Master Trainer Andy Vincent argues that for the active gym member carbs are the delicious fuel you need to succeed. And stay sane.
If you were to ask just about anyone, ‘how do you lose weight?’ they will probably lead with something about cutting back on carbs. As a trainer we hear it all of the time. Since the Atkins era of the late 90’s, the low-carb movement has fluctuated in popularity and has left most people assuming that carbs are inherently bad. Over the last few years I’m willing to bet that you have heard something about carbs spiking blood insulin which leads to fat gain, carbs causing inflammation which is bad for your heart or (my personal favourite) that carbs aren’t an essential part of our diet like proteins and fats. Some of it sounds simple and, at least in part, logical, but the simplicity of labelling an entire food group as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ negates the biological complexity of carbohydrates.
Now, I’m sure you know someone who has had dieting success with restricting carbs and I’m not here to argue if it works or not. Ultimately, if you reduce what you eat then of course you will lose weight. But was it because that nutrient was ‘bad’ or was it that you reduced your overall calorie intake?
Making the Cut
Short-term improvements when removing carbs are indeed seen, and with the rise of the ketogenic diet over the past decade the low carb movement seems to be coming back stronger than ever. In fact, ketogenic diet books are expected to be the biggest selling diet books this Christmas. So if you haven’t heard of it let me outline the diet:
The ketogenic diet – often called ‘keto’ – is a high fat, moderate protein and low-to-no carb diet that mimics a fasting physiology. Your brain and body switch to using ketones for energy instead of blood sugar (glucose). This state is called ketosis. The state of ketosis can be achieved through fasting, diet, supplementing with ketones or a combination of all three. The diet has been around for years and was originally developed to treat epilepsy in children.
But simply cutting out your weekly carbonara won’t send you ketogenic. To know when you are in ketosis you need to measure your blood glucose and beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB) levels. You can do this with daily blood or urine tests, should you be so inclined. It rightly seems extreme and even though I don’t recommend giving up carbs, the ketogenic diet does have some intriguing benefits. Speaking to people who have successfully achieved ketosis the list of benefits are compelling, from:
1) Improved cognitive function
2) Fat loss and improved body recomposition
3) Improved energy and performance
4) Improved oxygen usage
You’re therefore probably wondering, having listed the benefits above, why I’m not telling everyone to upgrade their diet plan immediately. Allow me to explain.
Drawbacks of the Cutback
The biggest negative to the diet is the huge restrictions. Limiting your diet to such low carbohydrates is hard enough for a week, and from reading the studies on the keno diet it can take between 1-3 months to reach ketosis. That’s a lot of time without pizza before you start to see any benefits at all. Some people will fall off, and it’ll end up as lot of hard work and hunger pangs for nothing.
It’s not the sort of diet you can dip in and out of. It’s a 100%, all-in lifestyle choice. Depending on who you speak to, just one or two drinks can pull you out of ketosis. And I believe that if you can successfully stick to the restrictions required for three months then you clearly have no problems with willpower. And if willpower isn’t a problem, then there are far less extreme diets out there that you can have equal success with.
Here’s the thing, the keto diet hasn’t had enough long term research carried out on it and most of us require some level of carbohydrates to function at our best long term. Sure we can cut carbs temporarily if we need to lose weight quickly (which is mostly water and glycogen). But for most of us, keeping carbs too low for a sustained period of time will have disastrous consequences. This is especially true for those that train regularly. If you are sedentary than you might be able to get away with a slightly more restricted approach.
The Real Fuel for Your Goals
Adequate carbohydrate consumption has an important role to play in many body functions, including things like hormone production. The hypothalamus and pituitary glands in our brain are sensitive to energy availability. The hypothalamus and pituitary work together with other glands such as the adrenals. Long term low carbohydrate intake can therefore disrupt normal hormone function of lutenizing hormone (LH), follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) – in woman and sex hormones, oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone. Low carbohydrate intake can also effect other hormones such as cortisol and T3 (thyroid hormone). This may all sound complicated, but what sustained low carbohydrate intake and high exercise activity can lead to is:
1) decreased thyroid output that causes fatigue and weight gain
2) increased cortisol and decreased testosterone to restrict muscle growth
3) muscle catabolism
4) suppressed immune function
5) disrupted mental cycle in woman
It’s easy to get caught up in a fad diet, but in most cases the extreme nature of fad diets makes them either unhealthy or not sustainable. For many years we thought the key to fat loss was a low fat diet. We were wrong there, too.
The Nutritional See-Saw
Low-fat, high-carb didn’t work for most of us. People felt deprived and hungry; they cheated with fat-free, high-sugar treats; and they ended up eating a lot of rice cakes. Now we seem to have swung the other way with a low-carb, high-fat bandwagon where we can eat nut butters, cream and avocado. Unfortunately the low carb diet isn’t working for most of us either. What we really need is balance.
The thing to always remember is that carbohydrates and refined carbohydrates are very different things. All natural carbohydrates are good for you and should be eaten. White rice and white potatoes are no better or worse than sweet potato and brown rice. They are all natural, nutrient dense. Especially if you are training regularly.
On the other hand, refined carbohydrates that have been man made and processed should certainly be limited. It’s worth noting that just because its man made doesn’t mean you can’t eat it. There has to be balance where you enjoy yourself but are aware of what you are eating. If you’re looking to take my lead then let me finish with a list of a few of my favourite carbs to get you started. A couple may surprise you:
White basmati rice: As I mentioned before, don’t think white rice is somehow inferior to brown or wild rice. It has a slightly lower nutrient profile. However, post-workout lower fibre is usually a good thing as they are easily digested and absorbed and usually won’t cause the gastro intestinal issues that you might find with its higher fibre counterpart, wholegrain rice.
Chickpeas: I could have put any legume in here really but I love chickpeas as they have higher protein levels, which is great if you are trying to reduce animal protein intake plus they form the base of possibly my favourite food, hummus.
Bagels: Yes, you read that right. Bagels taste great, especially those ones from the shop at the top of Brick Lane, and there is nothing wrong with enjoying one from time to time. They contain roughly 45g of carbs and 8g of protein. If you’re someone that is exercising daily you will be allowed somewhere between 100-250g of carbs per day. A bagel will fit into that very nicely indeed.