Was Fat Bastard right? Is the villain from Austin Powers actually a sage soothsayer of proper nutrition?
But, he brings up a point worthy of discussion.
Anyone who has read my stuff before, trained with me previously or casually conversed with me knows that I am 100% in the group of people who believe a low-carbohydrate lifestyle is a smart decision. As I’ll get into, monitoring your carbohydrate intake has a dramatic positive effect on your body composition, but more importantly there is overwhelming research that indicates a low-carb nutritional lifestyle is far better for our long-term health and livelihood than one might think.
Lifestyle. I’m not talking about a damn diet.
We’ll answer just what the hell ‘low-carb’ is, since it’s been bastardized by ridiculous and ineffective diets across the globe for the last 25 years. It DOESN’T mean you eat nothing but meat and fat. It DOESN’T mean you shouldn’t eat fruits and vegetables and it most certainly DOESN’T mean you can’t eat any carbs.
Now that I have all the double negatives out of my system, be prepared to take the word ‘diet’ and chuck it down the garbage disposal. I do not and will never advocate diets. This is a nutritional lifestyle built for the long-haul.
What is a Carb and Why Do You Need Them?
A carbohydrate is a saccharide molecular compound made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.
Uh, cool. In English?
It’s ultimately a sugar and there are two kinds: simple and complex.
Simple carbohydrates are made up of one sugar (ie. fructose, glucose, lactose, etc.). Examples of these include
- Fruit & Fruit Juice (fructose)
- Table Sugar (sucrose)
- Many Processed Foods
- Milk (lactose)
- Soda (sucrose or fructose)
Complex carbohydrates are made up of more than one sugar. Examples of these include
- Grains (oats, barley, quinoa, millet, etc)
- Starches (potatoes and yams)
- Breads of all kind (bagels, tortillas, pitas, including whole wheat varieties)
Ultimately, it does not matter the type of carbohydrate since they all get broken down into glucose after we eat them. It’s a matter of how quickly this process happens; widely known as the Gylcemic Index and the speed of turning a food into blood glucose is what makes something potentially problematic.
Simple carbs are broken down much faster than complex carbs and tend to hit our bloodstream faster, which in turn spikes insulin which can be a good or bad thing depending on the timing of when you eat them.
For training purposes, carbs in some form are often essential to replace glycogen stores after a P360, CrossFit or high intensity interval workout.
Glycogen is the tank of stored carbohydrates in your body and a large source of energy during high intensity interval training (HIIT), which is what you’ll often find at our gym. Since you’ll burn through a ton of glycogen during a HIIT workout, I recommend that you fill the tank back up after training (more on that below) with acceptable complex carbs.
Carbs and Their Pal, Insulin
Your body goes through a very specific process after you’re finished eating a high-carb meal (ie. a burrito, slices of pizza, a large sandwich, even a big bowl of oatmeal with honey and some skim milk).
- First, your pancreas sends out insulin to try and clear the excess glucose in your bloodstream. While glucose in the muscles is a good thing, it’s toxic when it’s in the bloodstream which is why your body runs the hurry-up offense to try and get it the hell out of there.
- If your glycogen stores are full (which will be the case if you have not yet exercised that day), then that excess glucose will be shuttled to your fat cells, and stored as body fat more often than not. If you have worked out intensely, you will need to replenish glycogen stores which is why small doses of good, clean carbs like quinoa or sweet potatoes post-training are often recommended.
- Your body sends additional hormones in attempt to even things out internally since it does not like this current state of spiked insulin. It’s a combination of adrenaline and cortisol which have completely opposite effects on the body and creates a back-and-forth feeling that is quite unpleasant.
Ever felt like complete ass after a large pig out? Nausea? Heart racing? This is the direct effect of your body handling excess sugar in the bloodstream.
Effect on Body Composition
Carbohydrates, when eaten in excess amounts of what we need, will be stored as fat. Since their job in the body is to provide fuel and energy, it has nowhere to go if that fuel tank is already full and you’re not burning it. It will spill out of the tank and into the fat cells, essentially.
Let’s take a look at the following graph from Mark’s Daily Apple. This is the best representation I have ever come across on what you can expect as a result, both chronic and acute, for daily carbohydrate consumption. We love this graph so much we put it front and center in our gym and make it recommended viewing.
Here’s the summary:
- Consuming an average of 50g per day = ketosis, rapid fat loss (ketosis is when your body switches over and uses it’s body fat for fuel. Prepare to feel like pure shit for a day or two when this shift occurs, but it’s not a bad approach to kick start fat loss. You’ll experience headaches and lethargy at first but after a day you will adapt. I shock my body with this at least once every six weeks.)
- 50 – 100g per day = Slow and steady fat loss (**P360 ZONE**)
- 100 – 150g per day = maintenance of body composition; won’t get better, won’t get worse (**P360 ZONE**)
- 150 – 300g per day = Slow and steady fat storage
- 300+ = you’re either carrying a lot of excess fat or will be soon. You are always playing diabetes roulete.
The craziest part of this whole thing?
The average American consumes between 350 and 600 grams of carbohydrates per day!!!
To put this number into perspective, that’s eight bowels of oatmeal, or four burritos or the most probable – fast food at all three meals. My mind was freakin’ BLOWN when I read this since I assumed the public had a general idea about how bad excess carbohydrates are for health…I couldn’t have been more incorrect.
But you can still consume nowhere near that number and still be fighting against fat loss. The reality is that most people do not actually need the amount of carbohydrates they eat on a daily basis, since they simply don’t need to burn through that much fuel. And remember what we said happens when you’re at a carbohydrate surplus?
