I like carbs.
Scratch that – I love carbs.
I love carbs so much that I’d happily pay an extortionate price to jump out of a plane face first and land on the world’s largest donut.
Because carbohydrates possess the unique asset of being the only food group to give you more energy to work harder in the gym and make you feel better after you have one of those days where the world has shit in your shaker.
That’s right, carbohydrates are not only a food. They are a friend.
But there’s something nasty going on in the fitness industry, and I don’t like it one bit.
A growing number of “experts” are telling you that carbohydrates are bad for you.
They’re saying that the best way to lose weight – in some cases, the only way to lose weight – is to remove carbs from your diet completely, because they promote fat storage.
Have you ever had that friend who says things like, “If I even so much as look at that cheesecake, I’ll put weight on”..?
Well, there are books out there which basically use that as a scientific reference.
So today I’m going to run you through the pros (there are some) and cons (hold me back) of low carb diets.
Strap in, and don’t worry if any of your low carb friends take offence after seeing that you’ve liked this post on Facebook (hint), they can fill out one of my butthurt reports and everything will be OK again.
The Benefits Of Low Carb Diets
Despite my apprehensions, there are certain weight loss benefits to Livin La Vida Low Carb.
The trick is doing it the right way.
You see, while protein possesses the essential amino acids our body requires to build and support lean muscle, and fat gives us the essential fatty acids necessary to support our immune system and regulate our hormones (essential meaning our body cannot produce them on it’s own), there are no essential carbohydrates.
After all, in the absence of carbs, our body can even use protein to create glycogen if absolutely necessary.
So, it makes sense that if you are planning to cut your intake of one food group, it should be carbohydrates.
Further still, the fact that most junk foods are carbohydrate-based, you’d automatically be eating less shit.
Which is a good thing.
The Cons Of Low Carb Diets
Oh, fuck. I feel like OJ Simpson at a glove store.
So many choices, so little time.
Fuck it, I’m using bullet points.
- Total over-reliance on protein and/or fat
The main reason I mentioned “the right way” is because a lot of zero carb zealots (just made that term up) are under the impression that we require a truckload of dietary protein and fat each day in order to function at optimal levels.
We do not.
So make no mistake, when I say that it makes sense to optimize your protein and fat intake first (in order to enjoy the muscle building benefits they offer) and then set your carb intake with your remaining calorie budget, I do not mean setting your protein to 2 grams per lb of body weight, nor do I mean pushing your fat so high that you are putting fucking butter in your coffee.
(Frankly, if you can withstand that kind of torture, I see no reason why you can’t just eat a little healthier and have done with it.)
As long as you can achieve around 1 gram of protein per lb of body weight, and 0.5 grams of fat per lb, you should still have a fair amount of your total calorie intake to spend on carbohydrates.
- Your food choices are severely restricted
The reason they shoot for so much protein is because protein is the most filling macronutrient. (1, 2)
And by getting you to consume so much of it, they hope that you’ll forget about chewing your own face off.
Cutting a small amount from your carbs is way more productive than cutting them down to zero, because success with any diet is hugely psychological (meaning the “best” diet is the one you can stick to) and this means a plan that allows you to enjoy your favourite treat foods without giving yourself a hailmary.
In fact, studies suggest that on the rare occasion low carb diets work for people in the long-term, the reason this is the case is because the individual has basically forced themselves into a calorie deficit because they are bored with the hugely limiting food choices they have available. (3)
That’s no way to live your life.
This is also the reason my clients don’t follow the clean eating movement.
Studies show that diets which use more flexible food choices continually outperform rigid plans which limit food options or ban certain food groups in the one key area that matters in any diet – being able to fucking stick to it. (4, 5)
- Calories In Vs Calories Out Is Not An Opinion
Your total calorie intake determines any potential weight loss. Nothing else.
I covered this in more depth during my article Calories Are King.
You can eat Mars bars all day long and, providing you consume fewer total calories than your body requires, you will lose weight.
On the flipside, you can get fat eating nothing but chicken and rice.
It’s all about the volume.
But some zero carb zealots (this will become a thing) spread the misinformation that your total calorie intake doesn’t actually matter. What really matters is carbohydrates, and you can apparently eat as much food as your heart desires providing you stay away from the C-word.
These guys need a science book more than Nicki Minaj needs a cloth and some water to get rid of whatever it is that makes her blink two thousand fucking times per minute.
- Who are you?
Perhaps the biggest telltale sign associated with low carb diets is the toll it takes on your mood.
