Carbs and fat gain: What 2 years of experimentation taught me
I hope I’ve proved by now how willing I am to be a guinea pig for experiments. I’ll trial anything, if even for the sake of knowledge that I can share with anyone remotely interested in said topic. Today is just another day at the office!
I’ve done very low carb dieting. I’ve strictly practised intermittent fasting (anywhere from 14-18 hours fasted per day) for many many months. I’ve also ‘back-loaded’ my carbs, not consuming any in the first half of the day for over a year straight. I’ve been the epitome of a carb sponge too; eating well over 300 grams of carbs per day spread across every meal.
I don’t intend this to be a heavily science based piece. I find too many articles are formulated thanks to cherry picking of scientific studies. It’s true. We can all do it. Whatever I want to convey, I can find X amount of studies to support my argument. I can also find plenty of studies suggesting otherwise.
Who can you trust?
Many will tell you that carbs are the devil and just by cutting them out, you’ll get lean without having to figure out calories, do cardio or anything else. Some also say that unless you’re extremely lean, doing crossfit everyday, along with boxing training at night and triathlons at the weekends, you don’t really need any carbs at all. And if you do, 50 grams of boiled sweet potato on a Sunday night is enough to get you through another week. If you eat any more than that, your insulin sensitivity will diminish and fat gain will be imminent.
I fell for it BIG TIME.
Looking back, they had me…….hook line and sinker! I started back-loading my carbs; limiting carb consumption to the post workout window and on non intensive days with low activity and no workouts, I ceased to consume carbs. At the time, I must have been so spell bound by the anti-carb crowd that I genuinely thought when I did gift myself some brown rice, I’d grow wings or something – I’d be so ‘insulin sensitive’.
Note: I’m not making light of the significance of healthy insulin regulation among humans and its impact on overall health. But to say for those young, healthy and active, that high carb intakes are a one way ticket to insulin resistance is naive at best.
I did what most do; replace the calories from carbs with calories from fat. I was wolfing down the nuts! Nuts are a great part of a healthy diet, but to eat them in large amounts just doesn’t fly. It’s their energy density that plays tricks on us all. The actual volume of nuts is very small. In other words, a handful of nuts really doesn’t feel like much in the stomach compared to the actual caloric amount you’ve just ingested.
And this is where I – and almost all others – go wrong with the low carb propaganda……..
Thinking that low carb, higher fat diets are immune to the laws of thermodynamics is common. The premise of thermodynamics is simple:
- Energy in > energy expended = weight gain
- Energy in = energy expended = stable weight/maintenance of weight
- Energy Expenditure > energy intake = weight loss
If you do any anaerobic activity (pretty much all forms of weightlifting), then eradicating carbs is short changing your body of its most efficient fuel source. You need stored glycogen for intense muscle contractions. You get glycogen from carbohydrates. Furthermore, carbohydrates are protein sparing which should allow you to train harder/longer without the risk of proteins (in the form of muscle tissue) being used as an emergency substitute – as would be the case in a glycogen depleted, LEAN individual.
Long story short, I got less aesthetic on a low carb diet than I did on a higher carb diet. I saw minimal to no muscle gains during my ‘adventure’ despite being in a calorie surplus.
But doesn’t only eating fat force your body to use more fat as fuel?
If you’re in a calorie deficit, I see this theory panning out quite well. If however, you’re just banking on the lack of carbs magically making you lean and sexy, you’ve got a surprise in store. Why on earth would your body burn stored body fat when it has more than enough fat coming in on a daily basis?!
If you were truly insulin resistant and had lots of weight to lose, this approach would be good. Or, if you generally have a poor sensitivity to carbs. You’ll know by testing your fasted glucose levels and recording an average whilst trialling different daily carb intakes.
(You can read more on that here)
If you feel bloated, tired, lethargic and experience gas or extreme sugar cravings, you can take any of those as subtle signs you’re not doing so great with the amount of carbs you’re eating.
Can I lose body fat on a high carb diet as long as I control my calorie intake?
You sure can! I have some more anecdotal evidence to lay on the table. I was somewhat ill this past week and something completely unknown happened – I lost my appetite. That’s like Donald Trump having no desire for money. Anyhow, I ate a calorie deficit of around 500 calories for 2-3 days and guess what’s happened this week? My weight is down a couple of pounds. My carb intake? Over 300 grams per day. Still lost weight. And…..on my first journey to getting lean, I never restricted carbs at all. I just created an energy deficit via activity and food restriction.
