MON: Why You Need Carbs – The Skinny Fat Special
Question (Dwight Schrute voice). What gets people more fired up? Politics, religion, or nutrition?
Trick question. All of them.
Taken a step further, aside from whether or not to eat animals, the next most fiery topic among fitness professionals is carbs. I got into the fitness and nutrition world nine years ago, right when low carb started to come back around as a major trend and to be honest with you, I used to be a very big believer in it. I coached people to be focused on a low carb approach, and I saw great results for myself and others following it my first two years. I personally got down to single digit body fat for the first time in my life, and saw no noticeable decrease in any of my lifts. Others following a lower carb approach experienced much of the same.
Life was good, until…
The Skinny Fat Special
Something happened to me after that initial two year period of success that I initially couldn’t explain. Slowly but surely, I began to get fatter. My body fat jump up six percent from nine to fifteen percent the following two years and I couldn’t explain it. I followed the same diet and the same exercise routine, and every book or site I went to tried to explain this as I was simply miscalculating my calories in versus my calories out.
“Weight loss is simple”, they’d all say. “If you are eating fewer calories than you burn, you’ll lose weight. If it’s the opposite, you’ll gain weight.” It’s the cop out the entire industry seems to make on this subject, yet when I calculated my calories, I was eating a very scary 1,700 calories per day. At six feet, one hundred and eighty pounds that’s at least five hundred calories less than I should be eating, which according to traditional calories in versus calories out, is the exact daily deficit (500 calories) that should result in a steady fat loss.
And here I was going in the opposite direction.
What I didn’t know at the time, is that the constant deprivation of carbs was sending my hormones into a shit storm. The chronically low levels of insulin I was creating in my body by depriving it of carbs was not only limiting muscle growth (we need insulin to grow muscle), it was kick starting muscle breakdown. It was sending my cortisol levels way up while decreasing my testosterone levels, causing my body to store body fat and break down its muscle. The dreaded “Skinny Fat Special.”
From an exercise stand point, it works like this.
We store carbohydrates as glycogen mostly in our muscles and liver, and if we’re active and eating low carb, we can burn through those stores very quickly. This often manifests itself in the form of fast initial “weight loss”, but since glycogen can carry up to four times its weight in water, it’s often mostly water weight. Your body just doesn’t burn pounds of fat that quickly. Now in a state of depleted glycogen, our body turns to fat as fuel which sounds amazing, but that process is not as seamless as you think because we burn fat at a much slower rate than we do carbs. Because high intense workouts are short, we do not have time to tap into fat as the primary source of energy, so we often end up converting some of our muscle into glucose through a process called gluconeogensis. Our bodies want to burn glucose in high intense activities, and if we’re not providing it in the form of dietary carbs then our body will cannibalize its own muscle in an attempt to find it before it burns its own fat.
The high intensity, low carb approach yields sluggish, unproductive workouts where we drive higher body fat percentages and further throw our hormones into chaos. What starts out as something productive turns into a nasty enemy. This is exactly what I experienced when I went from nine to fifteen percent body fat and saw my resting body temperature drop to as low as 96.8 degrees. My metabolism and energy levels came to a slow, gradual halt.
We’ve all heard that term and I’ve never been able to fully grasp what it meant, even after I obtained my first nutritional certification in 2010. Not until I began diving into the works of Precision Nutrition did this ambiguous term become a bit more clear. Our thyroid produces a hormone called T3 that is important for blood sugar management and an active metabolism, and when T3 levels get too low for too long, our metabolism flame slowly goes out through a condition called euthyroid sick syndrome. Our resting body temperature drops, our function impairs, and we lose a significant amount of daily energy because our thyroid function isn’t healthy.
The party doesn’t stop there.
Reverse T3 is another hormone that affects our metabolism. It inhibits T3, and when we deprive our body of carbs and calories, Reverse T3 production goes up. What we’re seeing in this scenario is a double whammy of lowered T3 and increased Reverse T3, both of which culminate into a “slow metabolism.”
If you’re feeling these things, I recommend immediately increasing both calories and carbs.
What’s the Danger Zone?
I am no nutrition expert, not by a long shot. Every body type is different and our genetics respond uniquely to different macronutrients. I cannot over stress the importance of individual genetics to how we process any nutrition plan. Some of us can get away with eating very low carb, some of us will operate most effectively on a very high carb diet. In an effort to help create a frame, I’m comfortable saying that if you’re regularly consuming under 100g of carbohydrates as an active male or 75g as an active female, there’s a strong possibility that you begin to develop some of the nasty side effects outlined today(1).
- decreased thyroid output
- increased cortisol output
- decreased testosterone
- impaired mood and cognitive function
- muscle breakdown
- suppressed immune function
In fact, nutritionists much smarter than I argue that carb intake should be higher than that if these side effects are to be avoided.
Women are particularly at risk for extremely low carb diets, facing issues such as irregular menstrual cycle, chronic inflammation, more body fat, and a loss of bone density. The culprit is a disruption in the regular hormone balance brought on by lowered carbs messing with the HPA axis, a system based around their hypothalamus and pituitary glands(2).
Human beings are incredible at over correction. We hear that too many carbs are bad, so we eliminate all of them. We hear that too little carbs are bad, so we gorge ourselves on them. Neither of these are smart decisions, in my personal opinion. The better choice is balance and you’ll need to do some exploration to figure that out but a good starting point is:
- 1g protein per pound of body weight
- 1-1.5g carbohydrates per pound of body weight (depends on a few things)
- 0.4g fat per pound of body weight
- Workouts across varying intensities
- Strength training 2-3x per week
It’s very possible to follow a low carb diet and get results. I simply want to caution you against extreme ranges. Slashing carbs may have a short term effect on your body composition, but long term will very likely yield a steep cost. Calories in versus calories out sounds great on paper, but we know that through hormone behavior nutrition and body composition are more involved than basic arithmetic.
Too many see carbs as the low hanging fruit to the caloric restriction needed to lose weight. Don’t make the same mistake that I did eight years ago and think that slashing carbs are the magic pill to your fat loss. The much better alternative for weight loss is to reduce calories in balance across all macros, and to incorporate fitness programs that involve strength and low intensity, not just high intensity all the time. Carb reduction certainly plays a part in your health and body composition, but it’s not the entire story.
Looking for a place to start your course correction? Try here.
Danforth, et al. “Dietary-Induced Alterations in Thyroid Hormone Metabolism During Overnutrition.” The Journal of Clinical Investigation. Nov. 1979
(1), (2) St. Pierre, Brian. “Carb Controversy: Why Low-Carb Diets Have Got It All Wrong.” Precision Nutrition, 19 Feb. 2018, www.precisionnutrition.com/low-carb-diets.
Greenfield, Ben. “The Hidden Dangers Of A Low Carbohydrate Diet.” Ben Greenfield Fitness – Diet, Fat Loss and Performance Advice, 10 Aug. 2018, bengreenfieldfitness.com/article/low-carb-ketogenic-diet-articles/the-hidden-dangers-of-a-low-carbohydrate-diet/.
First. For Strength
3 Hang Power Cleans + 2 Hang Cleans @50-70%
10 Hollow DB Taps
Complete 4 sets in 18 Minutes
Then. For Conditioning.
Front Squats (95#/65#)
PHASE 1: Optional Squat Test
ADVANCED: “Mr. White”