Carbohydrates are the body’s (and the brain’s) preferred source of energy, so being around a person who has lived in a state of carb depletion for an extended period of time is about as fun as attaching a velociraptor to your nuts.
Dieting to lose weight isn’t easy, no, but it also shouldn’t feel like absolute hell.
- “Exercise is bad, bro”
Just when you think it can’t get any worse, some motherfucker suggests that one way to lose more weight is to stop exercising.
Well, exercise builds up your appetite and, thus, you might overeat!
With this logic, I should headbutt my television each time a Ben & Jerry’s commercial appears on the screen because the thought of chocolate mint ice cream makes me want to snorkel in a swimming pool full of chocolate mint ice cream.
Because it’s not like I can, you know, display some discipline or remember that I’m not a four year old.
Nope, instead I should stop exercising because this will mean I can stick to my “diet”.
Fuck this approach all the way to hell.
The way I see it, working out is one of the best things you can to to increase your ability to stick to any diet. Because when you begin to see the positive changes in your body (and your performance in the gym) you will start to develop the willpower to be more disciplined with your food choices.
To go even further, studies clearly show that exercise promotes fat oxidation to a greater degree than calorie reduction alone. (6)
Remember, it ain’t just about weight loss. It’s about fat loss.
- You Are Losing Water Weight
Look at the sales page behind any low carb diet product and you will notice a recurring theme – they are all geared around a short time-frame.
That’s because the initial 3-4 weeks of any low carb diet sees us drop the most weight, as water is lost and glycogen stores are depleted.
This is when “gurus” will proclaim their system a miracle of modern science and attempt to take a testimonial from you, declaring that you’d happily sell your husband or wife into a life of sex slavery for another sip from their fountain of knowledge.
Not only is water awesome for hydration, it’s also great for training. So we want ample stores of it.
No worries, though, because this weight is regained the moment we go back to eating normally.
But rather than tell you the facts, they’ll try their best to convince you that it happened because you displayed weakness and succumbed to the dreaded Carb Monster.
- An unhealthy relationship with food
I really dislike it when one food group is demonized in the media.
For a long time, fat got the brunt of the attacks.
In the early 2000’s, however, the focus switched to carbohydrates.
Demonizing one food group only serves to create a very unhealthy and unsustainable relationship with food.
These myths are perpetrated by fitness industry hacks who need to feed you fear in order to then have you buy their product.
And you know what?
You can eat fucking all of them without bursting into flames.
- Micronutrient deficiency
In a 2001 study published in Circulation declared that individuals who regularly partake in low carbohydrate diets run an increased risk of insufficient dietary vitamins and minerals. (7)
As well as this, the nutrition professionals also cited an increased risk of potential cardiac, renal, bone and liver abnormalities.
Because the overwhelming majority of these vital vitamins and minerals, which are responsible for tasks like boosting your immune system and increasing your hair strength (and everything in between), are derived from the one food group they’ve been told to avoid.
In a last ditch attempt to save face, they’ll tell you to add a multivitamin to your diet. But, yet again, science is not on their side here. Studies show that multivitamins and minerals obtained through whole foods will perform better than those obtained in supplement form. This is particularly notable in the case of calcium. (8)
I’m not saying a multivitamin is bad here, by the way. It’s a great way to pick up on the micronutrients and minerals you miss on a daily basis via your diet (very hard to catch ’em all).
I’m saying that using a multivitamin as your sole provider of vitamins and minerals is a fucking reckless decision.
- Carbohydrates support training
I believe this represents the main reason “experts” tell people to disregard exercise and focus on losing weight through diet alone.
It takes shine off their “system”.
Because if you’ve ever trained without carbohydrates, you’ll know that the human body absolutely hates it.
It hates it more than it hates the guy at the gym who wears a weightlifting belt during every exercise.
Carbohydrates support hard-ass training sessions in the gym, and if your goal is to build lean muscle or improve your strength then you’d better be supplying your muscles with an ample supply.
- Back it up, bro
I don’t know about your gym, but in my gym, everyone who perpetrates the myth that carbohydrates are bad for you also demonstrates the fact that they have 10 inch arms and the look of a zombie after a five year hunger strike.
Take a look around any of the world’s most popular low carb diet gurus, and you’ll see the trend continues.
I’ve always found that a great way to tell if a system works is to look at those who push it.
If they all display the same qualities of looking like shit, chances are you shouldn’t be going down the same path.
Athletes from Jessica Ennis-Hill, to Usain Bolt, to Anthony Joshua eat high carbohydrate diets because carbs support hard training.
