I’m sitting here in the Auckland airport on my way to Fiji and I am thinking about carbs. I am firmly aware I have serious, serious carby issues, but I feel this could not be more timely given a lot of recent discussion and how I’ve noticed my body acting when I come off a low intake to more regular intake.
After reading the famously viral article by Krista Scott Dixon on diet and hormones a few weeks ago that forms the basis of this thought, in combination with the dozens and dozens of carb-based nutrition questions we’ve been getting in the gym as we approach summer (funny how that works), we feel it’s definitely time to get ahead of the pack on the notion of what low carb dieting (LCD) is truly about, by whom it should be used and whether or not it can sustain an active, 21st Century human being for the long-term. After all, we have written about the success of a low carb approach many times, firmly believing in them for many, many goals and lifestyles.
The first and main problem is that ‘low’ is a completely subjective and relative word, with entirely too much room for user error when people are left to their own devices on figuring out how much constitutes “low”. After all, low carb for a 300 pound man could be 350 grams per day, while that amount on a 125 pound girl would without a doubt most likely have her gaining weight. It’s far too vague of a concept, and it gets people like us in trouble when we say we believe in the benefits of a low(er) carb lifestyle.
Not rock bottom, not piling every meal with pasta, but a healthy balance of enough carbohydrates that’s far lower than the typical American consumes to fulfill your body and fitness while keeping balanced, functioning hormones, all without consuming more than you need.
LCD is an amazingly effective tool for fat loss and as evidenced by over 18 modern trials and studies and our own empirical data gathering. It’s also shown to contribute to the reversal a lot of other illnesses such as cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and diabetes as evidenced by Robb Wolf in The
Cult Bible Paleo Solution.
What LCD is not, is the absolutism of nutrition for everybody. It should be used as a tool to reach your goals, and then adjusted upward once you’ve reached them, so that you can sustain them long-term.
We’ll get into the details, recommended amounts and all that shit, but first, some thoughts on food in general to set the table for our discussion of how we even got here.
Bat Shit + Gary Busey = American Food Mentality
As I sit here in the Auckland International Airport I see hundreds of faces sitting and eating around me. Some of them are a tad mushy, some of them are in shape and some are run of the mill but the one common denominator for every single one of them is eating a carb-based meal that’s not on a plate the size of a medieval shield you’d wear when LARPing.
Let’s take some quick inventory and judge the absolute shit out of people like any true blogger worth his or her salt, shall we.
There is a young couple dining on muffins and bananas, both are relatively lean. There’s a man in what I’m guessing is his forties with a potbelly and pretty bad goatee drinking coffee and getting to third base with a scone. Lastly, there’s a not at all ugly girl in her twenties in yoga pants and Nike Frees (odd traveling attire) who is definitely familiar with a squat rack, actually eating a Burger King egg muffin.
I don’t see one person eating a salad. Not one. Not a single peace of iceberg lettuce on a plate across an entire food court, and that babe in yoga pants? Her American bizarro twin version would most certainly not be eating BK. DEFINITELY not in public.
What’s also interesting to me is the lack of food court in general. I was excited to get off the plane and face burgers, after all, everyone knows food you eat in airports doesn’t count. Your time traveling, duh. But you don’t see the specialization of the American food court, the salad only places are nowhere to be found here, nor is there an Obnoxious Chinese buffet option that piles diarrhea directly onto your plate.
Aside from the lone Burger King, there is one coffee shop and two delis, each of them serving fresh, artisan items ranging from blueberry muffins, to meat pies to breakfast baps, a New Zealand type of sandwich that was hands down top five breakfast sandwiches I’ve ever had, to fruit plates and more. Most I would never call healthy, but all in a serving size that won’t make you hate yourself after.
No one seems to be freaking out.
No is one is fat.
Apparently I’m the only one with anxiety over what to eat.
So, how did we as Americans get crazier about our food than bat shit mixed with Gary Busey’s DNA?
