You’d think in the 21st Century what “healthy eating looks like” would be non-controversial. Not so. One major example of this: controversy and confusion around carbs.
Some fitness gurus swear by a low-carb approach, while some nutritionists and doctors see major downsides from dramatic carb reduction.
I urge you to chart a smart middle course, brother. Don’t go dramatically low-carb, but do keep your carb intake moderate and high-quality.
Issues with a Very Low Carb Approach
Before you heavily restrict carbs, please consider that carbohydrates:
⇒ Are the quickest energy source your body can store and access (endurance athletes, we need this).
⇒ Keep our bodies from breaking down protein and muscle for energy (this doesn’t sound good, does it?).
⇒ Help oxidize fat efficiently. The American College for Sports Medicine says “fats burn in a carbohydrate flame.”
⇒ Are needed for healthy brain function (nutritionists say at least 130 grams daily – much more than extreme low-card diets prescribe).
I experienced some of this personally, a few years ago. When I switched from a post-workout drink that was a protein/carb blend to one that was almost all protein, I started to feel low-energy with “sluggish” legs.
No wonder: I wasn’t replacing the glycogen my muscles were burning as fuel. Over time, I got worn down. When I switched back to a more balanced recovery drink (and also made sure to eat a moderate amount of high-quality carbs), I felt better quickly.
And my experience was just a subset of the challenges.
Here’s a list of low-carb “side effects,” per a popular bodybuilding website: brain fog, induction flu (lethargy), increased irritability, decreased strength and endurance, constipation, dehydration, weird smells and tastes, and feelings of depression.
Are Low Carb “Side Effects” Worth It?
So why do so many people advocate low-carb?
Well, it IS a way many guys can lose weight and fat pretty quickly. And proponents say you can “push through” side effects and retrain your body to oxidize fat instead of carbohydrates or protein.
In this view, forcing this change may demand going even lower into near-zero carb territory. The “ketogenic” diet that’s out there now is an example of this thinking. It calls for limiting total daily carb intake to 30 grams, an amount equivalent to a single banana.
There’s controversy over whether such an extreme approach is healthy and sustainable.
But even if you could follow an extreme-low-carb approach over the long term, man, I gotta ask:
If you’re a 40, 50 or 60+ year-old OlderBeast seeking a rest-of-your-life approach…do you want to live this way? I don’t. And I think for most of us, there’s a less risky and MUCH easier-to-live-with alternative.
The Other Side: Issues with Not Managing Carbs
To be clear, and fair to low-carb advocates, let’s acknowlege: there are big downsides from not watching type and quantity of carbs.
1. The most-commonly-consumed types of carbs are bad for you: Refined sugars and white flour are everywhere in “modern” commercial food products.
These foods are often empty calories, can cause blood sugar spikes and crashes, and at high levels can lead to diabetes. Also, they’re usually low in fiber, and so they lack its heart health and digestive regularity benefits. “High carb and low fiber” is a bad place for a food to be!
In reality, one of the major benefits of going “low carb” is simply the avoidance of bad carbs.
2. Eating bad-carb foods often “crowds out” eating enough protein and good fats. You’ll miss their inherent nutrition benefits, including muscle mass maintenance, heart health, and reducing internal inflammation.
But also, fats and proteins help you feel full. Without them, you feel hungry again sooner, possibly eating more bad carbs in a vicious cycle.
3. Even if you stick to good carbs, it’s easy to overdo. For example, it’s not at all hard to eat 300 calories of bread in a single meal (e.g., bread-based breakfast things, sandwiches on big rolls, bread alongside a dinner). If you did that at each meal, that’s 900 calories, i.e. about 30-40% of your weight-neutral daily calorie intake, from bread alone!
Recommendation: “Smart and Moderate” Carb Approach
With neither extreme being something I choose to live with, here’s what I suggest.
Do not go very-low-carb. I’m not saying it doesn’t work for some guys who are dedicated and willing to fight through things. I’m just saying that if you’re not trying to be Mr. Universe, dude, it’s likely not best.
Focus on high-quality carbs. Seek a high batting average for avoiding added sugars and white flour. Eat a mix of these good, nutritious carb sources: whole grains, oats, whole fruits, legumes such as beans, and nuts. By the way, these foods all have additional health benefits, man.
Still control quantity of carb-heavy foods. Eat smaller servings and/or skip them altogether occasionally. Intentionally eating more protein and good fats helps, to fill you up and postpone your next hunger occasion.
After endurance training, replenish carbohydrates within 60 minutes of a workout (even better, within 30). Post-workout protein is a must, too.
With this approach, you get the biggest benefit of a low-carb approach (avoiding the bad carbs), while avoiding its risks and downsides. If you’re focused on weight loss, yeah, you might not lose weight quite as fast. But I bet you’re more likely to keep it off.
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“He took it all too far, but boy could he play guitar.” (David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust – click to listen)