Low Carb is Stupid, Sometimes.
Low-carbohydrate diets are still a popular topic in today’s health and wellness world as people continue to argue about the efficacy of this style of dieting. The two sides go back and forth spitting out generalizations and trying to tear the other ideology down. I’m not sure why people get so offended by low-carb advocates. It’s not as if they’re trying to take over the world and make all carbohydrates illegal. You can still eat your cereal, bro. Relax.
I also don’t understand why some low-carb advocates have to act as though any sort of grain or carbohydrate is poison that is slowly killing us and making us obese. The research just isn’t there to support this. These debates become clouded as both sides gradually shift their argument more and more toward an extremist point of view. Eventually, it becomes, “low-carb diets are the only way to lose fat and prevent disease” versus “low-carb diets kill your metabolism and waste muscle.” As with most things, there is a grey area.
What is forgotten is that not every style of dieting or training has to be for you. The beauty is that it is your body and you are free to do what you want with it. If someone is searching for an anti-aging/longevity diet, they may dig into some research on ketogenic diets or avoid gluten and become intrigued. If, for some reason, this upsets you and makes you want to “set them straight,” you need a fucking life. Dieting involves a lot of self-exploration and it thrives when it’s custom fit to the person using it.
I draw the line when those who like low carb start to promote and spew utter bullshit. In the past week, I’ve seen coaches online say:
“Fat doesn’t make you fat; carbs and sugar do.”Wrong!
“If you never eat carbs, your body will not release insulin and you will not get bigger fat cells.”Wrong!
“Just eat only proteins and fats and calories won’t matter.”Wrong!
“Sugar and grains are poison to the human body.”Really? Poison?
Too much energy and too little expenditure will make you fat, not carbohydrates and sugar. All foods stimulate insulin to a degree and even some non-carbs like whey protein and certain amino acids cause a large increase in insulin. Does this mean whey protein makes you fat? No. Just because people tend to have an easier time overeating on carbohydrates doesn’t make them bad. It just means you suck at self-control. Thousands of bodybuilders and athletes eat a ton of carbohydrates and they aren’t anywhere near fat.
While I don’t personally put clients on low-carb diets, that doesn’t mean I think they’re useless either. At the same time, many people don’t have any idea how to use low-carb diets and may not need to. Let’s examine when these diets might be useful and when you’re simply spinning your wheels:
- When someone starts a low or no carb diet, he is essentially restricting the largest food group that he currently eats from (50–60 percent). This makes it much more difficult to overeat, as the majority of his usual food choices are off-limits. Right off the bat, he’s likely reducing his total calories without even knowing it, which is step one in weight loss—lower intake and controlled energy balance.
- Most processed carbohydrates do a poor job of stimulating fullness and tend to create large, fat inhibiting, blood sugar spikes followed by rebound insulin spikes. By largely having to forfeit this food, as it’s normally also high in carbohydrates, you create more periods when insulin is low and you typically crave these foods less. This also leads to, once again, eating less.
- The quick drop in weight that you experience is mainly due to a reduction in water, not true fat loss. Once you reintroduce carbohydrates, you’ll likely gain that water weight back. However, this quick drop in “weight” usually gives the person some confidence and encouragement, which is what they need sometimes.
- By restricting carbohydrates, you almost always increase the person’s protein, which is useful for gaining/retaining muscle. Protein has the highest thermic effect of food (TEF) and works well to keep you full.
- This works best for those who have a hard timing practicing moderation. If you allow yourself 100 grams of carbs that you constantly crave, binge, and go way overboard on, this might temporarily help.
- It’s also “easy” in terms of not having to think. People like the idea of just having to avoid one thing and everything else is good to go. Everyone loves simple.
- Ketosis seems to correlate to fat loss, as people in ketosis are metabolizing fatty acids. However, there are many people on ketogenic diets who aren’t very lean. Energy balance is still king on the large-scale and everything else comes after.
Should you use low-carb diets for fat loss or body recomposition?
For most people, I’d say no. Why? Because you can absolutely, without a doubt, lose body fat with carbohydrates, so why wouldn’t you? Not to mention, I believe that in order to gain muscle and keep workouts productive, carbohydrates are a very useful tool. Even when people come to me for fat loss, gaining lean body mass during their diet is still a priority. Don’t believe the old myth that you can’t reduce body fat and increase muscle tissue over the course of the same diet because you absolutely can.
Ditching your precious carbs is tough. Too much restriction will set the stage for poor, long-term adherence. It may seem impossible to avoid carbohydrates on a full-time basis and you will likely drive yourself insane. Eating on the run can be a huge stumbling block here as well. Not to mention, carbohydrates are a useful source of energy for high intense activity and help increase serotonin to promote sleep and recovery among a host of other benefits.
