Carbs are Not the Enemy for Weight Loss

Carb confusion.....what is the right answer?

Carb confusion.....what is the right answer?

Low carb diets. Slow carb diets. No carb diets. What really works for weight/fat loss? Well, most all do to some degree depending on many factors. Unfortunately with the mountain of diet books out there and all their claims one can get easily confused and lose focus of the big picture. So first we need to understand the role of carbs and how they effect the fat loss equation. With that knowledge we can put an end to all this carb confusion and diet book insanity once and for all!

Do We Really Need Carbs?

In one sense, the answer is “No” we do not “need” carbs to survive. What we DO need is glucose (blood sugar) to survive. Let’s not confuse the two. Sure carbs are essentially broken down into sugars and released into the blood stream but guess what, the body can also use stored proteins and fats for energy. That’s right, if the body needs to it can break down proteins and stored fats into fuel and glucose for the body to survive on (thank goodness for a smart survival system built in). First let’s take a quick look at how things are working:

  • The body needs glucose. Heck the brain is the biggest glucose hog there is in the body requiring most of it for use, even while you are sleeping!
  • When carbs are ingested and blood glucose gets too high, more insulin (as there is always insulin on some level) is released. Insulin (that is needed to transfer glucose over a membrane like muscle and fat cells) then takes over in an effort to shuttle the glucose out of the blood. It stores it as glycogen in the muscles and liver as needed (which have limited storage), and as triglycerides in fat cells (which as we know has a large never ending storage capacity).
  • As the body’s blood sugar starts to lower, insulin falls. In the same process another hormone glucagon rises. Glucagon’s job is to increase low blood glucose by the use of 2 processes called glycogenolysis (using stored glycogen from the liver and muscles to convert to glucose) and gluconeogenesis (using non-carb sources such as amino acids from proteins and glycerol from fats).

This is how we can take stored fatty acids in the form of triglycerides, release them into the bloodstream and break them down in a process known as lipolysis (stimulated by hormones such as glucagon), and use them for energy. Triglycerides break down into glycerol and free fatty acids. Glycerol is converted to glucose through the liver while the free fatty acids can be converted through a complicated process into ATP (usable fuel) for use in the mitochrondria (cell’s poweplant). Everyone still with me?

Ok, so sounds ideal that we never need carbs right? Wrong. Go ahead and try several days without carbs and you will know that doesn’t work so well. You will be sluggish, tired, and just feel misreable for the most part (ever seen a dieter having fun when first going low carb?). Can the body eventually adapt to this? Sure, that is what is known as ketosis. That is why people have a tough time with starting a low carb diet but then suddenly rebound and have more energy, that’s ketosis kicking in. Now do we really need to be in ketosis inorder to burn fat? No, but it does show the ability of the body and what it is capable of doing.

Glucose also has another source and that is it’s stored form called glycogen that is stored in 2 main places for the body to use, your muscles and liver. From these stores the body can use it when it needs an boost in blood sugar or other local muscular requirements (increased energy output). Hence while you sleep your liver glycogen stores are actually depleted by about 75%, because organs like the brain (glucose hog) still needs glycogen even in sleep (you want your organs to keep running right?). Exercise also is a way to deplete localized muscle glycogen. When you use your muscles they will require to burn more fuel in their little powerplants inside of them (otherwise known as mitochrondria). So during short bouts of strenuous and explosive activity (resistance training) you are able to use the muscle glycogen located in that muscle for quick fuel.

So let’s recap:

  • Technically we don’t need carbs. We need blood glucose. There are essential amino acids and essential fatty acids (by essential I mean that the body can not make these on it’s own and needs them from diet sources), but there are no essential sugars/carbs (as we see it can make glucose from proteins and fats through many complicated processes if need be).
  • Glycogen (stored glucose) is stored in muscles and the liver. We use up alot of our liver glycogen while sleeping (remember the brain). Muscle glycogen is used during low carb eating and during more strenuous and explosive movements (otherwise known as anaerobic training or resistance training). Once those stores are low, they are now primed to be filled back up again at some point of higher glucose intake without creating excess and fat storage in the process (carb cycling anyone?).
  • Insulin is the hormone that when elevated (with high blood glucose) will shut off fat burning and start the storing of glucose in muscles/liver and fat cells. Glucagon is the hormone that when elevated (with low blood glucose) will shut off storing and promote the breakdown and release of fatty acids for energy through lipolysis.

Types of Carbs and When You Eat Do Matter

Another aspect that we need to approach is the type of carbs that we are eating. Now if you had asked a person from 10,000 years ago what were all the types of carbs were, you would get a nice long list of plants, tubers, fruits, and other natural sources. Compare that with our list from today and you will get cereals, rice, grains, muffins, donuts, ice cream, bread, candy, soda, and the list goes on and on. So you will see that there are too many sources of carbs and we need to really focus on the “quality” of where we get our carbs from. Not too mention today’s sources as so processed, that they are no challenge for the body to break down. What does that lead to? Quick digestion and a quick stream of glucose into the blood stream leading to high blood glucose levels, increase in insulin levels (storing of glucose), and the shut down of fat releasing hormone glucagon.

When it comes to fat loss (and overall health and longevity), we already know that insulin is the KEY hormone to control. (you can re-read this post on insulin and sugar if you need to). Insulin as you remember will only go up (spike) during periods of high blood sugar (as high blood sugar is dangerous to the body, so it’s self defense that insulin gets releases as a blood sugar monitoring hormone). As insulin goes up, glucagon (our big fat burning hormone) goes down. This will take hours to start to reverse itself, all assuming that blood sugar does not go up again. So as far as maximum fat burning ability goes, we want to make sure our blood sugar does not remain elevated so that insulin is kept in check and glucagon is still present. Keep that simple rule in mind and you will get any kind of fat loss that you want.