How did we get to this trend where we feel everything that enters our bodies must be meticulously calculated, frisked, racially profiled, measured, read, researched and approved before we eat it?
If humans need calories to survive, why do we have more subcultures of dieters who discriminate against certain kinds of calories more than the dick head kids on the bus when child Forrest Gump was trying to find a seat? Why are we those kids, and every other country is nice young Jenny?
I mean there are like a dozen different factions WITHIN the fuckin Paleo community? A micro community in itself. Why? How? When?
While everyone else keeps it simple, Americans want to reinvent the wheel fifty times over.
Asians eat rice.
French eat bread, cheese and like a thousand courses.
Italians eat pasta.
Mediterraneans eat oil.
Scandinavians and Islanders eat fish.
Inuit eat fat.
What do we have?
We are going down a scary slope of constantly following the latest trends, diets, opinions and pseudoscience (ours included) on the best way we’re to feed ourselves. We’re always looking for that savior that’s going to do all of our brain’s thinking for us, often times stripping us of common sense and replacing it with used car sales tactics dedicated to “losing 7 pounds in 14 days!”
So, carbs reside in this maddeningly frustrating yin and yang universe of duality. On the one hand, we must include them in our diet for optimum health but on the other hand, we must also watch as to not over consume them like the guy who got laid by his scone.
A fucked up duality indeed, that walks a very fine line on how much is enough and how low is too low. Just like doing the hammered limbo under someone’s necktie at a wedding, you go too low and you fall flat on your ass. We must understand that we need carbs and then know how to manipulate them for certain goals.
This is America. Let’s take back our diet sanity, maintain high percentage health, fitness capacity and body composition but also allow ourselves to feel the sublime ecstasy of a donut every now and again.
“No You’re Not Hardcore, Unless You Live Hardcore.”
I am a huge Jack Black fan and this lyric from his School of Rock song always resonates with me when I internally make fun of myself and others for overly hardcore’ing the already hardcore, as Dixon encapsulates better than anything I’ve heard in her article I mentioned.
Naturally, you as a conscious eater want to do the right thing. So you start reading labels and eating whole foods. You get rid of sugar, or at least cut your intake way down.
Pretty awesome start. You could probably stop right there and still be better off than most of the Western population.
But of course, every little positive, health-affirming step inspires you to take another.
You move towards higher fiber, less processed versions of traditional grains. Or you cut grains out completely. You probably end up with a more or less ancestral way of eating.
Again, you could quit right here. In fact, you probably should. Now you’re in the 99th percentile of food and lifestyle quality. And with some practice, you could live that way pretty easily and sanely.
You keep reading…this is where the rabbit hole of madness begins.
Because you start to think: What else could I do better? How could I nudge this general pretty decent situation into awesome. Into perfect?
And so, you work harder. You Paleo harder. You cut harder. You pound that shit in. To. The. Ground.
You’ve heard cutting carbs is primal so you go for rock bottom.
You’ve heard cave people never eat Food XYZ so you’re restricting everything that isn’t a dead animal or something green.
Taking hardcore and thinking results will increase if you make it even hardcorer. Raise your hand if this is you.
For the record, my hand is raised like a kid on a field trip that has to piss his pants. I have been majorly guilty of this before in my crazy days, lasting in spurts of a few weeks when I have to dial back my craziness and dial up my sanity, and every single time I am having to undo dumbass mistakes I made trying to achieve short term slashing, wanting just a liiiiittle more.
We get alarming questions in the gym that truly illustrates the black and white foodfitness culture in which we live. More times than not, the person asking the question has placed themselves in this position of zero carbohydrate, extra hypocaloric and heading down the road of a body that thinks it’s starved, completely depriving it of anything carb-based simply because we recommend you reduce them for fat loss.
Reduction = zero in the mind of someone wanting to lose weight.
It’s an era where everything gets interpreted as absolute, where grey area is not allowed and personally tweaking a set of guidelines is met with a face that looks like we just asked them to define irony.
