We all know it:
The right dietary fats are good.
Protein is very good.
Carbs are... well, tricky little bastards.
As a guy who wants to build muscle and avoid excess fat gain, I've been all over the board when it comes to carbohydrates. At one extreme, I've obsessed over the single carb you might find in an egg. On the other extreme, I'm stuffed myself with pancakes and syrup multiple times a day.
Carbs are the fiery redhead of the macronutrient world: so many possibilities, so many dangers.
So what's new in carbohydrate research? What's on the minds of today's top nutrition scientists? There's only one heavy-squattin', big-benchin' food expert to call: Dr. Lonnie Lowery.
1 – Carbs, Freezing, and Toasting: A Funny Thing Happens...
Jacking up your insulin level at the wrong time is bad news for your physique. Yet jacking it up at the right time — around the time of your butt-whuppin' bodybuilding workout — can do damn near magical things when it comes to packing on muscle. This phenomenon has even been given a name: The 3rd Law of Muscle.
You know the deal: The glycemic index, or GI, is a measure of the effects of carbohydrates on blood sugar levels. Carbs that break down quickly during digestion, releasing glucose rapidly into the bloodstream, have a high GI. Carbs that break down more slowly release glucose more gradually into the bloodstream, so they have a low GI.
White bread eaten alone has always been a standard food reference for GI. But leave it to Dr. Lowery to find an interesting twist here.
"If you freeze or you toast a piece of white bread, it'll change its glycemic index," says Lowery. "Most people don't realize that."
In 2008, researchers fed test subjects white bread and did the standard glucose curve test. On other days, they had subjects eat white bread that had been frozen then thawed. Next, they toasted the bread, and finally they tried a combination of freezing and toasting. The result?
If you freeze white bread (then thaw it of course) and eat it, it has a 31% lower glycemic index. In other words, the carbs are slower acting. Basically, freezing starches seems to change things.
"But it gets better," adds Lowery. "If you toast white bread it has a 25% lower GI compared to plain white bread."
Okay, so what happens when you freeze then toast white bread? You get bread with a 39% lower glycemic index.
Very interesting, yes? But most of us probably aren't pounding back white bread anyway. So does this work with whole grain breads and, my personal favorite, Ezekiel bread? Well, the study was only performed on white bread, and Dr. Lowery would like to see this tested on other starches, but it might also be true for healthier bread products.
So, if you enjoy occasional white bread as a treat, toss the loaf in the freezer when you get it home. Or, if you're stuck at grandma's house during the holidays and being forced to eat a leftover turkey sandwich on Wonder bread, you can freeze and then toast it to reduce the GI and possibly reduce any abs-wrecking effects.
2 – Once And For All: Beans Are Good Carbs!
Beans are so low when it comes to glycemic index that Dr. Lowery suggests that people eat them even when on low-carb diets. In fact, it may be time that we just come out and say it: Beans are like green vegetables: eat pretty much all you want... keeping gas issues in mind, please!
"If the glycemic index is at roughly 100 scale, then things in their teens and twenties enter your bloodstream so slowly that your glucose rises very gradually — so slowly that they're almost a non-issue," says Lowery. Indeed, the officially accepted definition of "low GI" is a GI range of 55 or less.
Dr. Lowery noted that when he competed in bodybuilding and was "jonesing for carbs," that beans became his out: a food he could get full on without wrecking his strict contest prep.
Now, you do have to be careful with beans' associated fart-producing effects, plus they're so high in fiber that you may want to "ease into" eating lots of beans. Still, there's simply no reason to fear beans, even if you're a low-carber.
By the way, Dr. Lowery also uses white bean flour in recipes to crank up the fiber and crank down the GI. You can replace around 25% of the regular flour called for in most recipes with bean flour without it tasting too "beany."
3 – Tales from the Lab: Monster Carb Loading vs. Monster Muscles
Dr. Lowery likes to do his own version of Tales from the Crypt. Only instead of a crypt it's a lab, and instead of buckets of gore it's buckets of carbs. In this case, pie filling.
"I was part of a carb-loading study back in grad school," says Dr. Lowery. "Man, it was fun. We're talking about eating pie filling all day! We took in 9 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight. It was crazy.
"After we carbed up, instead of doing the usual exercise science stuff, like performance testing on a treadmill, we did visual assessments with a camera and we used tape measures to look at muscle girth. Surprisingly, even with monster carb loading, we couldn't measure an increase in muscle girth."
In other words, there's no question they doubled or tripled their muscle glycogen stores during this three-day carb load, and Dr. Lowery did notice some increased "fullness," but there was no physical girth change as you might expect. Sure, these guys probably had great pumps in the gym, but all those carbs didn't make them walk around measurably larger and looking "jacked."
"You may feel like you're bigger at rest when you're carbed up, and the hypothesis for this study was that we'd be able to measure an increase in muscle girth," says Dr. Lowery. "But the reality is that there's no grossly measurable difference in muscle girth at rest, no matter how many carbs you pack into it."
Just a little reality check from the lab.
