Great results rarely (if ever) result from multi-tasking.
While we may have the ability to participate in several tasks at one time (i.e. texting while driving) neither the text message nor the drive will be completed with the best possible accuracy or safety.
I see the same thing when I am talking with my clients about making changes to their diets- if I assign them with too many changes compliance plummets and results suffer.
In the past few years I have taken to a new approach and it has proven to be far more effective. Instead of asking clients to change half a dozen variables about their nutrition habits I simply ask them to comply with ONE.
I have found that by having my clients comply with one change they are better able to stick to the program over the long term and this ultimately produces far greater results.
What is the one variable I am talking about?
When the goal is body composition change (more muscle and less body fat), the one variable is carbohydrate intake.
Now hear me out before you shrug this post off as another long winded anti-carbohydrate tirade. There is good reason for this methodology but before I get to that I just want to clarify a few things;
1. By limiting “carbs” I am referring to grains, potatoes, rice, breads etc NOT vegetables (also referred to as “fibrous carbs”). There are many vegetable carbs you should eat more of including broccoli, cabbage, kale, spinach, mushrooms, cucumber, asparagus, cauliflower, peppers, green beans, lettuce and zucchini. My preference is always to consume more dark green vegetables due to their high nutrient density and favorable antioxidant content.
2. As a result of limiting the intake of carb based foods (in particular grains like wheat) you will create a calorie deficit by default and as you know creating a calorie deficit is numero uno when it comes to fat loss.
3. A secondary benefit to becoming more carbohydrate selective is due to allergens. Grains such as oats, wheat, and spelt are some of the most common food allergens because they contain gluten. Gluten intolerances are not uncommon and symptoms can manifest in a variety of ways resulting in increased stress, cortisol and body fat.
4. The final benefit to selective carbohydrate reduction concerns the hormone insulin. As discussed in a previous post, controlling insulin is a major factor in manipulating body composition. It’s not that insulin is bad- in fact the opposite is true. Our bodies need insulin as it plays a vital role in regulating the levels of sugar in our blood. Problems arise when our insulin levels are too high for prolonged periods of time as this will inhibit the breakdown of fat (lipolysis) and stimulate the creation of fat (lipogenesis).
Does this mean you should never eat carbs?
Absolutely not! In fact, the total elimination of carbohydrate from your diet will kill your results and can leave you with low thyroid, low testosterone, low energy and generally feeling like complete and total crap. Just ask anyone who has followed a no carb, ketogenic style diet for more than a few weeks- they will tell you that they feel terrible and that their training performance is in the tank. The only people who can fare well on these sorts of diets are people who are sedentary. Those of us who exercise need to include carbs as part of our diets on a regular basis. The reason for this is because body composition programs utilize exercises such as strength training and sprinting. These activities tap into the anaerobic energy production pathway which is fueled by glucose. If you don’t have sufficient carbohydrate intake your body will breakdown muscle tissue through a process called gluconeogenesis to provide the necessary glucose to fuel high intensity activity.
So just to be clear- I am not talking about the permanent elimination of carb based foods. Diets that do this suffer from a failure rate as high as 90%. What I am going to show you is how you can customize your own carbohydrate intake to suit your body type and goal. Here is how it works;
Goal = Fat Loss
If your goal is fat loss an excellent way to structure your weekly meal plan is as follows:
Monday through Friday consume a diet consisting of mainly protein, vegetables, essential fatty acids and small amounts of very low fructose fruits. Do not eat any grains, rice, potatoes, oats etc. There is no need to count calories. Simply eat until satisfied. Meal frequency is also a matter of personal preference. I like to eat 4-5 times per day but you may find that 2-3 works better for your schedule. The willingness to experiment is an important part in discovering what works best for you.
Saturday and Sunday are days in which you will re-introduce healthy carbohydrate selections over a 24 hour period. This does not mean that you should try to stuff yourself with every last bit of junk you can find. Sugar is always bad and eating pro-inflammatory foods will do nothing to improve your health, body composition or performance. What we are trying to do here is to replenish glycogen levels, increase calories and prevent any hormonal crashes that often occur when people exercise and follow low carb diets for prolonged periods. The carb sources I prefer are sweet potatoes, brown rice and spaghetti squash. I also seem to fare well by consuming some whole grains but remember- you have to discover what meal plan works best for you. Please don’t think that the rules above are written in stone- I have found that for some active individuals the once weekly carb reefed was too infrequent and results were improved by including an additional high carb meal mid week. As I said, you have to experiment to see what works best.
Goal = Muscle Gain
If your goal is to gain more muscle then it is important to acknowledge that this is a completely separate goal from losing fat. As discussed in my last post fat loss is a catabolic process requiring a calorie deficit and muscle growth is an anabolic process that necessitates a calorie surplus. To accomplish this we are going to manipulate your carbohydrate intake in a different way:
You will consume the same diet as described above (protein, vegetables, essential fatty acids and small amounts of very low fructose fruits) with one critical difference. Instead of increasing carb intake on the weekends you will simply increase carbohydrate intake after each training session. This means that you will include a meal that contains healthy carbs multiple times per week. This method works very well for keeping strength and energy levels high and provides for a natural cycling of calories and carbs. Of course like any other diet and training system you will have to experiment to see what works best for you. Larger males with more muscle mass will be able to consume more carbs in their post workout meal than a woman with far less lean body mass. Don’t think of this as a licence to cheat by visiting the all you can eat bread bowls and pasta at your local Italian eatery- if you consistently eat too much and exceed your calorie threshold you will gain more fat than muscle.
The key points to remember are as follows;
All carbs are not bad
Ketogenic diets are not necessary for fat loss
The permanent elimination of carbs from your diet will do more harm than good
How many carbs you should eat depends on your goal
Sedentary people require far less carbs compared to aerobic and anaerobic training individuals
When carb intake is low you MUST keep protein intake high
Become an active participant in your program- always test to see what works best for you
I am sure there are other points that I have overlooked but all this talk about carbs has made me hungry- I am going to go lift some weights and then enjoy some carbs!