USE CARBS TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
Very low carb or ketogenic diets are trending, and the humble carbohydrate has been downgraded to ‘junk’ status. But is a very low carb diet good for everyone?
Understand what they do to understand how to manage them
while it is true that reducing carb intake is an effective dietary approach, the question everyone needs to ask themselves is, ‘Does my level of carb restriction benefit me in all areas of my life?’ In other words, are you slimming down without losing muscle mass, are your energy levels good, do you sleep well at night, do you feel strong when you work out, have your hunger and cravings reduced, do you feel happy, and is your diet easy to sustain? Never sacrifice health for fat loss. Your goal should be to achieve both.
There’s no denying that certain people thrive on a ketogenic diet and the fat loss and therapeutic benefits they experience motivate them to adhere to the fairly restrictive protocol. Others try it, obtain lacklustre results and end up worse off than before.
According to nutrition coaching and education website Precision Nutrition, restricting carbs temporarily can be very effective for quick weight loss, but keeping carbs too low for too long can slow down your metabolism and elevate your stress hormones. You can feel spaced out, sluggish, cranky – and possibly even sick. Precision Nutrition doesn’t recommend taking your nutrition to extremes – unless you have extreme goals. ‘Strategic moderation’ is its preferred approach.
Women seem to be far more prone to hormone disruption from severe carb restriction than men. ‘The Paleo Mom’, medical researcher Dr Sarah Ballantyne, is not in favour of ketogenic diets for everyone, and believes that they are neither necessary nor beneficial unless you are using them therapeutically for cancer, epilepsy or Alzheimer’s disease. One of her concerns is that too few carbohydrates from vegetables and starchy tubers could mean an insufficiency not only of fibre, which is important for maintaining good gut health, but also of certain nutrients and phytochemicals that are primarily found in certain vegetables.
Does this mean that you should give up your low carb diet? Not at all. The key is to use carbs strategically. The right type, in the right amount, at the right time – for you. You will need to experiment but, before you get too excited, linguine carbonara is not back
Never sacrifice health for fat loss. Your goal should be to achieve both.
on the menu! Eating fresh, unprocessed food and avoiding sugar and processed grains is important, but a small portion of sweet potato, carrots or butternut with your steak and salad might be just what you need to sleep better, improve your workouts, lift your mood, put a smile back on your face – and still lose fat.
FUELLING YOUR WORKOUTS
To perform well at high intensity sports your body needs quick access to glucose or glycogen for fuel and the strategic use of carbs becomes important, explains Danny Lennon, a nutrition and performance coach at Sigma Nutrition, a company focused on exercise science and nutrition that coaches clients internationally. His advice is to eat low carb on your rest days and to increase your carbs a little on days you train. When increasing carbs you should reduce your fat intake, and vice versa on your low carb days. This ensures that your food-intake goals are maintained. If you are training for or competing in an Ironman event, where you move at a slower pace but for a longer duration, your body can more readily rely on ketones for fuel, so it might be an advantage to be ketogenic in that instance.
Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint, says the consequence of not consuming carbs for glycogen-demanding sports like CrossFit, for example, is that you’ll trigger a stress response, which means cortisol levels go up. If cortisol levels go up and stay up you’ll lose lean mass and retain or gain body fat. You need to experiment to figure out the amount of carbs that allows you to perform and recover well on your training days while still being able to lose fat over the long term. On rest days he suggests restricting carbs to non-starchy vegetables only.
What about someone who is pre-diabetic or insulin resistant? Can they also up their carbs a little for better athletic performance and more diverse food choices? Yes, says Lennon, but timing is crucial. Due to the physiological changes that occur in the body when we exercise (especially with resistance or weight training), having your carbs soon after a workout will help those carbs to be partitioned into the muscle cells instead of being stored as fat.
THE PROTEIN FACTOR
A very low carb diet can be more effective for fat loss and, yes, it does reduce insulin and help you to eat less. But there is a school of thought that suggests protein could be the real success factor when it comes to effective and sustained fat loss. Protein has a higher thermic effect, meaning your body has to rev up its metabolism for digestion. It also keeps you fuller for longer and helps you retain muscle mass. So ensuring an adequate protein intake might be more important than whether you eat 25, 75 or 100 grams of carbs each day. A palm-sized portion of protein at each of your three meals is a good target to aim for. If you want to build muscle you may need more.
FAT LOSS TIP
To lose fat, you must create a deficit and your hormones need to be in balance. If going very low carb and higher in fat does this for you, fantastic. If a diet more moderate in carbs and fats and slightly higher in protein works well for you, keep doing that. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. The best diet is the one that gets you results and promotes health – and is easy to stick to. A diet should never be a quick fix but, rather, a sustainable lifestyle. Consistent adherence is key.
Unfortunately, some low carbers tend to fall into the trap of ‘if low carb is good, then very low carb/ketogenic must be better’. It’s okay to experiment, but don’t continue for months on end if you don’t feel good. Ketosis is not the only way to lose weight. There are many factors involved in weight loss – reducing insulin is just one of them – so when it comes to carbs be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Carbs are not an essential nutrient, but they do go a long way in helping some of us feel and perform better. Starchy vegetables in the right quantities can certainly have their place in an effective fat loss programme.
Restricting carbs temporarily can be very effective for quick weight loss, but keeping carbs too low for too long can slow down your metabolism and elevate your stress hormones.