Customizing Your Carbohydrate Intake For Better Results

Large weight loss diet health food selection in porcelain bowls over parchment and brown paper background.

Large weight loss diet health food selection in porcelain bowls over parchment and brown paper background.

When it comes to fighting the carbohydrate wars, it’s important to understand why a low-carb diet may work well for some, while adding more carbs works better for others.

A 300lbs overweight, sedentary, pre-diabetic office worker trying to improve biomarkers of health and save his or her life DOES NOT have the exact same nutritional needs as a 175lbs, lean, fit, insulin-sensitive athlete trying to reach elite levels of physical development, and maybe has the less noble, but equally important goal of opening up a glorious “Gun Show” in 2015. Neither does the relatively fit woman trying to turn it up for the next few months and rock a bikini bod come Spring.

Yet, that’s what you have to believe if you buy into the dogmatic adherence to a one-size-fits all “diet system.”

Carb Wars, Diet Dilemmas, & The Specificity Principle

Carb Wars

You’ve heard that second-hand carbohydrate intake is dangerous. Is this true?

The Carbohydrate Wars–they’re a real doozy. They have been raging in gyms, kitchens, and nutrition conferences for decades, and will continue to do so into eternity.  There’s religious-like passion and cult-like followings on both sides of the fence. The pendulum of popularity seems to swing back and forth between the two.

So unless you take a little time to educate yourself, you will continue to be Dazed & Carb Confused.  You’ll keep following the trends, marketing madness, and cookie-cutter diets vs. finding what work best for you.  You will yo-yo back and forth between quick-fix extremes and rapid rebounds instead of living lean year-round by following a customized lifestyle plan.

After years and years of fighting away in The Carbohydrate Wars, many athletes, coaches, and physique enthusiasts have completely forgotten about the principle of Specificity.

Listen up my low-carb buttercup:  there is no “Perfect Diet” that can claim a throne.  The next time someone claims to be king, punch them in the high-carb breadbasket or kick them in the low-carb nuts. There are multiple effective diets based on a variety of different situations and goals.

This Specificity Principle seems to be better understood, and more readily applied, in the training realm. So lets take a step back and think about that for a second before we move forward with our physique enhancing diet discussion.

Do you think wind sprints or heavy squats would be good for someone trying to just survive the late stages of heart disease?  What about for a high performance athlete trying to improve his or her speed, power, strength, or lean muscle mass?

The limitations that are necessary for someone suffering from a disease are not always ideal for a healthy athlete trying to attain high-level goals.

Also keep in mind that the goal of achieving high levels of performance is much different than losing maximum amounts of body fat.  There can be overlap for sure.  But there are also clear distinctions.

What would happen if all you did to prepare for a bodybuilding show, powerlifting meet, or MMA fight was dance the night away in Zumba classes?  The training program doesn’t match the training goal. Although you might be able to get jiggy with it, you’d get crushed in your athletic competition.

Well, The Specificity Principle is equally applicable to designing targeted nutrition programs. So ditch the dogma and match your carbohydrate intake to your individual activity levels, metabolic condition, and physique or performance goals in order to optimize your results.  It really is that simple.

Why Low Carbs Work So Well For Sedentary Populations

We are currently living in The Low Carb Era, so we might as well start with this approach first.

Lower carb diets may be the best approach for improving body composition and biomarkers of health for obese, insulin resistant, and sedentary populations. Why?

A sedentary person is not exercising and burning through muscle glycogen stores, so they do not need to worry about replenishing them with a high carbohydrate intake. High carbohydrate intakes (300g or more) are more appropriate for athletes that undergo the cyclical depletion and repletion of muscle glycogen stores.

Sedentary populations really only need to worry about providing adequate carbohydratesto fuel the brain and central nervous system at rest. This can be accomplished with roughly 100-125g a day.  This does not vary much with weight and gender as the liver is roughly the same size regardless of those two variables.

You give your body just enough carbs to support liver glycogen stores and fuel the brain and central nervous system at rest, have good cognitive function, energy, and mood, etc., without overshooting your daily needs, gaining fat, and getting diabetic.

Low Carbohydrate Food

5 Reasons Athletes Should Consider More Carbs

The short summary is that anaerobic exercise (strength training, HIIT, intermittent sprint sports, etc.) creates a unique metabolic environment, an altered physiological state, and changes the way your body processes nutrients for 24-72 hours after completion of a training session.

So if you exercise 2-4 days a week, then your body is virtually in a recovery mode 100% of the time.  It is in an altered physiological state beyond pure resting conditions 100% of the time, thus its nutritional needs are completely different than that of the average sedentary office worker.

