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To Go Low Carb Or Not To Go Low Carb?

That is the question. Better stated, is there a way to tell if you’re more likely to do well on a low carb diet?

The short answer is yes as there actually are some pretty good indicators. But as is usually the case with dieting strategies, there’s no surefire way to tell without experimentation.

There’s also the subjective matter of what “low carb” really means as this could be under 100 grams of carbs per day for some and less than 50 grams per day for others. Depends on the diet, length of time with carb restriction, etc.

After twenty plus years consulting with individuals on fat loss strategies, I’ve found some tend to do very well on low carb diets and/or diet phases and others not so much. The reasons for which I believe can be identified with something I ofter refer to as “bioinvididuality.”

This is just a fancy word that refers to the inherent differences in one person to the next. Factors such as genetics, rate of metabolism, insulin sensitivity, lean muscle mass, etc.

While there’s no denying the benefits of carbohydrate manipulation on fat loss, I’ve yet to find a single low carb diet or rotational strategy that works best for everyone.

In today’s post we’ll get into some of the factors I look at when determining whether or not to put my clients on low carb diet phases, and if so what the variables are.

More after the jump…

For starters, let’s briefly discuss what some of the primary benefits of going low-carb are in the first place.

Benefits of lowering carbohydrate intake

  • lowering blood sugar levels
  • reducing insulin secretion and improving insulin sensitivity
  • increased utilization of other substrates for energy production (fatty acids for example)
  • reducing persistent sugar cravings
  • providing a more steady flow of energy after meals and through the day

Yes, there can be some positive physiological changes that occur when excess carbohydrates are pulled from the diet. The key word here being “excess.”

I’m not a proponent of diets or nutritional strategies in general which call for the removal of all carbohydrates.

Simply put, the human body thrives on plant based carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables. These should be a staple in everyone’s diet. The foundation of health is built around fruits, vegetables, and greens (in my opinion).

Processed and refined carbohydrates (which are the primary source of carbs in the average American’s diet) are a whole other story. These can be left out of the diet completely with no ill effect. This doesn’t mean you can never eat a potato chip, it just means there’s little nutritional value there.

The matter of starch carbohydrates is where we get into a grey area. Some people fare well with starch carbs in their diet, others lose weight faster and feel better when they’re taken out.

Generally speaking, the average adult who works a desk job doesn’t really need all that much starch carbohydrate. They simply don’t have the energy expenditure to burn off the excess sugar.

Again, this really depends on the individual, but for most folks cutting out the bread, wheat, and pasta won’t be a problem. You can get all the carbohydrates you need from fruits and vegetables in most cases.

Having some additional starch carbs other than from fruits or vegetables isn’t necessarily a must for fat loss, you just have to look at the amounts.

I typically look at the following variables when making recommendations to clients on their starch carbohydrate consumption.

- energy expenditure
how many calories are being burned with physical activity and exercise.

- resting metabolic rate
how many calories are being at rest, largely determined by genetics.

- lean body mass
how much muscle the individual has.

- individual goals
do they want to gain muscle, lose fat, improve athletic performance, etc.

- insulin sensitivity
how well their body deals with excess carbohydrates.

These variables can generally provide a pretty good indication of how much starch carbohydrate to be consumed. But then again, things like assessing one’s insulin sensitivity can be a little more tricky.

How would I do that?

The first way would be to ask you about how you feel after eating a meal with high carbs. Do you feel sluggish and sleepy or not so much?

Of course if you’re overweight chances are you have poor insulin sensitivity at the moment anyways, regardless of genetics.

Also if you have type II diabetes or shows signs of insulin resistance, this will also indicate poor insulin sensitivity.

Here’s a breakdown of factors that tend to indicate how a person will do on a low carb diet.

Tend to do well on lower carbs

  • have a somewhat slow rate of metabolism (lower resting metabolic rate).
  • don’t have excessive energy expenditure from their work, athletics, or fitness training.
  • have poorer insulin sensitivity as evident from feeling sluggish after higher carb consumption.
  • don’t have a large amount of lean muscle.
  • have more than 25% body fat.
  • are over the age of 35.

Tend to well on moderate to high levels of carbs

  • have a fast metabolism.
  • have high insulin sensitivity.
  • have higher amounts of lean body mass (bodybuilders, athletes, etc).
  • have higher amounts of energy expenditure.
  • have greater demand for carbs in energy production (endurance athletes, etc).

