Using carbs to your advantage

Very low carb or ketogenic diets are experiencing an upward trend in popularity. At the same time the humble carbohydrate has been downgraded to “junk” status. While it is true that reducing carb intake is an effective dietary approach, the question that everyone needs to ask themselves is, “Does my level of carb restriction benefit me in all areas of my life?” In other words, are you slimming down without losing muscle mass, are your energy levels good, do you sleep well at night, do you feel strong when you work out, have your hunger and cravings reduced, do you feel happy, is your diet easy to sustain? One should never sacrifice health for fat loss. Your goal should be to achieve both.

According to Precision Nutrition, a nutrition coaching and education website, restricting carbs temporarily can be very effective for quick weight loss, but keeping carbs too low for too long can slow down your metabolism and elevate your stress hormones. You can feel lousy, spaced-out, sluggish, cranky… and maybe even sick. They don’t recommend taking your nutrition to extremes — unless you have extreme goals. ‘Strategic moderation’ is their preferred approach.

There is no denying that certain individuals thrive on a ketogenic diet and the fat loss and therapeutic benefits they experience motivate them to adhere to the fairly restrictive protocol. Others try it, get lacklustre results and end up worse off than before. Women seem to be far more prone to hormone disruption from severe carb restriction than men. The Paleo Mom, Dr Sarah Ballantyne, is not in favour of ketogenic diets for everyone and believes that they are neither necessary nor beneficial, unless one is using it therapeutically for cancer, epilepsy or Alzheimer’s disease. One of her concerns is that too little carbohydrate from veggies and starchy tubers could mean an insufficiency of not only fibre, (which is important for maintaining good gut health and hormonal balance), but also of certain nutrients and phytochemicals.

Does this mean that you should give up your low carb diet? Not at all. The key is to use carbs strategically. The right type, in the right amount, at the right time – for YOU. You will need to experiment. Before you get too excited, linguine carbonara is not back on the menu. Eating real food and avoiding sugar, gluten and processed grains is important. But, a small portion of sweet potato, carrots or butternut with your steak and salad, might be just what you need to sleep better, improve your workouts, lift your mood and put a smile back on your face – and still lose fat.


Fuelling your workouts

Danny Lennon, a nutrition and performance coach at Sigma Nutrition, explains that to perform well at high intensity sports, your body needs quick access to glucose or glycogen for fuel and the strategic use of carbs becomes important. His advice is to eat low carb on your rest days and on days you train, increase your carbs a little. When increasing carbs, reduce your fat intake and vice versa on your low carb days. This ensures that your calorie goals are maintained. If you are training for or competing in an Ironman event, where one moves at a slower pace but for a longer duration, your body can more readily rely on ketones for fuel, so it might be advantageous in that instance to be ketogenic.

Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint, states that the consequence of not consuming carbs for glycogen-demanding sports (he uses CrossFit as an example) is that you’ll trigger a stress response which means cortisol goes up. If cortisol goes up and stays up, you’ll lose lean mass and retain or gain body fat. You will need to experiment and figure out the number of carbs that allows you to perform and recover well on your training days, while still being able to lose fat over the long-term. On rest days, he suggests keeping carbs to non-starchy veggies only.

What about someone who is pre-diabetic or insulin resistant? Can they also up their carbs a little for better athletic performance and more diverse food choices? According to Danny Lennon, yes, but timing is important. Due to the physiological changes that occur in the body when we exercise (especially resistance or weight training), having your carbs soon after a workout will help those carbs to be partitioned into the muscle cells instead of being stored as fat.


Carbs for stress reduction

Following a very low carb diet for too long (especially if calories are being restricted), can put strain on the adrenal glands. This ongoing stress pushes up glucose and cortisol levels and robs us of serotonin (the happy hormone). Dr Alan Christianson, a naturopathic doctor, and author of The Adrenal Reset diet, recommends healthy carbs to fix this problem. In his practice, most people who eat under 50 grams of carbs per day, i.e. very low carb / ketogenic, ended up with more glucose in their blood than those who ate more carbohydrates. They very often also suffered from poor sleep.

His protocol is to include 1/2 cup of cooked carbs at lunch and 1 cup with dinner. Protein and veggies/salad should ideally be on your plate at each meal too. He has witnessed clients lose more fat, reduce blood glucose and get off their stubborn weight loss plateaus using this strategy. In terms of grams, he feels that 75 to 90 grams of carbs per day is best for most adults who exercise under an hour per day. If you tend to be an overachiever when it comes to working out, then perhaps your body can handle more.


The protein factor

But isn’t a very low carb diet more effective for fat loss? It can be. Yes, it does reduce insulin and helps you to spontaneously eat less. But, it seems like protein is the real hidden success factor when it comes to effective and sustained fat loss. Protein has a higher thermic effect, meaning your body has to rev up its metabolism for digestion, protein keeps you fuller for longer (so fewer calories are consumed) and it helps you to retain muscle mass. Therefore, ensuring an adequate protein intake might be more important than whether you eat 25, 75 or 100 grams of carbs each day. A palm size portion of protein at each of your three meals is a good target to aim for. If your goal is to build some muscle, you may need more.


Fat loss tip:

In order to lose fat, you must create a calorie deficit and your hormones need to be in balance. If going very low carb and higher in fat does this for you – fantastic. If a diet more moderate in carbs and fats and slightly higher in protein works well for you, keep doing that. There is no one size fits all. The best diet is the one that gets you results, promotes health and that you can easily stick to.  A diet should never be a quick fix but a sustainable lifestyle. Consistent adherence is key.

Unfortunately, some low carbers tend to fall into the trap of ‘if low carb is good, then very low carb/ketogenic must be better’. There is nothing wrong with experimenting, but don’t continue for months on end if you don’t feel good. Ketosis is not the only way to lose weight. There are many factors involved with weight loss – reducing insulin is just one of them. So when it comes to carbs, be careful you don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. While carbohydrates are not an essential nutrient, they do go a long way in making some of us feel and perform better. Starchy veggies in the right quantities certainly can have their place in an effective fat loss programme.

Article written by Nicky Perks for Lose It magazine (Volume 21)

Reference sources:

About Nicky Perks

Passionately sharing information about the paleo/primal, high fat/low carb lifestyle that will rock your world! I am on my own journey to good health and a slim body. My goal? To enjoy the ride as life on this beautiful planet is just too short to do it any other way.

Posted on November 13, 2017, in The fundamentals and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Spot on! I was doing keto for over a year. I lost some hair, was never happy, always cranky… just some side effects I had in a host of many.

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