Carbs for Weight Loss & Muscle Gain

Let’s keep this simple…

When it comes to carbohydrates, much as it is with all things health & fitness these days, “information overload” is putting it lightly. There are experts and gurus on every side, all with valid points. Who should you listen to? Who can you believe? How do you know what’s right for you, for right now?

Currently, even the experts on the bleeding edge of research (the science guys in white lab coats who double as weight-lifting superheroes) are often in disagreement as to the ideal diet. This is where things go from clearcut, black-and-white to 50 shades of grey…wait…make that 60 shades of charcoal.

A few problems occur when we look at current research. We must consider such topics as:

  • who is funding the particular study? (vested interests can skew a study)
  • who stands to benefit from the said study? (same) 
  • are there any personal biases with the participating authors of the study? (we’re all only human)
  • what dogmas are possibly being held onto with a dietary death grip? (refusal to change can hurt)
  • are the findings being misinterpreted by the media and/or fitness industry? (almost always, yes)

Some of these are not easily answered. Some are. But the point I’m trying to make is that clearly a low carb diet works wonders for some AND clearly, living in carb heaven is working for others. While still others manage to tiptoe the line between them both.

So, where do you fit in? First, we must look at the overall impact of both diets to gain an understanding of the potential benefits they offer on the journey to building your best you.

The benefits of keeping it low carb

You have fans of ketogenic diets, paleo diets, and other various forms of “low carb diets.” They have valid points and science on their side. Reducing carbohydrates can indeed help improve a number of health factors. Living on a low carb diet can work wonders for those looking to:

  • lose weight (think larger amounts, not the remaining last few % points of body fat)
  • regain mental clarity (if you find it difficult to focus during the day, insulin resistance may be the culprit)
  • reduce overall cravings for sweets or other carbohydrates (another possible sign of insulin resistance)
  • reduce specific cravings for a sweet snack after meals or before bed (ditto)
  • improve energy levels after meals (fatigue after eating can also be a sign of IR)
  • even improving thirst levels or reducing blurred vision (again, ditto…ditto, squared?) 

You can clearly see that reducing your overall carb consumption may improve a number of health factors. But, like anything else in life, it can never be that simple. There’s always a yin to any dietary yang.

The benefits of increasing your carbohydrates

Typically, you’ll find leaner, more athletic individuals touting their love of carbs. The IIFYM crowd (If It Fits Your Macros, in case you’re unfamiliar) are notorious for posting pictures of Pop-Tarts and pizza, etc. While it may seem this is all they eat, their posts must be taken in context.

Typically, an IIFYM follower who is doing it correctly will focus on healthier carbs and only occasionally splurge. But of course, if you live a somewhat restricted dietary lifestyle, what good is a Pop-Tart if you can’t share it with your social media world?

Aside from IIFYM, nutritionists and RD’s will tell you that you must eat carbohydrates because your brain needs glucose to function properly. While I’m not arguing the importance of carbs for certain individuals (we’ll cover who in a moment) this argument seems to be simply incorrect. Part of the benefit of a modified ketogenic or low-carb diet is the boost in mental clarity it provides by way of reducing your brain’s dependence on glucose.

It’s not that the nutritional community is purposefully giving out bad information, but perhaps a misplaced set of guidelines appropriate for a portion of our population. Considering the overall rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease have steadily climbed right in step with the government’s recommendation of a low-fat, high-carb diet I’d say the proof is in the current health care crisis.

Now, all that aside, just who does a higher carb diet best serve?

In short, eating a higher carb diet works well for leaner individuals looking to lose the last few pounds and those looking to partake in much higher intensity workouts and activities.

Ok, but why?

For one, the leaner individual will MOST LIKELY (very far from always) handle (i.e. utilize in their body) carbs much more efficiently than an overweight individual with potentially higher levels of insulin resistance. This happens because the leaner individual’s physiology can effectively dispose of the glucose that comes from breaking carbs down after digestion.

In addition, high-intensity exercise is referred to as “glycolytic,” aka it causes the breakdown of glycogen (stored glucose) in the body. In order to achieve this, the body of a high-intensity exerciser can begin increasing production of certain enzymes which are released specifically to improve the breakdown of carbs.

What does all of this mean for you?

The long and short of it comes down to where you’re at in your journey.

Looking to lose large amounts of weight? Not a fan of intense exercise? Desperately need to improve your overall health? Then going low carb will most likely offer you the best benefit.

Conversely, are you already fairly lean and can’t seem to lose the last few pounds? Do you love high-intensity workouts? Don’t suffer from carb cravings? Welcome aboard the carb train, my friend.

And remember, as your body changes your dietary habits should follow suit. The low carb diet that helped you lose 80 pounds in 7 months may not help you recover from the HIIT workouts you’re enjoying now.

To sum it all up

Keeping things simple, if you’re looking to lose weight you should probably not be eating carbs before your workout. It is perfectly ok to workout on an empty stomach, just keep in mind that your energy levels will be low.

When your body doesn’t have an adequate amount of glucose to utilize for exercise, it will release cortisol to break out some stored energy (in the form of glycogen (essentially stored carbs) and triglycerides (essentially stored fats with a little carb mixed in)). When that cortisol is released, it will lead to a surge of adrenaline. This will cause you to feel cold, shaky, and possibly even nauseous.

But you’ll be burning stored fat. 

If you’re looking to put on muscle or increase strength, working out after a meal may be ideal. You need to look no further than people who excel in this area like powerlifters and Olympic lifters. If either ever showed up to a training session on an empty stomach, they’d have their proverbial ass handed to them in short order.

Eating before training will supply your body with the nutrients it needs to preserve muscle mass and fuel each rep. You may feel a bit nauseous from your body trying to digest food (a very energy intensive process) and should take a little more rest in between each set to accommodate for this.

But you’ll be building muscle (or strength, or both, depending on you and the workout).

It’s not all so simple, is it?

At this point, not only in my coaching career but in my personal life as well, I really feel “it depends” and “it’s not that simple” should come as disclaimers. In essence, the more you know, the less you know. It would be much easier to stay on one side of the discussion, shake my head vigorously and say one particular way is always the best way. But that’s not how the body works.

And that’s not how we work. I’ve come to learn that there is a need for balance, mixed with a little chaos.

Through our own training, my wife and I have come to believe this is why something like carb-cycling works but carb overload causes obesity. Or why occasional bouts of extended fasting (for a minimum of 3 days) can provide incredible health benefits, but trying to go without food for too long can be quite deleterious.

I say this because we know that people take their health and fitness very seriously. Especially those in the professional realms. And whoooo buddy do we all fight for what we all believe.

Which is exactly why we’re finally doing exactly that

We know it’s not easy. We know there are enough bits of information out there to validate every opinion. And we know it can all become confusing. We know because we’ve been there.

My wife lost over 90 pounds in 9 months following this belief pattern. I’ve overcome numerous challenges and pulled myself back from the brink of death by embracing this way of thinking. We’ve had multiple clients lose 30 pounds in under 3 months, 70 pounds in under 8, and over 100 pounds with 1-2 years.

But, we are taking a break from accepting new clients.

Our current and ongoing mission is to help you begin to find your place amongst it all. We want to give you the information without the biases, to show you the way to your goals without trying to divert you into a sales presentation.

Life has been good to us, and we want to give back. We are passionate about what we do and we want to make an impact on the world. That starts with you.

You can help us do that by:

We appreciate anything to help us grow. We’re currently a very small, sane voice in a very crowded, loud arena. Picture the madness of a Wall Street trading floor…we’re the two people in the back doing burpees with a cooler full of protein and fats…and maybe some carbs 😉

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