I will note that even those individuals with more lean muscle and a faster metabolism can see accelerated fat loss from sometimes restricting carbs for short periods of time.

Bodybuilders in particular have been using low-carb rotation diets for years, long before any of this ever became mainstream.

In a nutshell, I’ve found that the majority of individuals can benefit from some degree of carbohydrate manipulation.

This may mean bringing carbs down by eliminating starches for a few days and then putting them back.

This may mean staying around 100 grams or less on a daily basis.

Again this is why some people do great on more of Primal Blueprint or Paleo type diet where most starches are removed so you tend to stay at around 100 grams of carbs or less per day. The feel good, lose body fat, and can still put on a decent amount of lean muscle.

Others do better with fat loss on carbohydrate cycling or rotational type diets. Carbs are restricted for 3-5 days and then put back in the diet with “re-feed” periods typically lasting 1-2 days.

And then we have things like the South Beach Diet and others.

Perhaps the easiest and most simple place to start with experimenting with lower carbs is to remove all processed and refined carbs along with wheat products.

I’ve seen amazing transformations occur just by removing wheat from the diet.

The important part here is to listen to your body. Experimentation will be needed to see what works best. I can tell you that personally I’ve found that I do better with more moderate to higher level of carbs in my diet.

A lot of this I figure has to do with a fast metabolism (resting metabolic rate of 3450 calories), high insulin sensitivity (again genetics), and more muscle mass.

While I’m a big proponent of a Primal Blueprint type diet, I’m not 100% because of this very reason. If I restrict starches for any length of time I’ll feel….well like crap. I’ll get tired, feel flat while working out, having a harder time putting on muscle, etc.

Could I adjust to going on around 100 grams of carbs per day, yeah probably. And I don’t doubt that I’d probably lean up a great deal and feel good. But this would likely take me down to around 220 lbs which is something I don’t desire.

I “prefer” (key word) to stay at around 240 lbs and enjoy to lift some heavy weights now and then. That’s just where I want to be and what I like to do so my diet follows accordingly. This is an important point that everyone should consider (what you want).

Granted I mostly eat potatoes for starch carbs, but I’ll also frequently eat oatmeal, legumes, quinoa, couscous, etc. While I’ll still eat bread on a sandwich from time to time, I can tell you that I definitely feel better and stay leaner when I cut out the wheat.

Before I wrap this up let me say just a few things more about experimenting with low carbs.

If you’ve currently got a fair amount of carbs in your diet from processed and refined foods, sugars, sodas, breads, etc, you’re definitely going to go through some withdrawals when cutting back.

In short, you’ll feel worse before you feel better.

You’ve conditioned your body to fuel off of mostly sugars and that means you’ll experience some discomfort with strong sugar cravings, possibly headaches, irritability, etc, in the beginning.

Typically this only lasts for the first 7-10 days so just hang in there. Just don’t use how you feel in the beginning as an indicator of how well you’ll fare on lower carbs.

That’s why I typically recommend to my clients that they start with more of a “supportive nutrition” type diet of 4-6 small meals per day. This is where you eat a mix of healthy whole foods every 3-4 hours. You don’t have to cut out the starches completely, you’re just removing the junk and eating more frequently as a way to increase metabolism and stabilize blood sugar levels.

But just like with exercise, you’ll find that over time you may benefit from switching some things up with your diet. This is where you may want to look at lower carb diet strategies or carb rotation type diets.

There’s a lot to get into regarding the specifics of these diets and how to best use them for your individual needs, but that will have to be for another day.

This discussion was not meant to promote or argue against any specific dieting strategy. I don’t believe everyone will find that they see the best results, look and feel their best, on any one particular diet.

The common denominator should be that the diet consists of primarily natural whole foods. From there it’s a lot of variables according to personal preference and individual needs. Arguing low carb versus moderate carb is much the same as arguing vegan diet over Paleo or whatever.

These debates typically go around in circles. If eating a certain way helps you achieve your goals and improve your health, what else is there to discuss? What works for you works for you.

To each his own as they say.

Regardless of what a friend, family member, or co-worker follows for a diet routine, you’ll want to assess your own individual wants and needs.

Be open to experimentation and don’t get married to a particular way of eating just because. Listen to your body, it won’t steer you wrong.

Shane Doll CPT, CSCS is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts. Personal training in Charleston with a specialty on weight loss and body transformation using 30 minute burst training workouts and individualized nutrition strategies. Experience the Shaping Concepts difference for yourself today.

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Category: Fat Loss.