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Thoughts on Weight-loss
The Carb Question
Pre Race Nutrition
THE CARB QUESTION
some myths about low carb diets.
By Mark Allen of
tough to find a person who has not heard about the miraculous weight loss
secrets of a low carb diet. From the Atkins Diet to the South Beach Diet,
everyone seems to be going low carb. And for most, the results seem to be a
success - at least the ones we hear from. Even medical research seems to be
supporting some of the claims of low carb followers that this type of diet,
which ends up being a rather high protein and fat diet initially, reduces a
lot of the markers of heart disease such as improving blood lipid profiles
and reducing triglycerides.
But not everyone is torching the
potatoes in the pantry. In fact, some research indicates that a low carb
diet can actually cause some negative responses in the body similar to that
found in a person who is under constant long-term stress. And for an
athlete, especially someone who is training for any kind of endurance event,
the effects of a low carb diet leaves him or her feeling sluggish and unable
to recover or perform at any level that would be considered optimal.
Letís look a little deeper into what is going on in the body to find out
what gives the health improvements people are after. At the same time, letís
look at what might be behind some of the negatives showing up in athletes
who do not have a good enough base of health to undertake such a regime.
The Weight Loss
There are three reasons why a low
carb diet results in weight loss. The first is a chemical reason.
Carbohydrate is stored in the body along with water molecules. (This
is one reason why carbohydrate loading, a process where one cuts out carbs
completely for three days, then super loads them for three more, can have
such a positive effect on endurance performance. Not only does it cause an
athlete to store up more of this precious workout fuel, but in addition to
carbs, the athlete will store up additional water molecules that get
released when the carbs are broken down.
As far the low carb diets
go, they all have an induction phase in common during which all but the
lowest glycemic carbohydrates like vegetables are cut out. The reason for
this initial period is purported to be to help reset the person's metabolism
to start burning fat. But on the motivational level, people will lose a lot
of weight very quickly in these initial weeks simply because they are
burning up the stored carbohydrates, which then releases stored water into
the system. This water is either used by the body or excreted. In either
case, the end result is a big initial drop in weight purely from water loss.
In fact if you are losing more than about 1.5 pounds per week, it is either
because of the water loss due to carb restriction or it is because you are
starving your body with too few calories, in which case you are losing both
fat and lean muscle, which is absolutely not good for long terms health.
After this initial phase, small amounts of carbs are added in until a
person finds they plateau in weight, at which point they must drop back down
on the carbs once again until weight loss continues. The "low carb" that the
diets recommend for people after they reach their goal weight is in
actuality a balanced carb approach. But most people need to restrict
something in their diet to get down to their goal weight, and the easiest
and perhaps most effective culprit to cut out is indeed the carb.
This is an oversimplification of the process, but essentially it describes
the plan. The cutback in carbs is supposed to increase metabolism away from
carb burning and to stimulate fat burning. We know the reverse happens in a
high carb diet. Excess carbs cause an insulin spike, which indeed does turn
off fat burning. Excess carbs shut off fat burning and cause sugars to be
stored. This means that the only way to get blood glucose levels back up
once insulin has done its job is to eat more carb. This is the vicious sugar
cycle of craving that causes a person on a high carb diet to always feel
hungry and to overeat.
Excess carbohydrates in a person's diet get
stored in the liver and muscle as glycogen. They also get converted into fat
for deposit at the unsightly places on a person's body. This of course is
one thing that the low carb diet will correct. A low carb diet will shift
the metabolism back toward fat burning, which in theory will reduce body
fat. Keep in mind that by restricting carbohydrate intake, most people end
up reducing their overall daily calorie intake. So while these diets do
indeed increase fat burning, a lot of the weight loss is due to a simple
reduction in overall calorie intake.
Protein on the other hand helps
increase fat burning and helps stabilize blood sugar levels, which reduces
food cravings. Fat has the effect of turning off the part of the brain that
tells you that you are hungry. So eating a higher amount of protein and fat
in one's diet will naturally shut down the food craving cycle that carbs can
set up, with the result of helping a person cut back on their overall daily
So you can see that a low carb diet works to both
decrease your feeling of needing more food and helps shift your metabolism
toward fat burning rather than shutting it off like a high carb diet will.
Not All Bodies are Created Equal
This is good in
theoretical terms for weight loss. However, there are some problems that we
can see if we dig a little deeper into the low carb physiology. The first is
what happens in your body when you put it under a restricted carbohydrate
intake. This is not a normal state, and your body perceives it as a stress.
This causes the release of one of the major stress handling hormones called
Cortisol. The release of Cortisol is normal and fine if you are not under
other stresses already.
However, if you have been under prolonged
stress either emotional or chemical (like a high carb diet will cause),
Cortisol is already present and adding the low carb stress will increase
this even further. Some of the things that happen under high Cortisol levels
at this level are that fat burning is turned off, carb burning is increased,
emotional distress is increased, and a general increased perception of life
as a stressful situation ensues. This causes even more stress in the body
and even more Cortisol to be released, which keeps you in the stressed state
where among other things fat burning is turned off. None of this helps give
you what you need to stick with a restricted diet, even for a short time,
and it is not healthy for your body.