Take make believe Sally who wants to lose twenty pounds. She takes her high carb diet of 300g per day and cuts it down to 50-75g a day and like the magic fat loss fairy came and smacked her on the ass, she loses twelve pounds over a four week period.
Then, like KDS insinuates Sally gets greedy. She goes rogue. She goes Jason Bourne on that ass, off the rails and thinking that if a diet of 50-75g per day drops twelve pounds from her body, then zero carbs, a pack of heaters and six cups of coffee per day must be the fucking shit! So she stops eating carbs altogether thinking it must be an easy path to losing twenty pounds effortlessly in a matter of weeks.
Then, she notices something after a couple of months low carb rogueness. She is now holding onto fat and feels weird.
Holding onto fat?
When you are calorie restricted LCD for longer than you should, your hormones, which are used to moving along your internal railway interchanging at predictable routes, are now without a conductor and are all over the place. Their previous positive functions become bad, where they zigged they now zagged, and your body is all of the sudden put a cease and desist on fat burning.
So why did this happen? Isn’t Sally supposed to be burning body fat in the absence of carbs?
Most of the time.
At least for a while.
I know. It’s confusing. It’s the human body, and we only slightly understand it to be honest. I’ve taken nutrition science classes, have read every noteworthy book and article out there, and I sorta get it. We are going to try our best to explain it in laymen’s terms. The endocrine system is complicated like woah. Caveat emptor if someone tells you they are an expert.
In a diet that contains a sane level of macronutrients, growth hormone is released in the correct doses, most notably in spikes during our sleep and in periods of heavy training.
In the right doses, growth hormone is a very anabolic pituitary hormone that works in our favor, promoting muscle growth and repair. It improves lean body mass, improves bone density, increases resting energy expenditure (burn more fat playing Call of Duty) and maintains a properly functioning thyroid.
Growth hormone also helps activate lipolysis with is the use of body fat as energy.
In most scenarios, growth hormone release is a most excellent thing.
However, in a macro or calorie deprived, cortisol filled body, which could be you if you are training hard five times per week and eating under 50g of carbs per day for longer than 30-60 days, GH fluctuates more unpredictably, has more untimely spikes and you end up with chronically elevated levels that cause lipogenesis, the creation of new fats.
Worst yet, and more important than your pretty little exterior self, your thyroid begins to under function, and your thyroid is kinda important. It controls how the body uses energy, regulates your metabolism and manages proper sensitivity to other surrounding hormones. When it underperforms, other pituitary and adrenal glands begin working in overdrive to try and keep everything in homeostasis. When this becomes chronic, you can develop hypothyroidism which is a deficiency in the T3 and T4 thryroid hormones, damaging our ability to metabolize our food properly, among other bad things.
If your thyroid becomes uncalibrated it’s just a recipe for bad things from every direction.
Pair all of this with the intense and stressful act of challenging Interval Weight Training workouts (IWT) and this combination is an exploding bomb of fast fat gain as your growth hormone has sky rocketed in the wrong way, your stress cortisol is elevated and your metabolism is shot.
The triple whammy of go fuck yourself.
You gain weight despite eating less because hormones are hammered at the wheel after being in starvation for so long. When you thought long-term low calorie would mean weight loss, it has actually caused weight gain.
DO NOT think that long-term starvation equals sexy bitch. The more you deprive, the more visceral fat your body will slowly want to carry. It’s a survival tool our bodies have developed, and you, sir or madam, are not smarter than Darwin.
Fear not. There is a solution, a level of carbs that facilitate your weight loss goals, workout demands and long term hormonal health. They key is just sticking to it and resisting that temptation to over hardcore things that KSD talks about.
INTERMISSION TIME! Please get up, go get a drink from the water cooler. Go mess around Facebook, hell maybe even do some work but go stretch your legs somewhere for five minutes. We’ve got a long one today and we need you at full focus.