4 – Carbs and During-Exercise Stress
"I've done a lot of digging on things that will reduce stress during training," Lowery says. "And the answer is: simple carbohydrate intake during exercise. This is one of the few things that has hard science supporting it. Simple carbs during training consistently and reliably reduce stress markers like interleukin 6 during exercise."
Now, interleukin 6 is a catabolic (muscle-wasting), inflammatory cytokine, something you certainly would want to reduce. For one thing, reducing it can help put the kibosh on overtraining symptoms for those of us who hit it hard six days a week.
In short, more evidence that pre- and during-lifting carbs are vitally important for people seeking maximum muscle.
5 – Excess Carb Calories = Fatness
"There's a lot of very solid biochemistry behind why excess carbohydrate calories are fattening," says Lowery. "I debate with certain dieticians who say that excess protein calories 'turn to fat,' but with carbs it's not even up for debate. The evidence is just that clear."
To prove this, Dr. Lowery will often wheel in a metabolic cart when he's teaching class. Students will come in fasted, get hooked up to the cart, and be able to see how they're burning 60 to 90% of all their calories from body fat. He'll then give them a sugary drink (no doubt with an accompanying maniacal laugh, perhaps punctuated with lightening crashes).
Within 20 minutes the students will have halted fat breakdown and started using carbs both for fuel and for lipogenesis or body fat creation. "It completely stops the fat-burning process and begins the fat creation process!" Lowery says.
Given this hard evidence, it's really no wonder that sugary colas get slammed as one of the big causes of the obesity epidemic. But Lowery notes that this can happen with all excess carbs, not just with the full-sugar Mountain Dew he uses to demonstrate this to his students.
Take home lesson: If you want to jack up insulin for bodybuilding purposes, if you're wanting to fill up your muscles with glycogen, then you simply can't do that all day long on a daily basis. Instead, slam the button down during the peri-workout window.
"A lot of that bad biochemistry that happens during rest doesn't happen during exercise. Your hormonal state changes. You're contracting large muscle groups. You're doing something with that blood sugar during training," says Lowery.
So, time carb intake right with exercise and you can get a lot of those muscle-building and glycogen-storing benefits of insulin. Then, back off the carbs.
If there's a Holy Grail of bodybuilding nutrition, it involves the tactically timed intake of the right kind of carbs. No doubt about it.
6 – The Anti-Grain/Allergen Trend: "Overstated!"
Okay, so those of us who prefer to have visible abs know that bread and pasta are our boogeymen, But recently there's been a movement against all grains, even things like old-fashioned oatmeal and brown rice. The basic idea is that not only are these things allergenic to many people, they're also foods that human being just aren't made/evolved to eat.
So, are all grain-based carbs bad or are some people throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater?
"That's overstated sometimes," Lowery opines. "I think many of the anti-grain gurus in the industry get a little too excited about this whole allergen thing. It goes a little bit too far. Most prevalence data on food allergens suggests single-digit percentages in human populations."
But Dr. Lowery agrees that a grain-based diet is part of America's obesity problem. "What people have to understand is that grain-based diets are pushed on us because it's the only sustainable way to feed millions and millions of human beings. You can't do that with lean meats, fruits, and vegetables. But luckily we can seek out those things, especially in a country like America."
Dr. Lowery goes on to say that a lot of nutrition education and the nutritional choices that we're fed in this country aren't based on metabolism, but on subsidies.
"It's disturbing to think that the kinds of subsidies that corn growers get are vastly bigger than any subsidies that fruit and vegetable growers get," says Lowery. "And remember, we consume three times as much corn in the form of corn syrup than as whole corn, which is a grain. If you eat corn, eat if off the cob."
By the way, Dr. Lowery starts off every day with either oatmeal or oat bran made with berries and vanilla protein powder, or he has eggs and a low-glycemic carb like an apple. Always nice to know what these nutrition scientists do in their real lives based on all the info they have stored away in their big brains.
7 – The Whole Grain Sham?
"Yes, there are some advantageous phytochemicals in 100% whole grains, plus some extra fiber. But again, this whole grain push is influenced by the lobbyists and the subsidy system to make grains seem really great," says Dr. Lowery.
He also notes that while some research shows that people who eat more whole grains have less body fat, who is this compared to? People chugging down colas and eating white bread?
"Be careful with these label claims," adds Lowery. "Think population specificity. We, bodybuilders and athletes, are a very specific population. Whole grains may indeed help someone who normally starts his day with greasy McDonald's hash browns. But our population, the physique-conscious crowd, is light years ahead of the regular population. What may be a step forward for them would be a step backward for us."
Preach on, LL. Preach on.
Talking with Dr. Lowery is like reading a William Gibson novel: Every few sentences he drops a Big Idea on you that gets you to thinking. Here are three from our latest phone call:
"Do you want the secret? And I mean THE secret? Here it is: leans meats, fruits, and vegetables."
"There's a stigma against bodybuilders. People assume they're just big dumb muscleheads. But we are so far ahead of athletes in any other sport when it comes to nutritional knowledge that it's not even funny."
"Nutrition isn't that complex in theory, but it is in practice."
And with those words, our food expert said a mouthful.
Next up: Things You Need to Know About Fats. Stay tuned!