Should you eat carbs? And if so, how many?
The age old debate that will continue raging on for years. Many popular fad diets include very low to no carbs, with either an increased fat or protein intake - things really start to get dangerous when they cut both carbs and fats, however. So what's the right answer, and why do so many people believe low carb is always the way to go when it comes to weight loss?
Truth is, there is no right answer, and both low and high carb diets can work, depending on each persons individual physique and performance goals, activity level, and metabolic condition. Also remember that "high" and "low" are relative, depending on age, gender, current body composition, activity level, metabolic health, etc.
So how do you decide what works best for you??
Let's start from the beginning.
A. What is your activity level?
It's a well known fact that higher intensity sports (HIIT, sprinting, high intensity strength training (crossfit), etc.) require a higher carb intake for peak performance. These carbs will be used to fuel your body and help you recover from training.
If you are generally sedentary, you don't need as many carbs. Take the example of filling up your car. If you are constantly driving it around, you need to constantly refill the gas tank. If it sits in the garage, trying to ad in more fuel would just cause for spill over. Same thing happens within your body. If you use the carbs, you HAVE to keep refilling in order for your body to function properly. Dropping carb levels too low (having an empty tank) will lead to fatigue, impaired performance, irritability, excess fat gain, impaired thyroid production, impaired hormone function, and your body refusing to change despite all of your hard work - this is where things really go south, and people start to shift towards creating more long term metabolic damage than the short term benefits are worth.
Remember, if you train hard, you will benefit more both performance wise and physique wise from a healthy carb intake (over the course of the long run). STOP THINKING YOU CAN WORKOUT FOR HOURS ON END AND MAINTAIN A LONG TERM LOW CARB DIET. You may lose some weight initially, but severely depleting your glycogen stores overtime without any proper refeeds will lead to more long term damage, with impaired metabolic capacity and hormone function, creating a host of bigger problems down the line (ie. lower testosterone production for men, loss of menstrual cycle for women, impaired thyroid function, etc). Don't be surprised when your weight plateaus or body fat starts to slightly increase - especially in your mid section (being lean everywhere except your mid section is usually a tell tale sign of excess cortisol, due to overtraining and not eating properly). With that being said, for lean individuals wanting to get even leaner, there is nothing wrong with cutting carbs down to prep for a show, shoot, etc. (as long as this is a short term goal, within the realm of a few weeks at a time).
On the flip side, if you are overweight, insulin resistant and sedentary, a slightly lower carb diet may be the best approach for dropping body fat. With that being said, make sure you give your body enough carbs to support liver glycogen, fuel the brain and central nervous system, and maintain energy and general mood (meaning don't cut them out all together). The rest of your calories should come from proteins and fats.
B. What is your state of insulin sensitivity or resistance?
This describes how easy or difficult it is for your body to store nutrients (specifically from carbs) in its cells. Overweight individuals typically have a lower insulin sensitivity (more insulin resistant). When insulin has a hard time doing its job, sugar can back up in the bloodstream, releasing higher levels of insulin, which can ultimately lead to diabetes. Leaner individuals, in an otherwise healthy state, typically have better insulin sensitivity, which means insulin can do its job transporting carbs into your muscles, meaning you can include more of them in your diet. Because insulin resistance is the inability to properly use and store carbs, it makes sense that people on this side of the equation will respond better to lower carb diets.
C. What is your overall goal?
Now that you've answered the questions above, you can determine what your carb intake should be based on your goals. If you have good insulin sensitivity, train hard, or want to gain muscle, lean towards a high carb intake (carbs are the most muscle sparing macronutrient).
If you have poor insulin sensitivity or train at a low intensity or not at all, keep your carb intake slightly on the lower end (as long as you get enough in to sustain liver glycogen and general brain function). Keep your calories at a low enough deficit to lose weight, but not so low that your body starts to feel like it's starving, and you'll be well on your way.
With that being said, I do believe that any diet can work or not work for any specific person, depending on all of the above factors. That's why Paleo, Keto, Southbeach, Atkins, etc. have all proven they can work for some, but not for others. THERE IS NOT ONE SINGLE "NUTRITION CAMP" THAT IS THE END ALL BE ALL SOLUTION TO WEIGHT LOSS. Be smart enough to experiment and figure out what works best for you in the context of not only your goals, but also your day to day life. Cutting carbs and calories as low as possible to barely survive is not worth the 20 LB's you'll lose the first month (and the 40LB's you will inevitably gain back 4 to 5 months later).
When it comes to carb intake, please keep in mind that there is no "optimal" high or low amount of carbs that every individual should stick to. Figuring out what category you fall in, and what levels work best for you, is the smartest way to assure weight loss sustainability, without both a physical and mental breakdown.
As always, feel free to comment your thoughts, experiences, and opinions, and message me directly with any specific questions.
The s*** you wish you'd known about training & nutrition.