I Don’t Want Hammered Hormones, But I Also Wanna Be Lean. What Do I Do?
Before you have to check your hormones into AA, we advise you don’t get them started on the sauce in the first place by eating the right amounts of carbs and calories for your training goal.
We greatly hesitate to get into ranges and guidelines because people always see a number and go for the bottom range, ignoring consideration that age, gender, height, weight, body type and level of activity all play enormous roles.
The problem with posting nutritional advice is that it’s impossible to do so without painting everyone in broad strokes, when in reality each person needs a complete arsenal of brushes. Doing so scares the bajeezus out of us because we know how literally and overly hardcore people will take it, stroking and petting it like Tommy Boy and his pretty little pet, until there is nothing left but a mangled dinner roll and shattered dreams.
But, here we go. Remember, guidelines people. Not Moses shouting out the commandments.
Initial Fat Loss, Ketosis: ~50g or less, i.e., no major carb sources
A ketogenic diet is one that’s more or less void of any carbohydrates and it’s focused on lean proteins and a very hypocaloric diet . You don’t want too much fat in your diet, so contrary to Facebook experts and all that shit, piles of bacon will not burn much fat. You are trying to burn body fat and if you keep providing dietary fat in the form of too much juicy delicious slain pig, your body will prioritize that as first in line to be burned, not your jiggling ass or belly.
It can take a few weeks for your body to adjust to a ketogenic diet so don’t go thinking a few days of low carb is going to start melting fat off. It’s a process. You’re going to feel like shit when your body makes the switch and enters ketosis, so we recommend you downgrade your training to just a couple of times per week as to not compound to the assness of how you feel initially.
Ketosis works great for fat loss and rapid leaning. I’ve used it to slash body fat in a short amount of time and I’ve seen others do it, as well. Problem with it is that it’s not meant for the long-haul and carries very serious side effects when you force it to perform that task. You become lethargic, depressed, have no energy, constant brain fog and need to snort lines of coffee, your appetite goes way down, thus lowering your metabolism, and starts you down that scary path we talked about with underperforming thyroids, de-railed hormones and to the far left of homeostasis.
Further, once you exit ketosis you must onboard carbs into your diet very slowly or you will gain it back faster than you can say, “OMG”.
Use ketosis for what it is, a fat loss tool for a few weeks.
Slow and Steady Fat Loss: ~100 – 150g, i.e. a single serving with each main meal
Once you have slashed a good initial chunk of fat, begin re-introducing your body to more carbohydrates with an emphasis on fueling up post training. Keep your carbohydrates clean, stick to rices and sweet potatoes as much as you can stomach and continue to focus on clean, clean, clean.
Maintenance: ~150 – 200g, i.e. a single serving with each meal plus a bit more, “cheating” acceptable
Once you reach your body composition goals you should again be unafraid to re-introduce a bit more carbohydrates to your diet. In this range, you will be maintaining the level of leanness you have achieved while also supporting a reasonable amount of weekly activity.
If you have lost your fat properly, say 10-30 pounds over the course of two to six months, the weight will not come back from eating carbs. You’ll have hormones functioning properly and since you’ve smartly increased along the way, you won’t experience rapid gain.
If you are continuing to train rigorously you can begin eating more foods outside of what would typically be included for fat loss.
Get your macros in, don’t be a freak about what they are so long as you aren’t punishing pizza and donuts everyday.
High Performance/Competitive Athlete/Muscle Gain: ~200g +, ie eat carbs and don’t give too much concern to what they are
If you are a competitive athlete, especially those of you in the endurance and race circle you need to be consuming a fairly high amount of carbs. This goes for competitive members in the gym who want to max out their performance and go balls to the wall with strength and endurance, as well.
Interval Weight Training (IWT) is very glycolytic, so if you are not replenishing your carbohydrates to sufficient levels then your workouts and your body will suffer.
