In the pursuit of the next best quick fix, fad diet and shortcut to fat loss people have been slamming carbs and zealously promoting high fat, low carbohydrate ketogenic diets as the holy grail for fat loss.
In the process the humble macro has become a great divider of people., some people love them, and others wouldn’t be caught dead eating them.
I’ll be upfront with you, I am firmly in the team carb camp (as you may have guessed from the title) and this post will explore the 2 main reasons I advocate including carbs in your diet.
So, whether you’re with me, against me or on the fence I urge you to read on.
Weight Loss is the Result of a Calorie Deficit Not How Many Carbohydrates You Eat
To start let’s be clear that I don’t dispute that some people can and have lost weight following a low carb diet.
Granted it doesn’t work for everyone but for some the results are good. However, a lot of people think you need to cut carbs out your diet for 2 reasons;
They think carbs make you fat
They think low carb diets are superior for fat loss
Let’s look at each in turn.
Which is true, one of the functions of insulin is to promote the storage of nutrients and prevent the release of energy until levels have returned to normal. It is because of this function there is a school of thought that advocates low carb diets.
The reasoning being that a low carb diet won’t keep your insulin levels elevated and therefore will be superior for fat loss. The idea is that low levels of insulin will mean more fat burning and less fat storing.
A look at the research (3, 4, 5, 6) does show that low carb diets can result in weight loss. However, this is most likely because they cause you to eat fewer calories (7, 8) — i.e. you’re in a calorie deficit — which is likely a result of an increased protein intake (9) and its effect on satiety…not because of its effect on insulin.
In my opinion, this point is summed up perfectly in the following quote from James Krieger at Weightology.net;
“One misconception regarding a high carbohydrate intake is that it will lead to chronically high insulin levels, meaning you will gain fat because lipogenesis will constantly exceed lipolysis (remember that fat gain can only occur if the rate of lipogenesis exceeds the rate of lipolysis). However, in healthy people, insulin only goes up in response to meals. This means that lipogenesis will only exceed lipolysis during the hours after a meal (known as the postprandial period). During times when you are fasting (such as extended times between meals, or when you are asleep), lipolysis will exceed lipogenesis (meaning you are burning fat). Over a 24-hour period, it will all balance out (assuming you are not consuming more calories than you are expending), meaning you do not gain weight.”
James also has a handy graphic to help illustrate this point:
At this point I think it's both fair and logical to draw the conclusion that carbs don’t make you fat, a calorie surplus makes you fat.
As for the idea that a low carbohydrate diet is superior for fat loss, there are numerous research studies that disprove this theory.
In a study (10) conducted in the last few years, researchers compared weight loss between a high carbohydrate diet and the ketogenic diet. The study presented its hypothesis as follows;
“isocaloric exchange of dietary carbohydrate for fat is predicted to result in increased EE [energy expenditure], increased fat oxidation, and loss of body fat. In contrast, a more conventional view that “a calorie is a calorie” predicts that isocaloric variations in dietary carbohydrate and fat will have no physiologically important effects on EE or body fat.”
What did they find?
There was no increase in body fat loss when using a ketogenic diet compared to a high carbohydrate diet.
And although the ketogenic diet saw a rise in energy expenditure it was “near the limits of detection with the use of state-of-the-art technology” i.e. they could hardly tell it was there and as such it was insignificant.
This study, conducted by low carb advocates (the NuSI lab which was founded in part by Gary Taubes), completely debunked the theory that low carb, high-fat diets provide a weight loss advantage.
This means as long as you’re in a calorie deficit you will lose weight regardless of your how many carbs, fat or protein you eat.
However, for reasons, we’re about to discuss I strongly recommend that carbohydrates are part of your diet.
Eating Carbohydrates Will Improve Your Performance In The Gym
For guys like us who work out for the usual reasons (to look and feel good) protein, fat and carbohydrate intake are an important consideration as they will fuel the exercise you do to bring about the changes you want to see.
When trying to lose or build muscle you should be asking “What nutrition protocol works best for me to reach my goals?”
For the vast majority of people this will be a diet that includes carbohydrate.
Research (6) shows that glycogen stored in your muscles is the primary fuel source of moderate to intense exercise and that a sufficient carbohydrate intake that keeps your muscle and liver glycogen stores full can improve workout performance (7).
This means when you workout your body will be looking for glycogen to fuel this exercise, particularly if it’s moderate to intense exercise like lifting weights.
Stores of glycogen in the muscles often translates to a better workout. Whereas, a lack of glycogen for the body to draw on will result in your feeling tired and sluggish when in the gym.
How many carbs should you eat to get this benefit?
A low carbohydrate intake of approx. 220g per day
A high carbohydrate intake of approx. 350g per day
They found that the group who ate more carbohydrates;
Retained more strength
Recovered from workouts faster
Had high levels of protein synthesis
This means you should maximise your carbohydrate intake in your diet by not eating more protein than you need (0.7 -1 g per lb of body weight) and keeping fat at moderate levels based on your body weight (20 – 30%)
Once this is done, everything else should go to carbohydrates.
Carbs are an important of the diet for the recreational weightlifter who is looking to get either build more muscle or maintain their muscle in a calorie deficit. Not only do they not cause you to gain weight (a calorie surplus does that) but they also help to fuel intense gym workouts i.e. your weight workouts.
On top of that, they’re also super tasty.