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The Dirty Little Secret Of Low Carb Dieting For Fat Loss

Ask most anyone off the street what’s the best diet strategy to lose body fat and you’ll likely hear something along the lines of going low-carb.

Fitness trainers have been providing the same run of the mill advice for years, and while there are certainly some benefits with carb reduction at times, the use of low-carb dieting for fat loss does have its limitations.

In fact, with some individuals low-carb dieting may be the underlying reason why they’re dead stuck in a fat loss plateau and no longer seeing the body composition changes they desire.

It’s the dark, dirty little secret with low-carb diets that nobody wants to talk about, but I will. The truth needs to be told as this is a subject full of misconceptions that’s leaving a lot of people frustrated. You may be thinking, “but hey wait a minute Shane I know lots of people who have lost weight on a low-carb diet.”

There’s no question about it and I’m not denying that a low-carb diet can be a viable option (with some individuals under certain conditions), but hear me out as I can point you to cases where not getting enough carbs becomes part of the problem and not the solution.

There’s no shortage of people who have lost a considerable amount of weight on the Atkins Diet, South Beach Diet, or some other low-carb dieting strategy. Regardless of your position on low-carb diets there’s no denying that fact.

But let me ask you a question, how many people do you know that ended up putting all the weight back on once they stopped the diet?

I’ve heard that story played out countless times over the years while interviewing prospective coaching clients. Losing a bunch of weight only to put it all back on isn’t something most people want to repeat.

There’s also the crowd who have used low-carb dieting strategies successfully to get all the way down close to their desired level of leanness, but can’t seem to get off that last 10-15 pounds of body fat.

Going low-carb got them 90% of the way there, but now they’re stuck. Attempting to add more exercise into the mix or further reduce calories and/or carbs only seems to make matters worse.

I see this scenario quite frequently with diet coaching and personal training clients. This can often be challenging from a coaching perspective because we’re now dealing with the need to change not only habits, but deep seated internal beliefs as well.

When low-carb works, but then you get stuck!

Think about this for a second. Let’s say you’re someone who used a low-carb dieting approach and exercise to successfully to lose 30, 40, maybe even 100 pounds or more. But then a weird thing happens, as soon as you get close to your ideal bodyweight, everything grinds to a halt.

The very strategy you used successfully to lose a bunch of body fat is no longer working. In fact, it may be doing the exact opposite as you find the scale creeping back up, even with you doing more cardio and tightening up your diet. You’re left scratching your head and wondering what in the heck is going on.

I’ve got a few clients I’m working with right now who are dealing with this very thing. As you can imagine there’s often a bit of initial doubt and disbelief when I present the idea they need to slowly increase their carb intake and calories. “You want me to do what?!?!”

In a lot of ways I can see how this sort of defies logic to them so I get it. We’re talking about doing the opposite of what initially worked for them to lose fat which is cutting carbs and ramping up exercise.

I try to be patient, hopefully I am, with my clients as I explain to them what’s happening in their body and why they need to reverse course. I’m a simple man, so I often like to use some simple logic as reasoning to try things my way.

If whatever you’re doing in attempts to get leaner isn’t working, why keep doing more of the same?

This ends up only being an exercise in futility. Doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting a different result.

Not all low-carb dieting scenarios are the same…

Before we go any further let me make sure to clarify an important point here. I’m talking about individuals using a low-carb dieting approach in conjunction with resistance and cardiovascular exercise to change body composition.

A sedentary individual who’s doing little or no physical activity is NOT going to have the same needs as someone regularly completing strength training and cardio.

The reason you don’t see me promoting something like the Atkins Diet is because very low-carb diets work very poorly in the long-term with those who desire to be fit and have a concern for lean muscle (which should be all of us).

Now granted if you’ve used some sort of a low-carb diet to reduce a large portion of your body fat, with or without exercise, you’re certainly in a much better position than when you started. However, exercise and having a concern for muscle is going to have to come into the equation at some point if you want to maintain a fit and lean body.

Here’s a general observation I can share with you that I’ve picked up on over the years.

Individuals who are overweight and not doing much in the way of regular strength training and cardiovascular exercise will often fare well with reducing carbs and becoming more active. The majority of individuals will find they can initially lose a good bit of body fat this way.

This may be from going on a low-carb diet or simply replacing processed carbs with whole food based carbs in part of a supportive nutrition diet.

I’m not going to get into a ton of detail in this post on the mechanisms for why this works, but a lot of it has to do with reducing insulin levels and improving insulin sensitivity at the cellular level.

The leaner one gets (closer they get to their ideal bodyweight) and the more they progress with their fitness training, the more important carbs become in their diet as an energy source.

