If you have ever come from an over-fed background and then experimented with Atkins or carb cycling, you’ll notice a few things right from the start. First, and most importantly, you start going to the bathroom a lot. Your “low carb solution” is basically choosing fats and protein over carbs. In the beginning, this appears to be a miracle. Your stomach is flatter and you APPEAR leaner. You aren’t actually leaner, though, and here’s why.
Over your stomach is a layer of fat, but the amount of food in your stomach and the TYPE of food in your stomach matters. For instance, carbohydrates require water to process (carbo-“hydrate”), and that water will often make you appear bloated. Water is not fat, and neither is most of the food expanding your stomach. So your fat level did not change, but the type and amount of food did.
All food is not created equal. For instance, it is often noted that fat and fiber blunt insulin. This is true, but it doesn’t necessarily address fat loss. Make no mistake about it – dietary fat can be stored as fat, and does so more easily than carbohydrates.
Yeah, yeah, but what does that have to do with how my jeans fit? Since fat doesn’t require as much water to process and, due to its energy density, doesn’t take up as much volume in your stomach, your belly doesn’t expand as much. This is good and bad – I’ll explain how you can use it to your advantage in a bit. Having a belly full of starch-rich foods can be beneficial, for a number of reasons.
First, starches are the plant world’s gift to us. It’s where they store their energy. When we eat that energy, we can use it to fill our glycogen stores and aid in muscle protein turnover. That process works better in the presence of insulin, so eating carbs is going to give you an advantage here over eating fats.
Insulin gets a bad rap from pseudo-scientists and faux-doctors on the internet. In their ideal world, you could just eat fats and proteins, keep insulin low, and you’d get to your optimal body composition quickly and easily. If it was that easy, everyone who has tried a low-carb diet would be lean, and frankly they aren’t.[Low-carbers: If you don’t read to the end, where I talk about how to use lower-carb days to process inflammation, I’m going to delete your comments on principle.]
The simple fact of the matter is that low-carb diets pull water out of your body, crush your energy, and frankly they are unnecessary for optimal body composition.
So you’re saying my jeans will fit better on low carb.
Well, yes and no. The problem with low carb is that the energy plants give us freely translates to more work capacity when consumed in appropriate amounts. Here’s an example. You go out and have a steak, mashed potatoes, and chocolate cake for dessert. On the way home you feel like the top button on your jeans is about to fly through the windshield. I’m going to argue this is a good thing, and here’s why.
Assuming you are working out and you take a balanced approach to fitness, you are doing some combination of calorie burn and muscle breakdown. The goal is to eat enough (and potentially even more) to build leaner, stronger tissue.
For example, if the area you were building was your quads or glutes, this might affect those areas positively over time, or at least that’s the goal. So that uncomfortable feeling in the evening translates to a more recovered and (almost like magic) much leaner you in the morning. The jeans that were uncomfortable the night before are now falling off your waist in the morning. Over time, your jeans WILL get tight again, but not in the waist, in the quads and glutes from muscle growth.
When people tell me they want to build muscle and lose fat, I often say, “Pick one”. The problem is they nearly always pick “lose fat”, and because of that, they essentially keep the same body fat percentage. At some point, the body simply adjusts. The solution is to avoid dieting most of the time, be okay with your jeans fitting a little tight in the evenings, and eat toward your level of activity most of the time.
Okay, low-carbers, here’s where I throw you a bone
First, let me say that your level of activity determines how many grams of carbs you need. For me, 250g of carbs is very low, because even on days when I’m not training, my body is still trying to recover and I’m getting an additional “draw” from the day I worked out. If you are under-eating, cutting, or low-carbing a lot and haven’t PR’d in a while, you know what I’m talking about. I’ll also say (because someone always brings it up) that things like low-paced cardio from walking, hiking, or even jogging aren’t highly glycolytic activities, so you may be able to get away with fewer carbs on that day.
That said, compare an activity like Crossfit with running. Crossfit is highly demanding on your glycogen, and might use more than 75% for 15 minutes or so. But if you ran 15 miles, or you were new to running and your heart rate is high, you may burn more glycogen running than doing Crossfit, even though the burn rate for running is much lower (more like 15%).
One answer may be to keep your carbs lower as a strategy on the days you are resting. Like I said, this is highly individual, and you want to be mindful of the activity you did the day before. If you ran a marathon yesterday, don’t be surprised if your body is craving more carbs and more energy overall. I tend to crave things like salted almonds and potato chips on the day after a long run.
Some level of carb cycling also allows your body to process the water from your higher-carb days, and can help you keep your weight in check. Clearly, we aren’t “all carbs all the time”, nor are we “all fats all the time”. We believe some level of balance and personal experimentation is always beneficial.
What if my jeans fit tight in the morning?
At some point, you will out-eat your metabolism. I think the biggest problem people have in this regard is honesty. In a lot of cases, if you are still carrying water and your pants are tight in the morning, you know why. Life is meant to be lived, so if your best friend is in town and you decide to have pasta and wine, you might wake up a little bloated. Here’s how you fix that: You either do some work to use that energy, or you go a bit lower-carb that day to deal with the extra water weight.
But make no mistake about it, if your jeans always fit great, you probably aren’t improving. You aren’t recovering appropriately, and that’s a big part of what it takes to reach your optimal body composition. So unbutton that top button with pride. Besides, if you don’t, you might put an eye out when that thing flies through the air at top speed 🙂
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