So can I eat an ‘IIFYM’ diet? Am I getting your blessings?
No blessings from me. Sorry. I will concede though, as I have before, that you can lose body fat on an ‘IF-IT-FITS-YOUR-MACROS’ diet. You absolutely can. It’s been proven. BUT, you will not feel anywhere near as good as you will on a wholefoods diet. Organic fruits and vegetables are worth more to your body than pizza and oreos. Your diet should leave you with minimal to no nutritional deficiencies.
What about ketogenic diets, don’t some people thrive on them?!
I bet some of you were thinking by now I wouldn’t touch on keto diets, well here we are. I’m well aware of many keto adapted athletes, but we must accept they’re a minority. Ketogenic dieting gets a bad rap because people don’t give it the required adaptation time. From all the literature I’ve seen, they take a solid 14 days to adapt to – sometimes much longer. Our ‘get it yesterday!’ mentality is generally the main reason why keto diets get bad press. We just don’t give them a fair chance.
I think people’s response to a keto diet is very genetically influenced. As mentioned earlier, we all have wildly varying tolerance to carbohydrates. I am very intrigued by the ketogenic diet and may very well give it a 90 day test drive in the near future. Seeing as I handle carbs pretty well, it will be interesting to see me on the other end of the spectrum.
Carbs or no carbs at breakfast?
Going against the grain, I find I’m better satiated with a balanced meal; carbs, protein and fat – maybe even fruit too. When I tried to ‘back-load’ my carbs, I found it just made me long for them. And when I finally was ‘allowed’ them, I had a ‘get it while you can’ mentality. You may be different though. We all are. When all’s said and done, productivity and well being are priority number one. The best eating style is the one you can stick too, stress free. Don’t forget that.
Why don’t you just drink coffee? That will kill your hunger just fine!
I used to drink 2-3 cups each morning like it was my praying session. You’re right, it does kill carb cravings, but at what expense? Being caffeine dependant is not the place to be. I’m in the midst of being caffeine free for over 40 days now and have never looked back. People say I’m calmer, and I am. My sleep is the best it’s been for years and my gym strength is equal or better than it was and it’s not from an external source.
(Read all about my caffeine-free adventure here)
But hey, if you’re sleeping fine with coffee on the daily and aren’t tense, snappy and anxious, have at it! Your tolerance is evidently better than mine. And that’s just it: We’re all different. If you don’t play around with these things, you’ll have no right to comment and express valid thoughts and observations.
Low carb diets are notorious for affecting sleep quality. Carbohydrates stimulate serotonin production (a relaxation neurotransmitter) which promotes a restful state – one conducive to sleep. If you’re not sleeping well, you certainly won’t be recovering well. When you’re not recovering well, you won’t be progressing well. It’s progress that drives overall performance and performance is best when energy is readily available; which comes in the form of carbohydrates.
Lastly, soluble fiber is best sourced from starchy plants (potatoes, squashes, breadfruit, sweet potatoes and various fruits). You need both insoluble fiber and soluble fiber to formulate a healthy diet. Ultra low carb diets actually have neither in abundance.
Short term, I can see low carb diets having their place. Who for? Well, my parents would be prime candidates. They don’t exercise. They’re virtually alcoholics. Their diet consists of 95% processed, junk food. They’re overweight and look 10 years older than they actually are. I wouldn’t endorse a carb rich diet for them until they got lean and healthier. I might change my mind though if they decided to get up off the couch and start exercising for once!
Energy turnover will always reign supreme, but don’t forget the necessity for micronutrients.
I’m off to eat some Quinoa.
JR @ Straight-Talking-Fitness View All
The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.
Thanks very much! I know you share my sentiments when it comes to the carb dogma. We just can’t argue with our own personal experience, can we?
Maybe one day people will learn carbs are not evil
it is quite refreshing to see another person endorsing the fact that carbs are not the enemy!!
I read an article about insulin spikes and the basic outcome was that the food that will spike your insulin response is much more complicated than carbs=insulin, it varies considerably from person to person even with identical intakes let alone taking into account food combination and cooking methods!!
I always tell people that you need to experiment and find what works for you, some carbs are fine…but all the carbs are bad…but then the same applies to protein…and lettuce…
You’re spot on with the variance in insulin spikes. White potatoes are supposed to spike your blood sugar into a coma, but what if you combine them with meat, plenty of vegetables, a handful of nuts and some olive oil? Then, as you say, the ‘insulin spike’ changes dramatically. It is fascinating though, to see where our individual diet tolerance lies. I love this kind of stuff!
