Beginning in the 1970s, inspired by research that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, carb-restricted diets like the Zone, the Atkins diet and the South Beach diet began gaining attention and soon became all the rage. The diets eschewed carbs in favor of high-protein meals that transformed the body’s metabolism, and although the media blasted the diet plans, the idea did attract the attention of millions.
In the early 2000’s, the low-carb diet became so popular that the donut chain Krispy Kreme blamed it for a drop in sales that almost sent it into bankruptcy. (Of course, the high-fat Krispy Kreme got its groove back a few years later when it popped up at state fairs nationwide as the bun for a bulge-inducing burger.)
These diets focused on low-carb or carb-free foods like meat, seafood, eggs, cheese, and fats, eliminating items like breads, cakes, donuts, and crackers.
The 3 main types of carbs
Here’s the science
Carbohydrates are among the most abundant compounds on earth. They are normally broken down into three major classifications from 3 main sources.
- Monosaccharides: One sugar molecule. Examples include glucose and fructose (fruit).
- Disaccharides: Two sugar molecules. Examples include sucrose (table sugar) and maltose (beer)
- Polysaccharides: Many sugar molecules. Examples are many but starchy carbs like sweet potato, fiber in veggies, and various pastas.
No matter what kind of carb you eat, eventually it will be broken down into glucose.
That’s why many diabetics follow low-carb diets, to eliminate the rush of sugar into the blood stream. (Of course, that doesn’t explain Paula Deen, who was among the first to make the Krispy Kreme donut burger on TV, and recently revealed her status as a diabetic.)
The basics of a low-carb diet are designed to switch the body’s metabolism from burning glucose for energy to burning fat stores, a process called ketosis that speeds up metabolism and melts away fat.
Also, because it takes longer for the body to process fats and proteins, the feeling of fullness lasts longer, and dieters don’t tend to experience the hunger that comes from eating carbs.
Moreover, many grain-based carbs can spark allergies, which lead to lethargy, puffiness and intestinal ailments that can take years to successfully track and target.
Lighten your load. So how much do I need?
If you consider carbs your friend, it’s important to turn to smarter carbs for optimum results.
The key is to only take in the amount of carbs your body will use, nothing more, because unused carbs are transferred directly to glucose, which leads to excess body fat.
Our muscles can typically store around 300-600 grams of carbohydrate and out liver about 80-100 grams. This may seem like a lot but with a few days of inactivity coupled with a few sugar, bread, junk-food benders (you know what I’m talking about) and those stores acan be overloaded. What happens next is that any excess is stored in our bodies as fat. YIKES!
The amount of carbohydrates needed for each of us is dependent on a few factors.
1. Current body composition: (click for photos of all 3)
- Ectomorph: A faster metabolism, thyroid dominant, and high nervous system allow for a higher carbohydrate tolerance
- Mesomorph: Naturally athletic build, high testosterone/growth hormone, moderate nervous system allow for moderate carbohydrate tolerance
- Endomorph: Insulin dominant, slower metabolism, low nervous system make for a lower carbohydrate tolerance
2. Activities levels:
- Sedentary: Little to no exercise activity
- Lightly active: 1-3 days of light physical activity or sport/play
- Moderately active: 3-5 days of moderate intensity physical activity or sport/play
- Very active: 6-7 days a week of hard exercise or sport/play
- Extremely active/elite athlete: Very hard exercise and physically demanding work
As seen above the more active we are the more carbohydrates we MAY need.
Fat loss: Lower carbohydrate consumption. Mostly focusing on vegetables. Green leafy and high fiber are best.
- Cauliflower (aka, white broccoli)
- Brussel sprouts
If fat loss is a goal you will want to stick with similar vegetables throughout the day. 1-2 piece of fruit per day or one (1) starchy carbohydrate (mostly from sweet potato) is ok but should be used post exercise only.
A great tool is the carbohydrate curve provided by Mark’s Daily apple. As you can see a range of roughly 0-50 grams of exercise is acceptable but should only be consumed for brief periods. 3-4 weeks in a row tops.
After which you will want to get back into the sweet spot of 50-100 grams per day. Again, this depends on you. Nutrition is a funny science. Not everyone responds well to the same stimulus. You have really got to get to know your body and become aware of how you react to certain foods.
With any plan you are following give it at least a good 30 days in order to evaluate its effectiveness. Usually the first week or two are fairly difficult but the last two weeks should allow you to see your plans effectiveness.
Muscle Gain or maintenance:
If you are looking to add LEAN muscle mass I would suggest a range of closer to 100-150 grams per day. Possibly getting close to 200 grams if you naturally have a slender build or faster metabolism and are pretty active. Still concentrate on getting the bulk of these carbohydrates in the form of vegetables but fruit intake can be increase to 1-3 pieces a day or starchy carbs mostly from sweet potatoes.
Most of these should be consumed after an intense workout session. Start tapering back as the day winds down. This should allow you to keep body fat levels low while adding nice lean and toned mass.
If you are interested in a precise amount of carbohydrates post workout visit an excellent coach I had the fortune to work with, Mr. Charles Poliquin (scroll to lesson #8)
It is very important to take measurements and/or have your body fat taken via hydrostatic methods (dunk tank) or a fitness professional (very important to have the same person do it every time.) These will give you more accurate methods of evaluating progress as opposed to the scale.
Waist: Measure your waist without holding the tape too tightly (or too loosely). As a rough guide, your waist is the narrowest part of your trunk, or approximately 1 inch above your belly button.
Hips: Measure the hips around the fullest part of your buttocks with your heels together.
Thighs: Measure the upper thighs, just below where the buttocks merge into the back thigh.