If you are heading to the gym and finding that you cannot commit to your session because your tank is emptier than MC Hammer’s trust fund, it’s time to revamp your diet and get out of the low carb diet bullshit parade.
If I was a dinosaur, I’d be a Carbivore.
One of my favourite hobbies is to go driving in my Carb.
My preferred Boy George track is Carba-Carba-Carba-Carba-Carba Chameleon.
Okay, I’ll stop there.
Look, carbohydrates may not be an essential macronutrient for survival (meaning the body can, if pushed, obtain the necessary glycogen via protein), but they are important for anyone who trains with weights. They will fuel your sessions and enable you to lift bigger loads, which is great.
So removing carbohydrates from your diet completely should be off the menu.
As far as low carb diets go (i.e. lowering carbs but not altogether removing them), they can yield good results but, as explained above, the majority of the weight being lost is water and I resent the idea that carbohydrates are often unfairly tagged as the fat storing macronutrient. They most certainly are not.
But the main reason I don’t recommend using low carb diets in the long-term is because the key ingredient in any diet is sustainability.
You see, the majority of people who regain weight after a diet do so because they were unable to maintain the lifestyle they suffered through with their diet plan.
Simply put, you cannot be expected to stay on a low carb diet forever.
And when we do fall off the wagon, so to speak, we tend to go overboard indulging in foods we have placed on some kind of ‘naughty list’ for however long, creating a very large calorie surplus and causing rapid weight regain. Not to mention that immediate regain of any water weight which was lost throughout carbohydrate depletion.
If you want to create a calorie deficit by lowering your carbohydrates so that you can maintain high levels of protein and fat, I recommend using traditional carb cycling instead of chopping them from your diet altogether.
Carb cycling would see you lower your carb intake (not cut out, just lower) a few days per week (preferably on non-training days), allowing you to benefit from a calorie deficit while maintaining your protein and fat, and never dropping your carbs significantly enough to suffer from it.
Another popular approach to carb cycling is to basically do the same thing only to split it over a six or seven week period instead, like this:
- Weeks 1-3 @ your current carbohydrate intake
- Weeks 4-5 remove 25% from your carb target
- Weeks 6-7 remove a further 25% from your target
- Then reverse back out the way you came in
Again, this allows you to benefit from the calorie deficit created by consuming fewer calories while staying on top of your protein and fat, but by ensuring you are only really “low carbs” for around 2 weeks, the idea is that you can “get in and get out” before you succumb to any of the negatives associated with low carb diets listed above.
That’s how my clients do it, and those two approaches allow them to keep their daily carbohydrate target set very high throughout the year, fueling insane workout after insane workout.
That’s my take.
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- Paddon-Jones, D., et al. Protein, weight management, and satiety. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 May;87(5):1558S-1561S.
- Hermsdorff, H. H., et al. [Macronutrient profile affects diet-induced thermogenesis and energy intake]. Arch Latinoam Nutr. 2007 Mar;57(1):33-42.
- Bravata, D. M., et al. Efficacy and safety of low-carbohydrate diets: a systematic review. JAMA. 2003 Apr 9;289(14):1837-50.
- Smith, C. F., et al. Flexible vs. Rigid dieting strategies: relationship with adverse behavioral outcomes. Appetite. 1999 Jun;32(3):295-305.
- Stewart, T. M., et al. Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women. Appetite. 2002 Feb;38(1):39-44.
- Amati, F., et al. Separate and combined effects of exercise training and weight loss on exercise efficiency and substrate oxidation. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2008 Sep;105(3):825-31. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.90384.2008. Epub 2008 Jul 10.
- St. Jeor, S. T., et al. Dietary protein and weight reduction: a statement for healthcare professionals from the Nutrition Committee of the Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Metabolism of the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2001 Oct 9;104(15):1869-74.
- Washington University School of Medicine. Dietary Calcium Is Better Than Supplements At Protecting Bone Health. ScienceDaily. 15 June 2007.
- Haff, G. G., et al. Carbohydrate supplementation and resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2003 Feb;17(1):187-96.
- Macdermid, P. W., et al. A whey-supplemented, high-protein diet versus a high-carbohydrate diet: effects on endurance cycling performance. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2006 Feb;16(1):65-77.
- Christensen, D. L., et al. Food and macronutrient intake of male adolescent Kalenjin runners in Kenya. Br J Nutr. 2002 Dec;88(6):711-7.
- Keith, R. E., et al. Alterations in dietary carbohydrate, protein, and fat intake and mood state in trained female cyclists. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1991 Feb;23(2):212-6.