Here are 5 specific reasons to consider keeping some carbs in your physique enhancement plans, even during cutting phases:

  1. Low glycogen levels as the result of inadequate carbohydrate intake are associated with low energy levels, fatigue, lack of motivation, and decreased performance.  Conversely, numerous studies have documented the positive effects of carbohydrate intake and elevated muscle glycogen concentration on performance, work output, and high intensity intermittent activity.  Keep in mind that maintaining your ability to kick ass in the gym is the main stimulus that is going to preserve your lean muscle mass, even while in the calorie deficit necessary for fat loss.
  2. Hard training can cause a temporary impairment of the immune system and increase susceptibility to illness. With consistent high-intensity exercise, adequate carb intake lessens the potentially negative changes in immunity brought about by training. Do you catch every cold that comes around town?  A lot of athletes do when they go too low in carbs.
  3. Sufficient carbohydrate intake supports an optimum free testosterone: cortisol ratio IN RESPONSE to high intensity activity. If you are juicing it up that doesn’t matter so much.  But if you are going about it naturally, you need a targeted plan that helps maintain natural hormone production.  Dietary fat isn’t the only critical factor.  Carbs count too.
  4. Low carb diets coupled with intense training protocols can impair thyroid production and sabotage normal metabolic rate.  More specifically, it can impair the conversion of t4 thyroid hormone to its more active T3 form.
  5. A carb-depleted state can affect natural production of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which affect mood states and the ability to induce sleep. Suffer from insomnia when following fat loss diets?  Are you grumpy, depressed, and just generally always in a foul mood?

No 6-pack is worth a lifeless noodle or dusty papaya living downstairs, and then being an ass to everyone around you because of it.

Performance-Based Athletes & Sports Nutrition Recommendations

The primary goal for most competitive athletes is to perform at the highest level possible.  Since carbohydrates are the fuel for high-intensity exercise, most Sports Nutrition diets focus on carbohydrates first.

Most research focuses on the optimum amounts to keep liver and muscle glycogen at near full levels to maximize performance — both during training and during competition.

What are some of the recommendations for high-level performance athletes? Here are a few snippets:

Burke, et al. Recommendations developed on behalf of the International Olympic Committee by experts in Sports Nutrition.  Carbohydrate recommendations 5-7 g/kg bw during regular training needs and 7-10g/kg bw during periods of increased training.  The recovery period should be no less than 24 hours (for glycogen restoration).

According to the NSCA, endurance athletes may need up to 10g/kg bw to maximize glycogen stores.  Strength training athletes may only need half that, closer to 5g/kg bw.

So if you are participating in performance-based competitions or intermittent sprint sports, you might want to start with these baseline recommendations first. Then test, assess, and adjust from there in order to attain peak performance levels.

A Middle of the Road Approach for Most Fitness Folks

We have low-carb diets recommended for sedentary demographics, and relatively high carb diets recommended for high-level athletes looking to maximize performance.

With our natural tendency to go to, push everyone else into, and argue over opposite extremes, there is a huge middle ground that is often overlooked in our industry. Ironically, this is where most of the magic lies.

We know why an athlete or regular exerciser can handle more carbs than a sedentary person.  But it’s also important to understand that the needs and goals of high-level PERFORMANCE athletes are different than those who just want to look better with their shirts off, pants off, or walking around naked (hey now)!

The training of performance-based athletes tends to be higher in duration, volume, and frequency.  They may train 2-4 hours a day, sometimes twice a day, six days a week.  This is unnecessary for fat loss and physique development.

A traditional hypertrophy routine may consist of 3-5, 45-60 minute strength-training workouts a week. So performance athletes obviously have much higher calorie and carbohydrate demands than purely vanity driven demographics.

Also keep in mind that the goal of achieving high levels of performance is much different than losing maximum amounts of body fat.  There can be overlap for sure.  But there are also clear distinctions.

10g of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight for a 90kg (198lbs) male would equal 900g of carbohydrate per day. For a 60kg (132lbs) female, it would equal 600g of carbs. While you might have a ton of energy and perform well with those numbers, most would have a very hard time getting lean.

The goal for most fitness and physique folks would be to move closer to the middle ground — provide just enough carbohydrates to properly fuel and recover from strength training sessions without any excess being stored as body fat.  How do you get there?

Well, there is a wide range of appropriate carbohydrate intakes based on specific activity levels, individual metabolic factors, and body composition goals.

A good ballpark starting point would be somewhere in the range of 1-2g of carbohydrate per pound of lean body mass or target weight (2-5g/kg).

Those with good insulin sensitivity, on the higher end of training intensity or volume, and/or looking to gain muscle mass would lean towards the higher end.  Those with poor insulin sensitivity, on the lower end of training intensity or volume, and/or looking to lose fat would lean towards the lower end.

And just like for performance athletes, the physique athlete needs to test, assess, and adjust in the real world based on progress and feedback.