Note: This column isn’t intended for the average sedentary person. The recommendations below are for individuals who are already active and have a fairly good diet. Much like a newbie lifter shouldn’t start with Olympic lifts on their first trip to the gym, the average person shouldn’t go from the typical North-American diet to a low-carb diet overnight. Starting is often the hardest part, but this guide can help!
The other day I was at the gym when the guy in the squat rack next to me asked for a spot. He was a tall, lean man in his late 20s. He had over 300 pounds on the bar. I’d seen him at the gym before and although he wasn’t one of the meatsticks loading up the bar with far too much weight and completing only quarter-squats, I was worried about the weight that was about to be on his back. Sure enough, he informed me that he was going for a 1-rep max, and sure enough, I had to catch him and pull him up to finish the rep.
Slumped over and gasping for air after racking the bar, he looked up and said “Carbs man, carbs.” After seeing the inquisitive look on my face he continued, “ I haven’t had any carbs in 2 weeks; I used to be able to do so much more than this, but hey, I’ve lost 20 pounds.” “Fair enough…” I replied, “But you might want to consider adding some carbs back in if you want to keep lifting heavy.”
“I don’t know man, it works, it works.”
This exchange is what prompted me to write a little piece on how to responsibly manipulate carbs for fat loss. For most, limiting carbs in the diet can be a very effective strategy for fat loss. Controlling carbs helps you control the hormone insulin, effectively shifting the body into fat-burning mode. But as with most things in life, going to the extreme is often a poor choice. Carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for the human body, and are critical for the growth and development of the brain and muscles. If used for a long period of time, extreme low-carb diets will lead to a decrease in both mental and physical performance, and can actually reduce metabolic rate and negatively affect reproductive hormones. For this reason, low-carb diets should not be used for longer than 3-4 months and are not recommended for athletes or, for example, gym goers like my friend above who enjoy lifting heavy weights.
It’s also important to point out that you should gradually ease-in to a low-carb diet. If you cut out all your carbs and dramatically slash your calorie content overnight, where will you have left to go once your body plateaus? Going on crash diets is not only ineffective, but can cause serious hormonal disturbances in the human body. According to a recent study, participants that took part in a 10-week super low-calorie diet (500-550 kcal/day) experienced a decrease in all hormones associated with satiety- and these hormones were still low a full year after the diet. So although these people lost weight on the diet, they regained a lot of weight in the following year as their hormones were telling them to eat more than they needed. That yo-yo diet thing? Yep, it’s a real thing. Crash diets do not work.
So how can you manipulate carbs for fat loss in a responsible and sustainable manner? Follow this recipe:
Step 1: Be honest with yourself and figure out how many carbs and calories you typically consume on a daily/weekly basis. Again, you must be honest, or you’re setting yourself up to failure. Remember, if you’re considering a strategy to lose weight, you’re doing something great for yourself, so don’t be embarrassed about your starting point- the finish line is far more important.
Step 2: Determine the number of calories you should be consuming based on your body weight. The goal will be to eventually get carbs down to the 10-15% range. At this range, here are the total calories you should be shooting for based on bodyweight:
100 lbs: 900-1100 kcal
150 lbs: 1350-1650 kcal
200 lbs: 1800-2200 kcal
250 lbs: 2250-2750 kcal
300 lbs: 2700-3300 kcal
Step 3: Decrease your carbs by 5-10% each week until carbs make up just 10-15% of your total caloric intake. This will also mean that you will need to keep a close eye on your other macronutrients and should be consuming adequate amounts of calories, protein and fat. Again, we’re not looking to dramatically cut calories from the get-go. We want our fat and protein content to remain adequate and constant while simply decreasing carbs and associated calories. By the time your carb content reaches 15%, fat should make up about 50% of your calories and protein should be near 40%. With protein, a good rule of thumb is to consume upwards of 1g per pound of body weight, with fats and carbs falling in line after this.
So, for example, once a 200lb man cuts his carbs to 10-15%, his daily macronutrient breakdown will be something like:
~2000 kcal, ~200g protein, ~55g carbohydrate, ~110g fat
Divide these numbers up into the number of meals you choose to have in a day, and you have your plan! Once you have everything in place, you can concentrate on trying to get the majority of your carbs from vegetables sources like broccoli, beans, cauliflower, asparagus, peppers, carrots and tomatoes.
After you’ve been at this point for a while (3-4 months max), you can then employ a carb-cycling strategy to bust through difficult plateaus. What this means is that you’ll have a base low-carb diet, but will have moderate to large carbohydrate “refeeds” from time to time, refilling glycogen stores and keeping the body guessing. Carb-cycling is a very effective tool as it will trick the body into continuing to enable fat loss while preventing the body from going into fat-retaining survival mode. There are 3 main strategies:
1) Infrequent, big refeeds
This is a good strategy for those with great discipline. The idea is to eat a strict low-carb diet for either 6 or 13 days, followed by a significantly large carbohydrate reefed on day 7 or 14. If you have the discipline, this is the most enjoyable strategy, as you’ll get to eat 3-3.5 times the carbs on refeed day, and you’ll be encouraged to eat some lower-quality foods that you wouldn’t normally eat (Hello pizza! Chocolate! SUGAR!). The rules are simple: don’t cheat on your diet until refeed day, exercise before eating on binge day, and then refeed with foods you love.
2) Frequent, moderate refeeds
This is the best strategy for those whose mental tolerance is a bit lower and cannot handle going a full week or two without additional carbs. The idea here is to eat a strict low-carb diet for 3-4 days, followed by 1 day with a moderately higher carbohydrate intake (about 1.5-2x the normal low-carb intake). Although this plan may be easier to follow, it is recommended that the additional carbs on the refeed day remain high quality, low-glycemic carbs: whole grains, fruits, beans/legumes, etc. The goal is to simply get more high-quality food on refeed day.
3) Menu plan cycling
This is a simple yet fairly demanding strategy built for rapid fat loss and avoiding plateaus. The idea is to create 3 or 4 different daily menu plans: A baseline very low-carb day, a higher carb day, and higher carb and calorie day and a higher calorie day. Using the example above, here is what the 4 meal plans could look like for a 200lb man:
Menu 1: ~2000 kcal, ~200g protein, ~55g carbohydrate, ~110g fat
Menu 2: ~2350 kcal, ~200g protein, ~140g carbohydrate, ~110g fat
Meun 3: ~2700 kcal, ~200g protein, ~200g carbohydrate, ~145g fat
Menu 4: ~2700 kcal, ~200g protein, ~55g carbohydrate, ~185g fat
Here’s how the menus could be distributed during the week:
Mon: Menu 1 – Tues : Menu 1 – Wed: Menu 4 – Thurs: Menu 2 – Fri: Menu 1 – Sat: Menu 1 – Sun: Menu 3
You’ll notice that the majority of the week is still low-carb (5 of 7 days), but the manipulation of the other macronutrients will ensure that metabolic rate stays high. The more fat loss is required, the more low-calorie days you’ll want (use days 3 and 4 sparingly). The menus should also be structured around workouts, with the higher calorie and carb menus coming on days with the most intense exercise. This strategy takes some planning, but it can be extremely effective.
In the end, it is important to understand that carbs are important for fat loss, but that you have to be smart about how you manipulate them. Set a plan that suits your lifestyle and you’ll be on the road to success. At the very least, if you cut out all your carbs, just make sure to reduce the weight that you use to squat at the gym; Goodlife doesn’t need the lawsuit.
For more information on fat loss or carb cycling, you know how to find me!