It is really fascinating I agree!
I sometimes think I should get a blood test meter to really see what is going on!
Like a full blood work panel – measuring your levels of everything from zinc levels to testosterone to blood glucose? I’m sure you can ask your doctor for that.
yes, that would be interesting, but I meant a personal blood glucose tester like diabetics have, so I can test my blood sugar levels with and after food to see what variance there is…
in theory there shouldn’t be too much as I am not diabetic but it would be interesting to see which foods affected my blood sugar and therefore my insulin response…
Oh…..yeah, I have that and actually once spent almost a month vigorously measuring my glucose fasted each day. The only trouble was, you burn through testing strips REALLY RAPIDLY that way and it gets expensive.
But you should be able to purchase one of those at any reasonable health store. It won’t cost much either – or shouldn’t!
I may look into it, but I run the risk of becoming a little obsessive!!
Haha……that’s what happened to me. It’s a genuine risk!
it really is!! 😀
Carbs are evil! Fat makes you fat! Pfft, the government (UK here =]) and yourself have it right… Balance your macro’s properly and enjoy a healthy lifestyle!
Damn right. I think overall calories are the numero uno regulator when it comes to body composition (body fat levels), but as I said, to run a calorie restricted diet consisting of junk food is foolish to say the least. It will show in your performance, appearance and your overall attitude toward life.
Very detailed. We are all different and I think you addressed this from a lot of angles. Especially the piece about not giving us enough time to adapt to ketogenic diets. One point on that, and with any diet that regulates carbs, be wary of stopping it. Or just many cases your body snaps right back to its previous state.
Thanks. Yeah, you’ve really got to be consistent with any eating approach. I really want to try a proper keto diet just for educational purposes, although I don’t think my genotype would handle it all that well. Have you any experience with keto dieting/eating?
No I do not. I myself stay fairly paleo. I know one person who does keto, but that individual is extremely gluten intolerant and it seems to fit his genotype fairly well. It might be worth it to try just once, but like you said earlier, give yourself enough time for the adaption period. And use ketostix to test yourself periodically.
Yeah, I pretty much eat a paleo based diet just with higher carbs and the exception of gluten free oats and rice. I think most people won’t do bad on a paleo inspired diet. If I ever get to the stage of needing/wanting to ‘cut’ again, I’ll probably give the keto approach a test drive! 🙂
Brilliant Post, i am inspired 🙂
Thanks once again 🙂 What’s your take on carbs?
oh lord i try to avoid it as much as i can, i guess i need more motivation 🙂
Oh really? So you try and rock the ‘low carb lifestyle’?
Yes :P!! (covers face)
I agree overall calories consumption trumphs any diet style. U gotta eat less then u burn to cut. People still get fat on keto and paleo if they eat 3000 calories a day and they r only burning 2400.
Exactly that. Energy turnover is the ultimate governor when it comes to body fat storage. Of course, you can feel better on certain eating styles due to genetic factors.
Yea, I have figured out over time that cyclical keto works the best for my body type. I am a carb sensitive endomorph. I have slimmed down, but I can gain really quickly.
And I take it you feel/function well on that eating style? No cravings, crashes or general hunger?
No when I am fully fat adapted, hunger is not a issue at all. I can go without food for 6 hours, no problem at all. It does take some will power to say no to pizza, lol. I have noticed I can eat more calories on keto and not gain weight or fat, but if I am eating over 100 grams of carbs a day I have to cut my calories lower then when I am on keto.
That’s interesting, many people have reported those findings on keto diets – it’s almost like they feel they’re able to defy/break the laws of thermo-dynamics. It’s definitely an interesting topic and potential avenue of exploration.
HAHAHA- I love your sarcasm. I’m laughing so much at ‘carb sponge’ as well.
Haha, thanks. I really don’t realise how sarcastic I can be sometimes! Nice to see someone with a similar sense of humour 😉
Great post, well written and informative. I used to be guilty of skipping carbs a few years ago, and I wondered why I never had any energy after long runs. I’ve learned now after lots of reading and podcast listening that they’re a great source of fuel for long runs! Thanks for sharing 🙂
Thanks Becky, after much experimentation, I can’t really speak out against carbs – they’ve always been an ally to me, not an enemy.