You store it as fat! Correct!
This is why our country is a nation of fatties, brainwashed to believe that oatmeal for breakfast, 12″ turkey sandwich for lunch and chicken with brown rice for dinner is “healthy” when in reality, that type of carb consumption would not change your body at all, and probably come with a host of gastrointestinal side effects, as well.
Let’s take the following references so that we can better understand daily carbohydrate intake:
- 1 slice of bread = ~25g
- 1 serving of brown rice = ~75g
- 1 apple = ~20g
- 1c vegetables = ~10g
- 1 serving whole wheat pasta = ~75g (most people eat at least two servings at a meal)
Think about what you currently eat for the day. Does it contain multiple sources of complex carbohydrates? Does it contain a complex carb at most every major sitting? If you eat the aforementioned oatmeal, sandwich and rice as your meals you are consuming at least 180 grams of carbohydrates. Next time you’re here, check the graph (or scroll up) and see where that puts you.
Also, what do you notice about that list?
For me, I notice that I can get at least three times the nutrients in one cup of vegetables at 1/7th of the unnecessary carbohydrates, and if I ate two apples throughout the day it wouldn’t equal half the amount of carbs in one small plate of whole wheat Healthy Harvest.
The only time I fully endorse the consistent ingestion of clean, good carbohydrates is after you’re done with a grueling workout. Slow strength training tends to not deplete glycogen stores so you don’t need to worry about it after a slow-paced (yet heavy) day of strength training, but an intense circuit? Yes, replenish and refuel smartly and without guilt.
If carbs are for energy? Will I be run down without enough?
The reality is, when on a low carb diet your body can and will turn to healthy fats as an efficient fuel source. Great sources of these fuel fats are:
- salmon and fish
- beef & chicken
Fat, despite all of the conventional wisdom that’s actually made America the sickest nation in the world over the last forty years, is your friend and should be treated as such. Give him a huge, butt slap or high five and even stroke his ego a little bit. Healthy fats such as those mentioned above will not only provide your body with fuel but will actually work with your body to burn the unhealthy and unwanted fat.
The Grain Debate
There’s been a growing mountain of scientific evidence forming over the past few years that paints a very grim portrait for the consumption of grains. Since our government actually subsidizes their growth (literally), they won’t be going away anytime soon (hmm, wonder why they serve as the foundation on the government-approved Food Pyramid), but you can certainly make yourself aware of the proposed dangers
I’ll summarize it as best I can.
Those who promote grains say:
- they contain valuable fiber which is critical for our digestive health
- they help prevent colon cancer
- they help lower cholesterol
Those who are anti-grain say:
- that fiber in grains is actually not as good as it’s cracked up to be. They’ll point to the fact that there are plenty of studies that prove the most valuable fiber is found in fruits and vegetables, rendering whole grains unneeded in that regard.
- that grains put our insulin levels in complete turmoil, priming us to store and accumulate fat rather than burn it.
- that they are VERY taxing on the digestive system and gut, to put it lightly.
Grains contain gluten and lectin. Gluten is the protein processed from wheat and what creates the elasticity in dough.
Do you know what gluten means in Latin?…”Glue”. It’s also an ingredient in commercial wallpaper glue? If you are fine with eating something that literally means “glue” and is used to make wallpaper stick, fine, but I’m avoiding it as often as I can. Ever seen apples or spinach as an ingredient in Elmer’s? They are both good sources of fiber.
We hear a lot about gluten in today’s culture since it’s estimated by some that 1/3 of America is actually gluten intolerant. This means that there are a large chunk of us who, every time we eat gluten, put our body in a state of internal stress and repair.
Lectins are not off the hook, either. They are mild toxins that do not play nicely with your gastrointestinal tract.
I’m not part of the Paleo group (though I believe that philosophy to be very sound) that says never to eat grains. I’m just saying be aware of the arguments against them, do some research on gluten for yourself and treat what you find seriously. Experiment with complete removal from your diet for a few weeks and see your body reacts. I’m betting that you feel better and have more energy, not to mention you’ll most likely shed some unneeded body fat.
The Bottom Line
Get the vast majority of your carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables and the occasional complex carb craving. Follow that graph above religiously and adjust your intake based on what you want to accomplish.
To put this into perspective, I eat more fat than carbohydrates on a daily basis and I would classify myself as fairly skinny. I have no cholesterol or health issues and have plenty of energy to train intensely four to five times per week. I also go bananas eating whatever I want one to two days out of every fourteen and don’t think twice about it. I just understand what it will do to me and strategically plan when I’m going to pass out with a Yogurtland needle in my arm.
This nutritional lifestyle works for me and others that I’ve trained. I’m not trying to lose weight so I don’t always watch my carb intake as closely as I recommend to others who are. I’ll mix in three or four weeks of very close monitoring and then go into two weeks of crushing breakfast burritos. Why?
IT’S ALL. ABOUT. YOUR GOAL.
Don’t treat nutrition it like a death sentence. If you are absolutely craving Roberto’s, then take the damn thing down. Just understand the aforementioned consequences will occur in the short-term and move forward.
Every person has different sensitivity to carbs and a different tolerance to certain foods, like grains. Genetics play a role. Age plays a role. Gender plays a role. Activity and metabolism play roles. I’m simply saying I believe a low-carb nutritional lifestyle to be the absolute best way to achieve a lean, healthy body that’s energized and on a path to longevity.
Let me know your feedback – are you eating low-carb? High-carb? Paleo? Zone?