At the same time, if you find that you personally feel and perform better on low carbs, listen to your body. If grains or gluten bother you, don’t eat them! But just because you can’t tolerate them doesn’t make them evil or the wrong choice for others. If a diet higher in protein and dietary fat prevents crashes in energy and allows you to more easily control your appetite, you will have success with this diet. It can absolutely be effective in dropping body fat. I tend to just worry about the long-term sustainability.
What you should do: Blend periods of high/moderate carbohydrates with periods of low carbohydrate/low insulin. Keep the majority of your carbohydrates in the peri-workout window and set intake as high as possible without hindering fat loss. If you want to go long stretches with low/no carbs, make sure that you include some carb-ups or refeeds every four to seven days, depending on how lean you are.
Should you use low-carb diets for muscle gain?
A low carb diet won’t yield large increases in muscle mass. That doesn’t mean that you can’t possibly gain any muscle, but you won’t gain anywhere near what you would with carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the only fuel capable of fueling anaerobic exercise; lifting weights is primarily anaerobic. This is why carbohydrates in the peri-workout window are so important.
Having low glycogen levels when beginning a lift will result in decreased performance in the gym. Less optimal lifts lead to fewer increases in strength, which may limit hypertrophy or muscle gain in the long term. Gaining muscle is an expensive, long-term metabolic process. Your workouts have to be demanding, consistent, and ever increasing in order for your body to waste its valuable energy on packing on muscle. You have to supply your body with enough nutrients to allow it to perform, recover, and grow.
What you should do: If you tolerate carbs and want to be big, eat them and try to eat as many as you can while keeping body fat around a reasonable percentage (12 percent). They are your friend when you want to pack on serious mass.
Do low-carb diets lead to catabolism and muscle loss?
It depends. Any diet can lead to catabolism if it isn’t programmed properly. So it would be unfair to say that low-carb diets lead to catabolism because they don’t have to. When you severely restrict carbohydrates, many unique physiological changes occur. For example, the mobilization of fatty acids in the body is put on overdrive and the liver will begin to produce ketone bodies. Your liver can’t use ketone bodies, so they flow to other tissues in the body. Your body will want to spare glucose, so ketones and fatty acids become an alternative fuel. This is referred to as ketosis, and while it can help with fat loss, it isn’t necessary for fat loss either.
A study from BioMed Central looked into a few different low-carb diets and their ability to retain muscle. Here are some of the results they found:
- A group of men were fed a 1,000 kcal very low carb diet (10 grams a day) for ten days. After the ten days, 97 percent of the weight lost was fat. (A very small sample size and not a long study but interesting nonetheless.)
- Another study by Young and colleagues compared three diets of 1,800 kcal, 115 grams of protein, and three different carbohydrate amounts (30 grams, 60 grams, and 104 grams). After nine weeks, the group with 30 grams of carbs lost the most fat. The 60-gram group was second and the 104-gram group came in last. Of the weight lost, the 30-gram group was 95 percent fat, the 60-gram group was 84 percent fat, and the 104-gram group 75 percent fat.
- A study by Volek and colleagues looked at the results of a six-week low carb diet in healthy, normal weight men. The men went from eating a diet with 48 percent carbs to 8 percent (there was also a control group). By week six, the results showed a 3.4 kg (roughly 7.5 pounds) loss in fat mass and a 1.1 kg increase in lean body mass.
These are only three studies, and the setup wasn’t always the best, but if you’re thinking of going low carb, it may ease your mind a bit that you may not magically lose all your muscle. It’s also important to consider that you can benefit from stretches of low carbs as well. It doesn’t have to be a daily low-carb diet.
When should you use low carb?
I do believe some people just “feel” better on this type of diet. You may find that it helps prevent the cravings normally experienced on a restricted calorie diet. At first, it will take some getting used to, but the fewer and fewer carbohydrates you have, the less you will crave them.
If you’re in the middle of a “bulk,” which I hate, you might want to go two to four weeks with some form of carbohydrate and calorie restriction to control body fat and improve insulin sensitivity. Insulin resistance is implicated in a ton of metabolic disorders, and maintaining insulin sensitivity should always be a priority for health and physique purposes.
If you’re going to try a low-carb diet to get lean, make sure that you include some carb up periods and focus on maintaining strength. Don’t sacrifice all your hard earned tissue just to drop some body fat.
While I think that periods of low carbohydrates and low insulin levels are useful in fat loss or body recomposition, low-carb diets take it to an extreme. If you want to gain muscle, be strong, and remain sane, you had better figure out how to work carbs into your diet. If you train with weights and understand how to practice moderation, you can have your cake and eat it, too, literally.
If you want to try a ketogenic diet for health purposes or longevity or as a diet to potentially help with cancer, I think it’s at least worth looking into. If it works/helps you, it doesn’t matter what anything else says. I do put value in nutrition being powerful enough to drastically improve or worsen someone’s current health.