“How can a woman keep a healthy amount of carbs in her diet while also staying lean?” I realize that it’s all very confusing at this point, because there’s been a lot of buzz over the past few years surrounding fat loss on a ketogenic/low carb diet. There are certainly a lot of women who’ve made dramatic transformations by cutting carbs, but the results may have come at a cost to energy levels.
If this doesn’t apply to you, you probably can’t relate, but for a few of the ladies out there, a bell just went off in their heads. Another group of relatively lean ladies have taken a less restrictive approach to eating, and most are quite happy with their body composition.
Exercise Differences Between Men and Women
Aside from the obvious differences, men and women are biologically quite different and respond differently to exercise in a few important ways. For instance, women burn fat more easily than men do while exercising; due to a significantly decreased oxidative work capacity, women have been shown to use up glycogen more slowly than men do. They rely upon alternate pathways to supply energy to the muscle cells during intense activity.
So if women burn more fat while exercising, why are some of them struggling to rid themselves of what they consider to be “excess body fat?” Although it has something to do with neurotransmitters and adrenergic receptors in adipose tissue, we’ll just say that each person stores and mobilizes fat differently; it’s dependent upon so many factors that it would take an entire book to adequately explain.
Once again, this is a complicated question that is largely individual, but I have and will continue to argue that there is a process of analysis that must occur. In the long run, the results are enlightening and will lead to important discoveries about your unique metabolism.
That Seems Like a Lot of Carbs…
On our blog, you’ll find many testimonies from women who Eat to Perform. Each of these women has formulated a conscious approach to carbohydrate intake that works for them.
Once you hear from them, you’ll agree that the contrasts between these various athletes are eye-opening. All of them do some version of what I describe in this article, adjusted for their activity level, at various times. Some do it by feel, some count calories and some carb cycle BUT every single one of them agrees that a high-functioning metabolism involves some amount of carbohydrates.
Adjusting for Women
Adding carbs can be intimidating. Most people think of carb loading in terms of ice cream or binge eating once in a while. This rubs people the wrong way sometimes, because it doesn’t jive with what they consider a basic tenant of human nutrition; it seems insane (and unhealthy) to suggest that eating baked goods and pizza could help you lose fat.
When I started this site, I wanted to start women down the path of thinking more openly as far as carbohydrates are concerned. That started a discussion and here we are with almost 750,000 people participating (it will probably be more if you read this down the road). That discussion led to experiments for a lot of people and better performance while eating moderate carbohydrates. I think I can safely say that women trying to lose fat might do well to try something out of their comfort zone and add some carbs/starches to their meal plans.
This Is a “Non-Standard” Recommendation
It’s important that everyone understand that no recommendation works for everyone. You have to take the reins, but this is a safe spot for most active women to start. I just posted an article with a link and explanation of how to calculate your energy requirements based upon your activity level. It’s very informative so you should give it a quick read. In the articles coming up you will see examples of women using vastly different approaches as it relates to carb strategies that all make sense. We’ll go over this more during the seminars as well, so don’t sweat it if these numbers don’t work for you.
- For our example, we’ll use a woman in her mid-twenties, 5’4”, 125lbs who trains a 3 times a week.
- We’ll start her on 125g of protein a day. This is 1g/lb. of bodyweight.
- 75g of carbs pre-workout and 125g of carbs post-workout for a total of 200g of carbs. If you train in the morning, you’ll load carbs the night before.
- 75g of fat. This will provide the bulk of your energy throughout the day and turn you into a veritable furnace of fat burning.
Starch Sources in Your Meals
Part of the problem with very active women following a Paleo-esque diet is that they struggle to find energy dense sources that come from mostly whole unprocessed foods. Fibrous vegetables don’t count; eat as much of them as you want throughout the day but leave them out of your “periworkout” meals. (Periworkout is “around training.”) Too much fiber however can harm your body composition goals so don’t over do it.
While they may be packed with vitamins and minerals, fibrous veggies will fill you up and you may have a tendency to under eat when it comes time to “slam the carbs”. This is one of the reasons I recommend having dessert (ideally, the day before a morning workout). My coconut milk smoothies are a great choice; I have also seen women get very favorable results adding dark chocolate and wine into the mix (as long as it’s in moderation).
As far as more traditional options go, we’ll keep this simple: sweet potatoes, squash (kabocha squash pictured above) are great carbohydrate sources. If you’re open-minded, you could occasionally try some white rice too. Starches are important, as they provide a quick source of glucose to spur muscle growth and trigger the hormonal cascade responsible for fat burning. I think you’ll get a great response from these. Finally, variety is the spice of life, so try different things and don’t be afraid to have a cinnamon roll to prepare for a particularly brutal WOD.
Workout Days Followed by Rest Days
Because men burn through sugar like there’s no tomorrow, they can get away with loading more carbs. Women have things a little harder due to their decreased usage of glycogen as fuel during exercise. This isn’t a big deal, but If your goal is to look leaner, I would suggest reducing your post-workout carbohydrate intake on your days, while simultaneously increasing your fat intake. Don’t cut calories as long as you staying weight stable! It may seem like it contradicts the entire ideology of carb loading, but by eating relatively low carb after training, you will ensure a glycogen debt and maximize fat burning hormones.
Using the example from above, stay with 125g protein, drop to 100g of carbs and add roughly 25g of fat (preferably from grass fed and pastured animals) to make up for the loss of calories incurred by lowering carbohydrate intake. That would shift your macros to 125p/100f/100c. Once again if you are finding the scale creeping up there probably is no need for the added fat.
These are just my thoughts; you can play with this many different ways. My goal is to convey a more clear understanding that a reckless approach is unnecessary; you don’t need to eat turnovers and pizza to load carbs. You can STILL eat Paleo! I hope this helps a bit in clarifying that. As always, these are guidelines and not rules.
- Men and women utilize carbohydrate differently. Women are, in general, better at burning fat than men so they need fewer carbohydrates in their nutrition plans.
- Ketogenic/low carb diets can cause fast weight loss but they are rarely ideal for optimal performance.
- While it may not be extremely common, some women suffer some unfortunate side effects when they get really lean and/or deprive their bodies of carbohydrates. For this reason, it’s better to adopt a less restrictive approach to carbs.
- Women should strive to hit their protein goals first, and then focus on carbs and fat; in general, women seem to do well on 150-200g of carbs on training days.
- Rest days can be modified to include more fat and less carbs; 75-100g of fat may be appropriate. (this is person and goal dependent)
- As with most things, experimenting with more or less carbs will help you arrive at a balance that works for you and allows you to look and perform the way you want to.
- You don’t need to eat pizza and turnovers to carb load; go for starches like potatoes and rice, and be sure to include some vegetables. Coconut milk smoothies are also a great option.