Chest: Measure around the fullest part of chest
Oh yeah… and take before and after pictures!!
Carbohydrate alternatives. Make better choices.
A diet rich in cereals, breads, pasta, rice, pancakes, muffins, waffles, is easy to eat, but tougher to burn off, resulting in fat stores. Instead, go for the fiber-based carbs found in fruits and veggies.
Remember that the darker the fruit of veggie, the better. Think about a diet plan as a rainbow, and try to eat as many different colored items as possible in a day, choosing darker greens over iceberg lettuce and sweet potatoes over russets
The reason for this is due to the response they cause in the body. I am sure many of you are familiar with the glycemic index. Higher glycemic foods such as candy, breakfast cereal, bagels, and white potatoes raise our blood sugar very quickly as well as our insulin. Lower glycemic foods do not cause such a rapid change. This enables our blood sugar to stay stable, keep hunger at bay, improve health, and manage body composition.
Unfortunately the glycemic index is not such a great tool to measure what carbohydrates to ingest. The glycemic index measures foods when they are consumed alone. However, we most often combine foods. Thus, we change the impact they have on our blood sugar.
Everyone take a deep breath….. 1….2…..3…… I know this is a lot of info. Hang it there!
When a high GI food is combined with a low GI food such as grass-fed beef or nuts it’s GI rating is changed. Some other factors that affect the way our bodies respond to carbohydrates include the amount we take in, how it is prepared, and what time of day we eat.
Again, this is why it is extremely important to pay attention to how you respond to certain foods. Once excellent way is to keep a food journal for a week or two. Write down how you felt before, during, and 30-60 minutes prior to a meal. Look for patterns. Tired, grumpy, still hungry, bloated, etc…
Remember that the darker the fruit of veggie, the better. Think about a diet plan as a rainbow, and try to eat as many different colored items as possible in a day, choosing darker greens over iceberg lettuce and sweet potatoes over russets.
So how much is too much?
While the USDA recommends a range of 150 to 300 grams of carbs per day, many health experts say that eating at that level will lead to a steady weight gain, as it results in the production of too much insulin, preventing efficient fat burning. And more than that? A diet that includes two Krispy Kreme donuts (that’s 34 grams of carb each if you go for the custard filled), one or two as an afternoon snack and one after supper as dessert, puts you smack into the danger zone of 300 or more grams of carbs per day.
But even eating the standard American diet of cereal, muffins, pancakes, and processed snacks can put you at the over-300 marker we see in the carbohydrate curve mentioned above, as is believed to be one of the key factors in the rise in diabetes cases in this country.
For a diet plan that leads to weight loss, many experts recommend eating 50 to 100 grams of carbohydrates a day, a plan that is more likely to net the lean results you’re looking for, or less than 50 grams a day, which leads to ketosis, the fat-burning concept behind the Atkins plan.
The trick, if course, is to choose from more complex carbs like fruits and veggies, mixing them with lean meats, nuts and kefir for smart fat intake. To maintain after weight loss, experts suggests getting anywhere from 100 to 150 grams a day.
If you are curious as to how much you are taking in think about signing up online and recording your food intake. Fitday, Livestrong, and apps like myfitnesspal are all excellent resources. It’s all about AWARENESS!
Of course, some carbs are better for you than others, and smart yet simple changes can make all the difference in a diet plan. Consider:
Spaghetti squash instead of pasta. (recipe)
This tasty little squash straddles the fine line between winter and summer squash. When baked, it easily can be shredded with a fork to create strands that look exactly like spaghetti. Top it with a favorite sauce – try making your own and stuffing it with onions and peppers for a multi-veg meal.
Sweet potatoes instead of French fries. (recipe)
The sweet potato has TONS of Vitamin A and lots of fiber, making it a really smart trade for traditional fries, which take a fine carb like a russet potato (full of fiber and vitamins and a good choice on its own) and turn it into a feast of empty calories.
Skip the bun on a burger in favor of a lettuce wrap. (image)
This little tip is one that is gaining popularity, and many gourmet restaurants offer lettuce cups as appetizers, making the whole idea seem a little less foreign. Even Heather on “The Real Housewives of Orange County” ordered a lettuce wrap recently, turning her after-glamping breakfast burger into a smart, carb-light meal. If it’s good enough for a “REAL” housewife than it’s good enough for me!
When’s the best time to eat carbs?
We touched on this before but it is really important to reiterate. Our body is primed after HARD — keyword HARD exercise to consume carbohydrates. This is the optimal time for us to get them in. What we eat today actually provides us with our file for tomorrow.
Although Michael Scott chose to load up on his carbs right before his office Fun Run, downing an oversized plate of fettuccine Alfredo a few minutes before tying his shoes, the former boss on “The Office” should have waited. Most top endurance, Crossfit, and sport specific athletes will either load up on carbs the night before or right after a workout, which results in maximum muscle gain. And they don’t have the vomiting that happened for Michael Scott, who never managed to finish the 5K run.
When “loading” up on carbs it does not mean a bunch of junk. Good quality carbohydrates still need to be included. For most of us carbohydrate loading is not necessary and again all depends on your body type, goals, and activity levels.
A better understanding
The bottom-line is that carbs have long been over-rated and barely understood by most people. Countless men and women have drastically improved their health, lost significant weight, and achieved greater fitness levels – simply by gaining an understanding of their carbs. It’s amazing how just a little bit of the right knowledge can go so far and do so much. Now that you have a better understanding about the carbs you eat, be sure to use it to reach your health and fitness goals.
What are some of your favorite carbohydrate sources? Any of you getting great results with a lower carbohydrate approach?