As Robb Wolf explains,
“As we push into the glycolytic pathway [the pathway of IWT] the wheels fall off the wagon if we have inadequate glycogen storage, as we simply cannot, under any adaptation scheme, produce that low-end torque from the beta oxidation of fats, nor by utilizing ketones.”
In English, if we don’t eat carbs we don’t have glycogen and we don’t have the most optimal fuel for intense interval training.
It’s not that you can’t do it on ketones or body fat, but you will not do it optimally, which is what this “high performance” category is all about. Optimizing.
We have listed four categories ranging from rapid fat loss all the way to high performance. Hopefully you can find a range that suits you and remember, these are very broad estimated numbers that are not going to be the same for everyone.
It’s just not as simple as low carb, no sugar, eat more fats for everyone across the board. Why would it be? Some are leaner than others, stronger than others, some have boobs while other have chest hair. Some have greater hurdles to overcome and more fat to lose so why we would all eat the exact same way?
It would be great if we could just all follow Wheat Belly, The Paleo Diet, Sisson’s Primal Carbohydrate Curve we use in the gym or many other excellent starting points for all phases in our life and physical activity, but there is more to it than that, just as every single one of those authors mentions. While low(er) carbohydrate is great for fat loss, our understanding of the components involved has grown tremendously and there is just more to it than macros and fuel. There are metabolic and hormonal factors at play at different points in your life and training and your intake should always reflect that. Nowhere in that range of four categories is long-term carb deprivation recommended.
How To Tell If You’re Like Sally
Like Sally in the previous example, if you went Jason Bourne, went rogue and off the grid on your own and into the dark realm of no carbs, then you’ll have some correcting to do. Fear not, it’s nothing that can’t be improved with a more sensible inclusion of carbs but first you should run some tests to see if you’re in that class.
Take your temperature. Should sit comfortably around 98.6 degrees but if it’s more than a few tenths of a degree off, then it could potentially be a sign of an underperforming thyroid. (Don’t worry, you’re not gonna die.)
Do you have stubborn visceral fat that you just cannot get rid of?
Are you satiated on a low calorie diet of 1,000 – 2,000 per day?
If you eat what should be a normal amount of carbs with a meal, do you feel like you’ve eaten twice that?
Are you rarely hungry, and breakfast feels like a chore if you’re even eating it at all?
These are all signs your metabolic fire could be slowed to a luke warm pile of kindling from overdoing a hypocaloric diet and it needs to have kerosene doused on it. STAT.
An active 185 pound male needs well over 2,000 calories per day for optimal function, so if you are consuming below that then you are heading down the path of metabolic dysfunction. It’s basic math by process of elimination. If you are removing a single macro (like carbs) from your diet, it’s going to be REALLY difficult to get the calories you need from fat and protein and you’ll begin experiencing some of the above side effects.
Simply begin re-introducing more good clean carbs slowly and your metabolism, hormones and operating system will slowly return to homeostasis with minimal weight gain.
Fitness for Happiness
Just as no two fingerprints are the same, no two metabolisms follow the exact same formula, either. If you’re a 275 pound male your baseline amount will differ from a 125 pound woman.
You have to start out within the parameters and then tweak and tinker until you find your own magic formula. No one can find your “where the magic happens spot” other than you. Not your coaches, not the authors you’ve never met, not even pseudoscience like this article.
Ketosis is a fine tool for fat loss and battling serious illnesses, but once you burn that first round of fat, don’t overdo it from there. Slowly re-introduce more clean carbs over time to keep your fat loss humming and your body in homeostasis.
Don’t go straight from zero carbs to Fatburger, fuckers. You’ll gain it all right back, which is what happens to every single Biggest Loser contestant ever.
Weight loss is a project, guys. It’s not intended to happen overnight so if you have a lot to loose then put your nose down and get ready to bring your lunch pail to the gym every day.
As I sit here now in the Fijian airpot and look around the faces, on cue almost as if I made it up a muscle bound American walks up to the counter to ask for protein bars. It’s Fiji, they are selling samosas and local food, bro. He then leaves frustrated that they don’t have the food he wants, so rather then eat something else he doesn’t eat at all.