As food is digested, it will be broken down into it’s basic components and released into the body for use. As far as carbs are concerned they will be broken down into simple sugars (glucose) and released into the blood. Now what really matters is the SPEED and Amount at which this sugar enters the blood stream. Remember insulin is going to spike once it sees dangerously high blood sugar levels that do not look like they are going down. So if we eat foods that are quickly broken down and release large amounts of sugar into the blood, insulin will spike. However if we have a slower or lower release of glucose into the blood stream, insulin levels remain more stable.

Timing also matters

Why? Because if you can use glucose for either immediate fuel during a strenuous time or maximize storage in empty muscle and liver stores, then you will be minimizing any storage into fat cells. If your muscles are depleted and looking to absorb more glucose (like a dry sponge put in a puddle of water), that glucose will go where it is needed (inside the muscle). If you have extra glucose when the muscles are already full (soaked sponge) and have no where else to go, then insulin shuttles it into fat storage. See how that all works?

So what we do want? A source of carbs that is slow to be digested and broken down/released into the blood stream while also promoting an environment/timing in which those sugars can be used or stored in muscle and not fat cells. This means (well I think you know what is coming) eating slower digesting whole food carbs sources like vegetables vs processed/sugar loaded sources that are quickly broken down like breads, cereals, soda, candy, etc. Also eating after glycogen depleting workouts is the ideal time when your muscles are primed and ready to intake some of those carbs as glycogen. Of course it gets a bit more complicated as to knowing how much glycogen depletion you are actually doing and how many carbs you really need, but that is the principle you need to understand.

So What’s a Person to Do? What is the Right Carb Intake?

Unlike what most diet books try and tell you, here’s the reality: there is NO one right way to eat for everyone. There can’t be! There are just too many variables individualistic to us all. What works for one person could be a disaster for another. The real success factor is understanding how different lifestyle and health factors effect carb usage. From there whatever eating style you chose to have, that is up to you. But you will have total CONTROL of your results now, something that diet books don’t give you (or may not want to give you). These important factors include:

  • Current Health and Insulin Resistance – Insulin resistance is a dangerous thing to have as it can lead to hyperinsulinia, increased inflammation, and just increased overall risk for all degenerative diseases (heart disease, cancers, diabetes, etc). So if you are already in a state of insulin resistance (and most people who are overweight are most likely suffering from that), then you want to help reverse that by increasing insulin sensitivity. The best 2 ways for that, resistance exercise and lower carb intake. Remember if you are losing your hearing from loud music and want it to improve what is the best way? Turn the music off! So to keep your insulin levels low (to help try and reverse the situation you want to turn the “music off” by keeping insulin as low as you can).
  • Current Activity Level – How often are you working out? How intense are your workouts? A person who enjoys walking for activity is not going to use the same amount of muscle glycogen as someone who does serious weight training or sports. So their intakes should not be the same either. Think of carbs as your “turbo” boost for explosive and strength movements. You can burn fat all day at lower intensity stuff, but if you need to explode, run, lift something heavy for a brief period of time you want that turbo boost right? That’s where your glycogen in your muscles comes into action. When that short burst of streneous activity is over, you can go right back to burning fat as your lower activity fuel (which can be all day long).

Below is a simple outline that can help explain what I mean. When it comes to carbs, eat for your activity level, goals and real recovery (based on performance) needs. It’s that simple and if you can understand that you will have total control over your results and performance.

  • IF you are sedentary, overweight, not very active, do no regular resistance training, only do lower intensity activity (such as walking) and your goal is weight loss – Then you will do better on a lower carb approach to help keep insulin low, reverse insulin resistance and slowly burn stored fat (converted into glucose) all day.
  • IF you are working a desk job but still are moderately active with some weight training or other activity several times a week – Then you can have a bit higher carb intake. Ideal weight loss here comes from carb cycling and getting in higher carbs only when you NEED it (or your body wants it), and burn fat the rest of the time.
  • IF you work a manual labor job and are active all the time, chances are that you are already thin and can get away with eating pretty much anything (just look at the Michael Phelps diet of 10,000+ cal and how skinny he is…because he burns it all off!)
  • and no matter what you do, make sure to get adequate protein intake if your goal is to maintain or grow muscle (especially when on a lower carb diet or phase).

Carbs, Cultures and Longevity

Lastly we can look at all the cultures that promote longevity (very low risks of heart diseases and cancers). You may see one culture that favors diets higher in protein and fat like the Inuits, and you may see another higher in carbs like the Okinawians. Both with a reputation of generations that live long and without high incidence of degenerative diseases.

So what gives right? High carbs, low carbs…..why are they both living long? Well, what you do see is the same trend of NO sugar and NO processed foods. For the cultures that eat higher carb percentages they only eat whole natural food carb sources and also have a very high active lifestyle!

What do all these cultures have in common sadly enough though? Only when the sugars and processed foods (otherwise known as Westernization) move in do you see their long history of longevity compromised and the rise of all chronic diseases especially cancers and heart disease.

Moral of the story, excess sugar is bad and high insulin levels will lead to increasing risks for most all degenerative diseases (especially accelerated aging, which is a fancy word for getting closer to death).

Above picture by wizan

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