Low Carb Isn't Always The Answer
Let's say two people need to drop fat and improve their body composition. One guy is an out of shape 40-something stockbroker and the other is an in-shape movie star getting ready for his latest action movie.
What should they do, diet-wise?
Most people, and many coaches, would tell them both to cut down their carb intake. But it's ridiculous to give these two individuals the same nutrition plan, just like you wouldn't give them the same training plan.
For the longest time, the go-to answer for fat loss dieting has been "eat less carbs," and at its most basic level, eating less carbs is good advice and most people would benefit from eating fewer carbohydrates.
But what we're discovering is that the level of carbohydrates that you can consume while still losing weight is directly related to your insulin sensitivity.
Drastic carbohydrate restriction is unnecessary, maybe even counterproductive, for people with good insulin sensitivity because it doesn't improve fat loss. So giving our stockbroker and movie star similar diets wouldn't make sense.
Besides, if you could eat as many carbs as possible and still reach your body comp goals, wouldn't you?
Two particular studies have explored carbohydrate cut-off points for producing maximum fat loss while paying attention to individual insulin sensitivity.
In the first study, researchers wanted to look at long-term differences in body composition between a low fat diet and a low glycemic load diet.
They found that after 18 months, regardless of the diet plan participants were put on, they all experienced similar changes in body composition. Chalk that up as a win for the "a calorie is a calorie" crowd, right?
Well, not so fast.
In a secondary analysis of the data, the researchers separated study participants by insulin sensitivity. They found that the people with the worst insulin sensitivity had the best body composition changes on the low glycemic diet.
It didn't matter what diet the people with the best insulin sensitivity were put on. They got just as lean either way.
In another study, known as "the A to Z Study," researchers put people on one of four popular diets: Atkins, Zone, Ornish, or a control diet ("traditional" low fat).
At the end of 12 months, people on the Atkins diet lost the most weight. So, that's proof that low carb diets rule, right? Again, not exactly.
In a secondary analysis of this data, researchers compared the highest carb diet (Ornish) and lowest carb diet (Atkins) and related weight loss to study participants' insulin sensitivity.
Just as in the previous study, people with the poorest insulin sensitivity lost more weight on the lower carb approach. People with the best insulin sensitivity lost the same amount of weight regardless of diet.
I'm a believer in the benefits of carbohydrate restriction, but I'm also a big believer in the fact that carbs are delicious.
If cutting your carbs from 40% down to 20% of calories won't give you any additional fat loss benefit, then why do it? It makes more sense to lose as much fat as you can with your carbs at 40% of total calories and then reduce them after your fat loss begins to slow.
These two studies showed that an individual's insulin sensitivity clearly influences the level of carbohydrates necessary to maximize fat loss. But neither study looked at the role of exercise as part of the fat loss strategy.
Exercise, especially weight training, can increase muscular insulin sensitivity. This increases the amount of carbohydrates you can consume and shunt towards your muscles automatically.
It's also important to note that the carbs you cram into your muscles right before, during, and right after training tend to stay there as your muscles don't have the enzymatic machinery necessary to release sugar from glycogen to the rest of your body.
As a lifter, your insulin sensitivity should be better than most, so you'll likely find yourself in a place where you can lose just as much fat with a relatively-higher carbohydrate intake.
However, this approach isn't a free pass to gorge on carbs and simply hope for better abs. You can't eat carbohydrates recklessly and then get upset when your body composition isn't improving.
Starting your body composition training with a higher overall carb count will give you greater flexibility to reduce carbs further into your dieting phase when calories are at a premium, and tracking your progress along the way is crucial to deciding when and if to make changes.
Don't start any body comp diet phase with your carbohydrates any lower than 40% of your total calories, then adjust from there based on weekly, biweekly, or even monthly progress.
While the A to Z Study did include the Ornish diet, which has upwards of 65% daily calories from carbs, 50% of calories from carbs is generally the maximum you want to work with because it's important to remember that everything in your diet is connected.
As you eat more carbs, you'll need to eat less of something else, remembering that total calories are capped at a specific level since you're in a fat loss phase.
You want to keep your protein intake around 30% of your total calories and never lower than 1.6g/kg bodyweight.
The rest of your calories will come from fat, which in this case is the remaining 20% of calories. So at the high end of your carb intake, your diet could look like this:
- 50% carbohydrates
- 30% protein
- 20% fat
Let's put some real numbers to that for a 190-pound lifter aiming for a six-pack:
- 2500 calories
- 312g carbohydrates
- 187g protein
- 55g fat
Wait, that's a low-fat diet! What? Why? Let's pause and re-establish something. I'm not some crazy PhD keyboard jockey recommending a low-fat diet. This approach won't work for everyone.
But if you're looking to lose as much fat as possible while eating as many carbohydrates as possible and you have good insulin sensitivity, this is how you should start.
One issue you might be concerned about with this higher carbohydrate/lower fat approach is satiety, or feeling full after eating. With only 20% of your calories from fat, will you feel full enough on lower-than-usual calories?
No one likes to feel starving just after they finish a meal. But satiety shouldn't be a problem with these three tricks.
Eat ample vegetables as part of your 50% carbohydrate intake. Focus especially on high-fiber greens (like broccoli and Brussels sprouts) and dense, high volume veggies that weigh a lot but don't contain a lot of calories (like bell peppers, cucumber, and spinach).
You body senses how much a food "weighs" in your stomach more than it recognizes the calorie content of the food. Eating more vegetables is always linked to eating less calories and greater feelings of fullness.
While it's often talked about as the devil when it comes to fat loss, most people don't realize that insulin is also a satiety hormone. The increase in carbs will lead to a hormonal cascade that leads to increase satiety.
Just be careful because this can have a downside if you focus too much on fast-acting carbs (sugars), which can swing insulin levels through cause sharp peaks and valleys and leave you hungrier than before you ate. When dieting for fat loss, but stick with predominantly complex carbs.
Protein is linked to increased fullness via multiple mechanisms in your body, from signals in your digestive tract to modifications in your brain. Aiming for 30% of calories from protein will give you the lean body mass protection that you need as well as the satiety benefits.
Plenty of whole food animal-based protein sources are also good sources of fat. While dietary fat will be relatively-low, what fat you do take in will be automatically tied to your protein intake, making protein foods a double-whammy hunger fighter.
With the right approach and smart food choices, satiety shouldn't be an issue. If you still find that it's an issue, just drop your carbohydrate intake by 5-10% and adjust your fat intake to compensate.
Back to our 200-pound dieter, the new intake would be:
- 40% carbohydrates
- 30% protein
- 30% fat
- 2500 calories
- 250g carbohydrates
- 187g protein
- 83g fat
Don't blow this idea off because it doesn't "feel" right to eat a 50% carb diet or because carbs make you "feel" fat. Optimizing body composition is much less about how you feel and more about how your body changes.
It drives me crazy when people say they "feel leaner" a few weeks into a new diet. You either are leaner or you aren't. It doesn't matter how you "feel."
Treat your body like a science experiment. Put the plan into action, and then track and measure how your body responds.
If you commit to making adjustments based on how your body has actually responded, not how you "feel" about your body's response, your newly visible abs will thank you.