I swear this happened.
This kind of nutrition exists in a kind of an ironic duality in my brain. I am both proud to live in a place fortunate enough to have access to knowledge that allows us to get this crazy about nutrition, but it also worries me to no end that it’s far too much information, that we’ll always be a society of diet hopping, mirror watching, dysmorhpic pyschopaths who are terrified to eat a fucking slice of bread in an airport because they think they’ll get SARS from it.
While it’s great to want to lean out and get strong, there is more to life than looking fuckable and picking up four hundred pounds. You don’t need to be at 6% body fat and the strongest guy in the gym in order to be happy or successful with your diet or training.
I’ve tweaked and formulated my way to 8% body fat by carb slashing, monitoring and obsessing. I was the leanest I’ve ever been in my life but in the process I made myself completely miserable. I obsessively wavered over everything I ate, and can honestly see how teenage girls wander anorexia. It fucks your shit up, 100%.
I find I am much more comfortable, happy and fueled when I am around 11-12% (I’m about 12% in that picture and currently, the highest I’ve been in a while because I am partly dealing with recovering from the sins mentioned above). While I might not be as cut, I am stronger, more energized and don’t go through gnarly mood swings and brain fogs. I enjoy the liberation of being able to stray from my diet and not throw an internal shit fit when I go to Yogurtland at 10 pm. By myself. My days of being an obsessive weirdo about everything I eat are long gone. Get to a point where you’re happy and then eat foods you enjoy, while always staying calibrated on your goals.
Be the 1 percent who actually care about what they eat, but don’t fall prey to the 1 percent on crack, those who that go insane in the membrane, ketosisizing every meal and ultimately becoming hormonally imbalanced, out of whack and masterbating to the Food Network.
Restrict and limit to achieve goals, but don’t go thinking you have to throw every food you’ve ever liked into the trashcan because you’re now “Paleo” or whatever else.
I am not entirely convinced we need to give up food pleasures if we are eating right the majority of times and training hard.
I mean, can you honestly say that you can give up sugar? Is not eating sugar and grains really realistic for the rest of your life? No one here is questioning that both those foods are unneeded and won’t help your fitness goals, but at some point don’t we have to prioritize enjoying life?
I am just asking a legitimate question. Can you honestly say you are never eating a sandwich or ice cream again, in this current world with your current life? If it is a ‘yes’ answer, then frankly you kick ass and I tip my cap to you. If it’s ‘no, and I know it’s big fat no for me, then don’t puff your chest and proclaim you are done with them forever and ever and ever ah-men. It’s that kind of thinking that sneaks into your mentality and ultimately has you believing carbs are evil.
Ween ’em off, don’t live on them but also don’t think you are deranged for wanting to and following through on it every now and then, and even semi-regularly if you’re fit and strong.
If you are training five days a week with loaded barbells doing power and Olympic lifts, swing kettlebells and hurling medicine balls, sprinting, jogging, going through slow and fast sets, training strength and endurance, using plyometrics and athletic movements, working gymnastics and proprioception..are you really going to get fat from eating a friggin’ burrito once in a while?
Are you going to get diabetes?
Are you going to develop insulin resistance?
That’s the crazy bullshit thinking that we just gotta get away from as a society and as a micro community.
If you are a strict Paleo or low carb dieter then make absolutely certain you don’t accidentally wake up one day and realize you don’t eat carbs. The key to healthy eating and healthy training is balance. Know how to manipulate your carb intake for goals and once you have reached them, allow for more lenience and life enjoyment. Not just because it keeps you sane, but because it keeps you hormonally and metabolically healthy.
Understand Food as Fuel, But Enjoy Your Life Too.
Train Hard. Eat smart. Have autonomy over your own process.
Just like Golden Rule #9 on the P360 Philosophy of Life, it’s all tied together 🙂