If you feel you have been under
a lot of stress for a long period of time or if you also know you have
overdone your carb intake, a less stressful and more effective way to get
down to a healthy carb level is to cut back gradually over several weeks
instead of the cold turkey approach of most low carb diets.
problem with a low carb diet has to do with what an athlete needs for
working out. Basically, low carb does not cut it. Carbohydrate is needed for
energy, both for high-end efforts and for aerobic fat burning efforts.
Without sufficient stored carbohydrates in the muscles and liver, when you
go to work out, you will not have it to draw on and your body will go once
again into a stressed state releasing Cortisol, which as was stated is a
negative over the long haul. So while a low carb diet might work for a
sedentary individual, if you are a regular at the club or on the trails, you
would be better served to make sure you get at least enough carbs to get
through your workouts at a high level.
The way a carb is stored is
also important for an athlete to consider. A little insulin is required to
store carbohydrate. If you have depleted your carb stores with a long
workout or through a low carb diet, you will need to get a carbohydrate back
in if you want your next workout to go well. It has been shown that very
complexed carbohydrates often cannot get this job done because they do not
cause enough of an insulin release to store sufficient amounts of carb to
fuel your next training session. It is therefore actually beneficial to get
a moderate insulin response through the food you take in, especially just
after the workout, to be able to replenish for the next one. This is not to
say that it's time to go chow down on a piece of cake and get an insulin
spike. An insulin spike is very different than an insulin response. But it
is saying that eating a few vegetables probably will not get you ready for a
great workout the following day.
Does Normal Carb Work?
You may be wondering if it is possible to lose weight, workout great,
and eat a normal carb diet. The answer is absolutely yes. The real quest is
to make sure that the amount of calories you eat each day is roughly equal
to the amount that you burn throughout the day. And if losing weight along
with a great workout is your goal, a reduction from that level of about 500
calories per day will do the trick over time. Of course, it is important to
get a good balance of carb, fat and protein. But even a low carb diet that
is too high in overall calories will cause weight gain.
is true, and we can look around the world to see it. In India, the average
person's protein intake is only about 15% of their total daily calories.
However, obesity is hardly a problem. The reason is that most of the carbs
are in a good form that do not cause an insulin spike (lentils and rice is
one example). Their total daily calorie intake is low, yet many also have
very physical lives. And the reason that even with a relatively high
percentage of their total calories coming from carbohydrates that there in
not a weight issue is because the overall food intake is in line with the
caloric expenditure throughout the day.
Let me put this all
together in a few points for you:
low carb diet (high protein and fat) will help to stabilize blood sugar and
reduce carb cravings and frequent feelings of being hungry.
- A low
carb diet helps an individual restrict calories better than cutting back on
either fat or protein alone, which results in weight loss.
often feel energy because they are not being stuck in the blood sugar swings
of a high carb diet.
- If you are under
stress, a low carb diet will cause more stress and further destabilize your
- If you are an athlete, a low carb diet will
not provide you with enough stored fuel calories in the form of glycogen to
workout efficiently. It will also put you in a stress state if you are not
getting enough carbs to cover your energy expenditure during exercise.
What You Can Do:
- If weight loss is an issue and you cannot
structure a way of eating that reduces your overall caloric intake, then a low
carb diet is worth trying.
- If you have not tried to cut back on intake
before, it is better to start with an overall assessment of your diet. If you
eat a high amount of simple carbs, you might find that exchanging these for more
complexed forms of carbohydrate will be enough to get you the results you are
after without the structure (and risk of body stress) of a low carb diet.
- If you are an athlete who watches what they eat but still cannot lose
weight, look at the way you do your workouts. Too much anaerobic (speed)
training will shut off your fat burning mechanisms and it will be very difficult
to lose the weight you are after even if you are on a low carb diet. First try
reducing your workout intensity for several months and
use a heart rate
monitor to regulate your effort instead of your ego. This will help increase fat
burning and change overall composition in your favor.
- One is the Weight Watchers program that has been around for years and
provided a simple way for people to easily cut back on calories, but still
maintain the percentage of carb, fat and protein that will work for them.
- Another is a book called The Schwarzbein Principle II, The Transition.
This addresses the differences in people's stress levels and helps them adjust
the transition from high carb out of balance diet to one that is a moderate carb
in balance way of eating.
Best of luck with your training and your diet!
Mark Allen is the six-time winner of the Ironman World Championship in
Hawaii. He uses these incredible stories of his journey to the top of the
toughest one-day sporting event in the world as the backdrop for speeches he
gives to companies worldwide. For further information about Mark's speaking
availability, please call 1-800-994-5306.
Based in Santa Cruz, California, Mark has a state of the art online
triathlon training program at www.markallenonline.com. On this site you can
receive fully customized training programs that last twelve to twenty weeks.
Each training schedule is based on your fitness history, age and racing
In addition to the online program, Mark co-teaches a workshop titled Fit
Body Fit Soul with Brant Secunda who is a shaman, healer, and ceremonial
leader in the Huichol Indian tradition. In this unique workshop the themes
of Sport and Spirit are explored and integrated together to give people a
blueprint for fitness on all levels and for the healing of body, heart, and
For more information on the next Fit Body Fit Soul seminar please call:
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