For a long time now, I’ve been of the mind that if you want to get and stay lean that you should follow a low-carb, high protein diet with a good amount of fat (and of course fresh things) sprinkled in. Of course, I’ve read plenty of generic studies proving my confirmation bias to be correct, but my personal opinion about it was based, honestly, on how I felt and looked when I ate too many carbs. For me, the best I look and feel is when I don’t eat very many starches at all, and the fastest way I’ve lost fat is to cut them out entirely (other than veggies).
So, it’s been a long time coming that I’ve wanted to research and write a blog for those of you out there who might have toyed with the idea of a low-carb diet, because now I have the science behind it.
Without writing a dissertation, here are the scientific basics in terms normal humans (like me) can understand… carbohydrates are your body’s favorite type of fuel. Imagine little tiny fuel cells in your body floating around, and when you eat carbs, your body fills them up. Now, the speed at which they’re filled up is very important. If they get blitzed, it’s bad, and if they get full slowly, it’s good.
When they’re “blitzed,” it’s by refined carbs. These are the food we know we shouldn’t eat: sugar, syrup, candy,
“fat” soda, etc. These fill up our fuel cells quickly, which sounds good, but it causes our bodies to release insulin. Insulin is the hormone that signals the body to stop burning fat and start storing it. It’s the fat-storing hormone. A large influx in insulin can also cause a crash. It makes us feel really tired and often really hungry (the opposite of what we want).
When the fuel cells are filled slowly, it’s by complex carbs. These are: oatmeal, sweet potatoes, brown rice, rye, barley (and many more). These fill our fuel cells slowly, which allows our blood sugar to stay even (not spike) and cause our bodies to release glucagon. Glucagon is a fat-burning hormone triggered when blood sugar is steady.
~ Another important aside is the glycemic index (GI). This is a scale we use to rate carbs, and it can help you figure out which carbs are the best choices (low GI) and which aren’t (high GI).~
So, should you eat carbs? And when? And how much? Spoiler alert – it depends.
The first thing it depends on is how active you are. If you’re very active, then your fuel cells will be empty. You did an intense interval workout yesterday and hardly ate any carbs, so your fuel cells are ready to receive. If you sat on the couch or in an office chair all day, then it’s likely you haven’t depleted your fuel cells any. In that case, whatever you have eaten today is likely sufficient. It also depends on the type of exercise, because lifting (among others) causes your body to continue to burn your energy stores after you’ve finished.
Everyone’s fuel cell size (the amount of glycogen you can store) is different. It also depends on your lifestyle, genetics, training regimens, etc. It can be tricky to figure out how big or small yours are, but it’s a good guideline to tie your carb intake to your activity level for a start.
The next thing is the when. If you’re going to eat carbs, then the best times of the day are before and after a workout. Beforehand so that you have the energy reserves to last through a tough workout and after so that you have the energy system to deliver the protein you need to your muscles. Both instances should include protein to support the muscle breakdown you’re encountering during a workout.
Another controversial question is whether you should ever eat carbs before bed or if it’s a good idea right when you wake up. This also depends.
If your main goal is fat loss, then you should abstain from carbs when you wake up. You’ve effectively done a night-long fast, and your body is burning fat by not having new calories to use instead. However, it’s also burning muscle to sustain itself, so that’s an issue for people trying to gain muscle.
If your only goal is to gain muscle, then you should eat a small snack before bed and a meal when you get up to make sure that you have the nutrients your body needs to gain mass and not burn existing mass.
If you’re somewhere in the middle, then join the club. My personal recommendation is to eat a protein-based snack before bed if you’re hungry to lessen any muscle loss overnight and then eat a protein-based breakfast with a small carb supplement in the morning to halt muscle breakdown.
The moral? If you’re looking to continuously burn fat, then you should be eating few carbs. The carbs you do eat should be complex and should be eaten strategically only to supplement workouts and to end night-long fasts. Do keep in mind that you’ll need to supplement calories with protein in order to maintain those hard-earned gains!
I know it’s disappointing, and it does take some getting used to, but when your abs are rippling this summer, you’ll be happy you replaced toast with eggs every morning.