“I made a terrible, terrible mistake.”
The year was 2006. I was training a few people while in grad school and I had admittedly become wrapped up in the world of low carb evangelicalism. Ok, make that the, “no carbs diet.”
Before I go any farther know this: I’m not anti-low carb. I still prescribe that approach when necessary.
While a lower carb diet can help you lose weight, it’s not that carbs are the enemy.
But low carb is not the same thing as “no carbs.” And even low carb diets usually means eating much more carbohydrates than you think you should while still losing weight.
So there I was apologizing to a client because I had done him wrong. I misinterpreted the low carb-weight loss relationship, and in doing so gave him diet advice that wasn’t helping his training goals.
In reality, I shouldn’t have been giving diet advice at all until I received the type of training that would help me do so. (That would come in the following year, and then continue to this day.)
The point: Most people still don’t understand why they need carbohydrates and how simply dropping carbs is one of the most deceiving ways to lose weight. Not to mention, if you’re training, it can have some potential negative effects.
To put an end to the myths and confusion (and ensure you don’t make my mistakes of the past), Nate Miyaki, author of The Truth About Carbs, has offered the complete breakdown of how to make carbs a part of your diet, and determine the right approach for your goals and your body.
The Truth About Low Carb Diets
There is a reason why lower-carb diets have gained critical acclaim. They work.
Let’s correct that: They work damn well for certain demographics.
Lower carb diets may be the best approach for improving body composition and biomarkers of health for obese, insulin resistant, and sedentary populations. I’ve consulted with a few corporate wellness programs that have used this strategy to collectively achieve thousands of pounds of weight loss, and even more importantly, dramatic improvements in biomarkers of health.
You give a couch-surfing body just enough carbs to support liver glycogen stores and fuel your brain and central nervous system at rest, and you have everything you need for good cognitive function, energy, and mood without gaining fat. That’s why I love Paleo-style diets as a starting point for these specific types of people demographic.
The Caveman theme is simple to remember and relatively easy to apply, and thus it is a great educational tool for the complete beginner that doesn’t know (or care) much about nutrition. The improvement in food quality and nutrient density almost always improves diet numbers, leading to better blood sugar control, body composition, and biomarkers of health.
This does not mean Paleo is the end-all answer to your dietary needs. It also doesn’t mean low carb is right for your body. The biggest problem is with the active community. Those that run, lift, jump, bike, ski, or do anything at all that requires more energy. Too many people are creating a diet that doesn’t match their level of activity.
Diets to Lose Weight: The Unspoken Rule
Anyone that is active and spends time exercising needs to look at their diet through a different lens. Kicking it with cavemen is not the same thing as crushing the competition. Surviving in the wild is not the same thing as athletically thriving in the arena, lifting more weight, or running faster.
If you want to perform well and look a certain way, you need to consider all of the factors at play.
The diet industry has lost the principle of specificity: matching your nutrition plan to your individual situation, body type, activity levels, current health status, metabolic condition, and physique or performance goals.
So don’t just blindly follow any cookie-cutter system. You must educate yourself, and then test and assess in the real world to see what works best.
High Intensity Exercise: It Changes Everything
Anaerobic exercise (strength training, HIIT, cross-training, intermittent sprint sports, CrossFit) creates a unique metabolic environment, an altered physiological state, and changes the way your body processes nutrients for anywhere from 24 to 72 hours after completion of a training session.
So if you exercise 2 to 4 days a week, then your body is virtually in a recovery mode 100 percent of the time. It is in an altered physiological state beyond pure resting conditions, thus your body’s nutritional needs are completely different than the average sedentary office worker.
A good analogy is your car. If your car has been sitting in the garage, it doesn’t need gas. Loading up on carbs is like trying to fill up a full tank. It just spills over the side.
In the human body, that overspill equates to sugar backing up in the bloodstream (high blood glucose). This in turn leads to body fat storage and a host of other negative effects like elevated triglycerides and cholesterol, insulin resistance, and, eventually, type II diabetes.
However, if you drive your car around every day, sometimes for long mileage, you have to fill it up often. If you don’t, you will run out of gas.
An empty tank in the human body equates with fatigue, depression, lethargy, irritability, impaired performance, muscle loss, stubborn fat, insomnia, low testosterone, impaired thyroid production and metabolic rate. That’s a long way of saying you’ll be incredibly frustrated because despite dieting and training your body is not changing.
Carbs, Weight Loss, and Your Body
If you are an athlete seeing great results on a low-carb plan that’s awesome. Honestly, don’t change anything.
But if you are suffering from any of the symptoms I mentioned above, be humble enough to admit that you might be making a big, mismatched dietary mistake. A funny thing happened to the wheat industry thanks to the low-carb movement: People stopped eating breads and grains.
And that wasn’t all that happened. Lots of dieters who made the change lost weight and felt better than ever. But the reason wasn’t what everyone assumed. While a lower carb diet can help you lose weight, it’s not that carbs are the enemy. In fact, they are a vital nutrient that will help you get lean fast and keep you energized for your workouts.
The reason the diet changes made such a difference was because many people were overeating carbs, and the change in diet meant they were eating more protein and vegetables. So while a low carb diet can be helpful with weight loss, carbs a not inherently bad.
Your carb sensitivity is based on your body. It’s important to know that adding weight occurs by eating too many unused calories.
If you overeat, you’ll store fat, regardless of where those calories are coming from. So controlling weight gain is more about total calorie balance than any particular food, carbs included. And if removing carbs makes you miserable, it’s probably not the right approach for you.
That said, some people find it easier to control their weight when they reduce or avoid carb-heavy foods that they have a tendency to overindulge in. But if you can control your intake, enjoy the carbs. The best way to prevent overeating is to make sure most of your carbs come from raw fruits and vegetables, while leaving a minor proportion for desserts.
Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.