Stop me if you have heard this before, “Just cut out carbs and you will lose weight.” The simplicity behind this statement is obvious but a massive disservice to anyone who is actually trying to lose weight or body fat sustainably. Yes, of course, if you cut carbohydrates down you will lose weight, initially. A lot of that loss will come from water because about 2-3 grams of water is stored with every gram of glycogen (carbohydrate) in your body. So, the actual “weight” you’re losing isn’t coming primarily from fat. “How about if I cut my carbs low enough to get into ketosis?” Yes, if you are actually able to get into ketosis your body will primarily burn fat, and ketones too. Most people often believe they are in ketosis when they are actually not. The Atkins Diet and its rebranded little brother, the “keto” diet, have helped many people lose weight, gain it back, and, in the process, ruin their metabolism. Personally, I have seen numerous individuals try, succeed, and then regress with this particular practice. More often than not, they end up heavier with poorer blood work than their starting numbers. Unless you are diabetic, have Celiac disease or a traumatic brain injury (TBI), there are a host of better options for losing or improving how well your body utilizes fat. The Atkins/Keto diet is too restrictive unless you have a viable medical reason for following it. Even then, you can still have success without utilizing this extreme diet.
Inherently, people believe carbs will make you fat because they are sugars. Repeat after me, “All sugars are carbs but not all carbs are sugars”. Yes, your body absorbs almost all carbohydrates as glucose (sugar). However, not all of the carbohydrates we ingest have the same rate of breakdown/absorption in the body, and subsequently the spike in insulin secretion will vary. The glycemic index is a great tool to understand and leverage this concept to meet your goals. The glycemic index is a scale that measures the insulin response of all the carbohydrates we consume, using glucose as the standard. This is important because our insulin levels dictate whether or not the body is burning fat. There is a healthy range for insulin, as well as blood sugar, for our bodies to burn fat. The real problem with carbohydrates is having too many carbohydrates that spike our insulin levels (blood sugar) above that healthy range. I utilize this scale often when developing practical nutritional interventions. A client of mine, a type 2 diabetic, actually has achieved better resting glucose levels utilizing this information than when he was taking a full dose of Metformin. Originally, his doctor wanted to increase his dose of Metformin. Instead my client decided to try an exercise and diet protocol before increasing his dosage. After six months, his doctor actually said that he could take his original Metformin dose, as needed, because his resting glucose levels were almost to the pre-diabetic range!
The truth of the matter is that your body needs carbohydrates to function optimally, neurologically and muscularly. The complete removal or avoidance of carbohydrates can often lead to an increase in oxidative stress, hyperketonemia, ketoacidosis and metabolic inflexibility. It is totally possible to lose body fat and get the most out of your workouts utilizing carbohydrates. In fact, I would argue that it is nearly impossible to do both without carbohydrates. The most important factor when it comes to carbohydrates is considering the type, timing and volume of carbohydrates in relation to your performance and composition goals. The best type should mostly be low-to-moderate glycemic carbs. The timing of those carbohydrates is contingent upon the goals and preferences of the individual. The volume should be sufficient enough to fuel workout demands yet also be in proportion to the body composition goals of the individual. If you do it right, you can still be shredded and regularly eat a pizza.