodies. During intense training, our muscles need some fuel to power through, so it turns to glucose.
I say preferred fuel of choice for a reason. Humans are super efficient in this process, and can even convert other macronutrients to glucose and fuel sources. But, understand that the carbohydrate is always going to be preferred in heavy training. We are talking about lifting and training hard hard, not taking a walk in the park.
Now, after using up the stored glucose, we are a like a car that is now on “E” in the tank and we need to refill. Enter the carb.
Post-workout time is the right time for carb consumption and a big reason why one of my first rules for a great nutritional approach is to “earn your carbs,” which simply means save the majority of your starchy carb intake until after you train.
When we follow this rule and carbs are consumed post-workout, glucose is then added to the system through digestion, and fed to our cells through the use of a hormone called insulin. This helps give our muscles the proper juice to grow.
Without the proper fuel, our muscles stagnate and we don’t see the proper recovery or growth. Without recovery or growth, our ability to reach our goals can suffer. But when properly fueled with adequate carbs, proteins and fats, our bodies strengthen and grow and we reap the benefits through the increase of lean muscle mass and decrease of body fat. This is a good thing.
The next step here is type of carb/starch that we include in our diet.
I don’t buy into the dogma of IIFYM or, “If It Fits Your Macros.” This approach basically gives you free reign to eat junk as long as it fits within your calorie goals and hits on the appropriate number of macronutrients you have designated. In other words, if I can eat 200 grams of carbs in one day … then it’s okay to fill up on Twizzlers.
This is not to say that indulging is against the rules here. We should all live a little. But, we should also strive to get some of the right foods in our system to help our bodies run at optimal levels.
This means that carb intake should include healthier starches that will benefit us in the long run, like sweet potatoes, squashes, fruits and some wheats (as long as there are no digestive problems with gluten, wheat, etc.).
For the active individual interested in fat loss, an intake of about 125 grams of carbs per day can tend to do the trick. This is give-or-take depending on the individual of course, but is likely just enough to fuel workouts and prevent added fat gain.
Now, before we go out and stuff our faces in a bowl full of crappy cereal with a side of bagel, a word of caution. There is a time and a place for a lower-carb approach. Generally, those that are living completely sedentary lives or are dealing with an extraordinary amount of fat to lose can and should limit carb intake for weight loss. Those with insulin sensitivities should do the same, as well.
These individuals simply don’t need that many carbs to be efficient and would likely see great benefits in keeping carb levels at 80-100 grams per day.
Others may even go super duper low carb and get into the ketogenic diet approach by going 50 grams of carbs per day or less. And for many, this is totally acceptable and awesome progress is achieved as the body.
But … for the rest of us, we should strive to have the right balance of all macronutrients, protein, fat and carbs, in order to achieve our goals.
The REAL Focus here: Low-carb should not mean NO-carb. My solution is this: play around and experiment. It’s through experimentation with our own bodies and nutrition and training where we learn the most about how our body responds to certain factors. Carbohydrate intake being one of those factors.