I confess: I used to be carbphobic. The first time I was able to get really lean I followed a low-carbs diet and immediately believed that this was the only way to get ripped.
As I gained more experience training various types of clients, I noticed that many actually needed carbs in their diet; if they didn’t they would regress… I trained people who got fatter and less muscular on a low-carbs diet. So that was a first change in my diet belief system… I went from a low-carbs zealot to a lowish carbs guy who understand that some might need a different approach.
As I gained even more experience and read more stuff, I came to realise that carbs in themselves are not that bad for fat loss… well, to be more precise carbs wont make you fat as easily as I once thought.
During my low-carb days I honestly believed that the body would easily turn carbs into fat. Based on my own experience this made sense since carbs were a huge part of my diet when I got fat and were removed from my diet when I got lean.
The thing is that I’m an excessive guy and do have a slight tendency toward bulimia or binging. Not to mention that most of the carb sources I like are very dense in calories. So it might not be the fact that I was ingesting carbs that made me fat, but rather the fact that I was consuming WAY too much calories for my body and activity level.
Even when I realised this, I still believed that carbs could easily be stored as fat. It turns out that this is not the case.
For carbs to be stored as fat you need:
- To have relatively full muscle glycogen stores
- To be inactive
- To be consuming a caloric surplus
If your glycogen stores are empty, you will tend to store more carbs there than as body fat. Obviously you have a limited capacity to store glycogen and since you rarely deplete them completely, you can’t eat a very high amount of carbs daily and expect to get lean. But you still have some room to play with.
And the more active you are, the less carbs you’ll store as body fat. Physical activity depletes glycogen stores, which means that more carbs as stored in the muscles as glycogen, and less will be stored as fat. Physical activity also make the muscles more sensitive to insulin, which also increases the amount of carbs stored in the muscle.
If you are ingesting a caloric deficit, carbs will first be uses for energy instead of being stored as fat.
Ok… so a high carbs diet is fine if your goal is fat loss? Not exactly… see, if carbs are harder than I believed to store as fat, they can still impair fat loss. A high amount of ingested carbs will cause an insulin spike. Insulin is a storage hormone: it tells the body to store nutrients as energy. The body is really bad at doing two opposite things at the same time… so if insulin levels are high you will be in storing mode as opposed to ‘‘mobilizing’’ mode.
In simpler terms, when insulin is high, you wont release as much fat to be used for energy.
When it comes to losing body fat, the key is burning more fat for fuel than you ingest and store. So something that reduces fat burning and fat mobilization OR something that increases fat storage will hurt your fat loss efforts.
Elevated insulin levels halt fat mobilization (the first step in losing fat). If your insulin levels are always elevated during the day, you are basically preventing fat loss during the whole day.
The problem is that insulin can stay elevated up to 2 hours after you are done digesting a high carbs meal. If you are eating 6 meals a day and all of them have a highish amount of carbs, you basically shut down fat loss during the day.
And since you are in storing mode, any fat you consume during that time might very well be stored as fat. Even if that amount of minute, since you are not using a lot of fat for fuel, then you end up storing more than you are burning.
HOWEVER insulin IS anabolic… it helps build muscle. While you CAN build some muscle on a low carbs diet, it is much more difficult than if carbs are ingested.
The key is thus to time your carbs intake properly. I like to have 2 carbs intake per day during a fat loss phase: at breakfast in the form of a small amount of fruits or a FINiBAR, and prior to the workout.
From my experience a training man of 180-200lbs can ingest roughly 100g of carbs pre-workout without fear of gaining fat or halting fat loss. It will actually improve your workouts and help you maintain or even gain muscle mass while dieting down.
The amount ingested at breakfast is more individual and will vary depending on metabolic type and activity level, but 30-50g is a good starting point.