I feel bad for carbs.
Of all the macronutrients we consume carbohydrates probably have to be the most misunderstood one.
They seem to be the evil villain of the nutrition world.
I recently got a question from a client asking me my thoughts on ketosis (which is a form of carbohydrate restriction)
A (VERY) brief science lesson
Ketosis is a process where the liver creates something called ketone bodies out of the fat you consume. ketones are created when you severely restrict carbohydrates so much so that most of your energy is derived from the ketone bodies your liver creates.
Some claim that ketosis is the preferred way of burning fat in the body. While it certainly is ONE way of burning fat, it definitely isn’t the only way, and some (like me) don’t believe it is the best way for active, healthy individuals to burn fat.
Below is a list of reasons why you may want to reconsider restricting carbohydrates and going on a Ketogenic Diet. I’ll conclude by outlining some good, solid, research-backed advice to help you make sense of carbohydrates and how individuals can and probably should include carbs in their diet.
1. The brain likes sugar
Put simply our brains prefer to run on sugar (glucose). Glucose is so important that if you eat a zero carbohydrate diet, your body will convert the other nutrients you consume into sugar to keep you alive.
You constantly have a steady stream of glucose running through your blood at all times because it is that important. Your brain likes to burn rather than store glucose so it needs a steady stream of glucose coming in all day long. It doesn’t matter the composition of your diet, you are running on sugar (some individuals more than others), as well as fat and to a lesser extent protein.
2. Adherence is a BIG deal
Put simply it’s difficult to restrict carbohydrate intake. While many people (depending on how desperate they are to lose weight) can restrict certain carbohydrates for a while, ask yourself this simple question before you try a Ketogenic Diet (or any diet for that matter):
Can I live and most importantly thrive off this diet long-term?
If not, it probably isn’t a good diet to be on.
3. Stress is our silent killer, not sugar
It seems like everywhere you go, and everything you read about nutrition someone has to mention how bad sugar is for us. Yes, TOO MUCH sugar is not ideal and is a contributing cause to many diseases. But notice I said ‘contributing’ in that last sentence.
Something that rarely gets mentioned is stress (both psychological and physiological). Ketogenic diets have the ability to increase physiological stress (cortisol levels may rise) as well as psychological stress (crap, now I can’t eat that piece of cake for my birthday!)
What’s interesting about stress, and cortisol in particular, is that chronically elevated cortisol levels may be one reason why people who go on diets aren’t able to adhere to them long-term. Furthermore, chronically elevated cortisol can increase water retention in the body and therefore increase weight gain.
Finally, there is strong evidence that people consume too many heavily processed carbs because their stress levels are too high to begin with. The processed carbs increase the ‘happy’ hormones 🙂 but because they are heavily processed your body doesn’t tell you that you are full and need to stop eating so you overindulge 🙁
4. Sugar increases insulin…and so does other food
You probably don’t associate streak and a glass of milk with insulin, but much like sugar they too increase insulin levels. While it has been claimed numerous times that elevated insulin levels lead to fat gain (with insulin usually only talked about in the context of sugar), this isn’t always true. The type and quantity of carbs will directly influence whether or not you become insulin resistant and prevent you from burning fat. And then there’s this…
I can’t remember the last time I have watched a video or read an article about carbohydrate restriction where the individual spoke about the benefits of exercise in overall health and wellness and how carbs can and probably should fit into the picture.
Put simply, among other things, exercise increases insulin sensitively. Essentially it allows you to eat more carbohydrates, and is actually preferred if you are doing high intensity exercise (weight lifting, sprints etc.).
If you limit, or worse yet, eliminate carbohydrates from your diet, your body will use ketones to produce energy. This is not a very efficient process (despite what you may have heard).
While I don’t recommend doing this, restrict your carbs by 50% for one day and then go do a high intensity workout. See how you feel during and after the workout. You could also simply monitor the type and quantity of carbs you consume each day you are active and see if you can spot a trend in how you feel overall.
Ketosis not all Bad!!!
Despite the negative aspects of ketogenic Diets that I think individuals need to be aware of, there is at least one very promising effect of going on ketogenic Diets…
at least for some people.
Ketogenic Diets have shown a ton of promise with neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer’s, ALS etc.). Be careful not to extrapolate these results to healthy, active individuals though. Just because restricting carbs is helpful for certain individuals it doesn’t mean it is a preferred state to be in for healthy individuals.
Furthermore, just because restricting carbs helps these individuals doesn’t mean carbohydrates where the problem to begin with.
We have been consuming carbohydrates for centuries. It wasn’t until recently that the food industry figured out how to create heavily processed carbs and most importantly (for their bottom line) get people hooked on them. It’s the quality of the carbs you are consuming that will influence your health.
Enter…the Common Denominator Diet
Instead of trying to sell you on some fancy diet, with some cool name, I’m going to instead bring together all the common aspects most, if not all diets, share. Beware, your mind is about to be blown…
- Eat 6-8 cups of vegetables and fruit a day (more veggies if fat loss is your goal)
- Eat a dense source of protein with EVERY meal
- One palm size for women (about 25-30g)
- Two palm sizes for men (50-60g)
- Make your own food most of the time to limit processed food intake (if your new to making your own food, start with 1-2 homemade dinners a week).
- Drink mostly water (yes you can still burn fat while sipping a latte or drinking a beer every now and then!)
- Exercise 3-4 times/week and simply move more every day!
- Manage stress levels
- Sleep at least 8 hours every night
There. I said it.
No secrets. Just the same old, boring advice you have heard time and time again. But in this case boring is effective.
What wasn’t mentioned here, but is crucially important is adherence. If you can’t adhere to the diet/lifestyle the chance of you sticking to it drops quite a bit, which only increases your frustration levels (and stress levels!).
Finally, the reason low carbohydrate diets work for some people is because they enjoy it. If it takes away from enjoying your life though, it probably isn’t for you. If you enjoy exercise and moving a lot, minimally processed carbohydrates are going to be your friend (keyword ‘minimally’). While exceptions exist (some people may do well on Ketogenic Diets) the rules of a healthy diet outlined above are generally agreed upon rules for a reason. They simply make the most sense for most people.
One final note: testimonies are VERY powerful in getting individuals to start a new diet. Something to consider with Ketogenic diets is that the initial weight loss individuals see with the diet can mostly be attributed to water loss (you are depleting your carbohydrate stores which carry water). So it’s best to put those testimonies in context and realize that most people won’t sustain that weight loss over the long-term if they don’t enjoy that way of eating.
Wondering if your homemade meal is working towards your fat loss goal? Shoot me (Brent) an email with the recipe (along with some general background on your activity levels) and I’ll let you know my thoughts!