Let me also make clear I’m not totally discrediting the use of ketogenic or carb cycling dieting strategies in even lean individuals for short windows of time. Bodybuilders in particular have been using these kinds of strategies for years to get down to single digit body fat percentages for a contest.

However, we’re also not talking about the average over forty man or woman who stays on a low-carb diet while exercising vigorously for months on end. This is the crowd that I specialize in coaching, and I can tell you that the prolonged habit of low-carb dieting with lots of exercise is a recipe for trouble with middle age adults.

If you’ve found yourself stuck not being able to lean out any more even though you’ve brought calories and carbs way down and hit the gym on a consistent basis, you’re not alone. Step number one is to STOP doing what you’re doing, it’s not working.

What’s behind the problem when low-carb diets stop working?

The short answer is metabolic down-regulation and hormonal attenuation.

In other words, you’ve slowed your metabolism down and shifted hormonal levels in all the wrong direction. Basically you’re triggering your body to store fat when possible instead of burning it.

Restricting your carb intake too drastically for too long while training can lead to the following:

  • Decreased thyroid output
  • Increased cortisol output
  • Decreased testosterone levels
  • Muscle catabolism
  • Suppressed immune function
  • Mood changes and impaired cognitive function
  • Disruption in sleep patterns
  • Decreased libido
  • Increased body fat – especially around the waist and midsection
  • Down-regulation in metabolism

All of this is no bueno. Metabolism has slowed, stress hormones are on the upswing, and muscle building hormones are plummeting. And to boot you’re likely to feel sluggish, irritable, and fatigued at times.

If you’d like to learn more on why this is happening read on, if not you can skip to the bottom where I’ll just tell you what to do.

Why low carbs are messing with your metabolism…

Ok, there’s going to be a little bit of technical jargon here, but I’ll try to keep it simple and to the point.

Your body’s regulation of metabolic rate, as you may know, is largely controlled by your thyroid. The thyroid gland produces an important hormone, T3, which is the active form that’s extremely important for blood glucose management and establishing proper metabolic function.

Several research studies have shown that T3 is very sensitive to calorie and carbohydrate intake. In a nutshell, when calories and carbs are taken too low for an extended period of time, T3 levels drop. Hence your metabolism slows down to adapt to the energy deficiency.

On the flip side another thyroid hormone Reverse T3 (rT3), will increase when carbs and calories are taken too low for an extended period of time. As the name implies “reverse” T3 works to inhibit T3 production which keeps your metabolism up.

Adding in more exercise, which only furthers the caloric deficiency, will promote continued down-regulation in your metabolism. Ironically, more time doing cardio now becomes extremely counter-productive for fat loss.

Oh, but wait there’s more bad news. As you continue to try and slug it out through your workouts on low carbs and calories, cortisol levels increase as testosterone levels decrease. This wonderful combination is great for losing muscle and gaining fat if that’s what you’re into (yeah I’m being sarcastic).

But seriously, this whole recipe of low-calorie and low carbs with lots of exercise, which many mistakenly believe is the way to a fit and lean body, gets to a point where it starts working against you.

Women especially are vulnerable to this combination. I suspect it has something to do with the evolutionary importance with women having enough body fat, hormones, and nutrients for pregnancy.

While I’ve certainly seen metabolism crashes in men, it’s definitely more prevalent in women who have less testosterone to begin with and generally gravitate towards doing lots of cardio over strength training.

Ok, so you’ve taken the low-carb/ low-calorie and lots of exercise approach about as far as it will take you and you’ve now hit a plateau or worse starting adding body fat.

What’s the fix and how do you get back on track?

The solution I’m about to give you may have initially sounded counter-intuitive, but now that you know what’s going on with your hormones and metabolism it should begin making sense.

For starters, you’re going to have to abandon that really low-carb and low-calorie diet in order to reset your metabolism. Your body needs more fuel, yes that means more calories, but specifically you need more carbohydrate. Some additional protein can certainly be in order, but carbs will be the key to bringing back up your metabolism.

Attempting to stay low-carb while bringing up calories through additional dietary fat and protein doesn’t work very well, I’ve tried that on several occasions. The additional energy intake must come from carbohydrates. You see when carbs are increased, levels of Reverse T3 (rT3) begin going back down which frees up active T3 to do its job.

There also seems to be an inverse relationship here with cortisol and testosterone. When carbs and calories are brought back up to support energy demands, cortisol levels begin going back down and testosterone back up.

What’s basically happening is your body starts coming out of a catabolic state and hormonal levels begin shifting back towards supporting metabolic function and lean muscle development.

Here are a few more observations I can share with you that I’ve seen with my middle age clients.

When it comes to resetting metabolism, a gradual and slower approach seems to work best.

There are several carb cycling diet strategies out there which have the individual re-feeding with carbs by significantly increasing levels over a 24-72 hour period. There are also versions of having a single cheat meal or “eat all you want” over a short window of time.

Again, I’ve tried several of these options with little success. I think they may work well with someone who’s younger and has better insulin sensitivity, increased hormonal levels, etc, but not so much with a middle age or older adult who has been in metabolic down-regulation for some time.

I’m presuming much of this has to do with enzyme efficiency and simply more time needed to restore metabolic function. Bottom line is slow and steady seems to work best. Don’t expect to turn everything around in a few days.

The best approach I’ve found through experimentation is to slowly increase carbs and calories by gradually increasing both every 5-7 days. The idea is to not go too fast and rush the process. An example would be increasing 200-300 calories each week until total energy intake is meeting total energy expenditure.

In other words, slowly bumping back up calories and carbs until the individual is at their eating metabolic potential (EMP). This is the point where energy in is meeting energy out and there’s no deficiency.

Now let me go ahead and make one thing perfectly clear, when you go into a metabolism reset the last thing you want to be doing is jumping on the scale every day. You simply can’t gauge whether or not the reset is working solely off the scale.

There will be water retention that accompanies the increased carb consumption, although we’re looking to minimize this by not re-feeding rapidly. You can and should expect to see the scale go up during the process.

A better approach is to frequently measure what’s going on with your body fat mass. At Shaping Concepts we use the InBody body composition analyzer which measures body fat mass, lean body mass, total body water retention, and other variables.

Even if you don’t have access to something like this, you could use a simple hand-held electrical bioimpedance body fat analyzer, like the Omron HBF-306C BodyLogic Pro Hand Held Body Fat Monitor, which you can pick up on Amazon for under $40. While a $40 device won’t be nearly as accurate as a $5,000 device you’ll at least have a good idea of what’s going on.

There’s always the fear that eating more calories and carbs is going to start making one gain fat, but I’ve yet to see this happen with a gradual reset. In fact, it’s more likely that the exact opposite is going to happen. As metabolic rate and hormonal balances start coming back, the body returns to fat burning mode.

There’s nothing like seeing the shock on a client’s face when they get on the InBody analyzer for an assessment, expecting bad news since their home scale has shown no change or even weight gain, to learn that body fat mass has gone down, even with eating more and exercising less. Again the scale can’t tell you the whole story.

That brings me to another important point.

When you’re looking to reset metabolism the last thing you want to be doing is more exercise.

Strength training several times a week is recommended, but you really want to scale back on the cardio. Remember, now is not the time for big time caloric expenditures, we’re looking to bring back a gradual return to energy equilibrium. Some low intensity aerobic work is fine, but keep your duration to under 30 minutes.

Avoid doing interval training, HIIT work and other high intensity type exercise while you’re resetting. Sure you can push hard with the strength training, but make sure you’re getting adequate recovery and not overly stressing the body. We want cortisol levels going down now, so things like recovery and sleep become increasingly important.

I know this may sound crazy, to say that eating more carbs and calories along with doing less cardio is going to help you return to fat burning mode, but that’s exactly what I’m saying.

The big picture is this…

Everyone is going to fare a little different regarding how many carbs and calories they need to be consuming. There are so many variables at play here that it’s impractical for me to get into everything. Just know that if you reduce carbs and calories and see a decrease in body fat, this doesn’t mean it’s going to work indefinitely.

The needs of your body are going to change over time.

Carbs are not evil and cutting them with reckless abandon is not going to be your solution to the body of your dreams.

You want to whack something, whack all those processed and refined carbs from your diet. This your body can do without. But for heaven’s sake, just because you cut out all breads, grains, potatoes, rice, etc, to get down to a certain weight, don’t be afraid of bringing some healthy starches back into your diet.

The harder you train, and/or longer or more frequently, the more beneficial those carbs are going to become. I need to wrap this up even though there’s much more to talk about. Hopefully you’ve picked up something valuable in this post.

If you’ve found yourself stuck and would like to inquire about personalized coaching let me know. I’m currently accepting a small, select group of diet coaching clients to work with remotely. Take care and talk soon- S

Shane Doll CPT, CSCS is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker and founder of Shaping Concepts Personal Training Studios. He specializes in helping middle age adults achieve a body transformation. Use the contact web-form to inquire about personal training and remote coaching opportunities.

Related: NETA – National Exercise Trainers Association.

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Category: Fat Loss.