It’s probably the most demonised macronutrient, but why do carbs get the hate? Are they personal training sessions best friend or mortal enemy?
First off, carbs are not the devil. True, they are unique in that, unlike the other two macronutrients (fat and protein) it is possible to survive without eating them. But just because you can survive without them doesn’t mean you should. ‘Possible’ is not the same as ‘optimal’.
Most people, most of the time, can absolutely get away with including carbohydrates in their diet. Some will thrive on them. Carbs provide a quick refuel after training, provide energy and (let’s not forget the important stuff) taste pretty great.
So why do so many fat loss diets often involve the reduction or elimination of carbs?
Because any way you slice it, fat loss requires a calorie deficit (roughly 200 calorie a day below BMR is about right) and those calories need to come from somewhere.
When it comes to cutting down, your options are fat, protein and carbohydrates.
Now, when losing fat, the preservation of muscle mass should be a top priority. You want to burn fat, not eat away your hard-earned muscle. One way to do that is to lift weights. The other is to keep your protein levels high.
So dropping protein isn’t an option. What about fat?
In the past, many fat loss diets have indeed focussed on removing fat from the diet. The trouble is, fat is vital for so many of your body’s processes, not least the manufacture of testosterone. In addition, most people don’t really eat that much fat to begin with. So although reducing fat-heavy food can be an option, it won’t always give you the calorie deficit you need, and it may not be the best option.
Which leaves carbohydrates. Carbs are a cheap, abundant, calorie dense food which you can reduce without any negative health effects.
Notice we said reduce, not eliminate. Once you’ve reached your calorie deficit, there’s not really any reason to totally eliminate carbs (In the long term that is. We will sometimes use a zero carb approach with clients, but this tends to be for a specific amount of time rather than for life.)
But not all carbs are created equal. There’s little room for refined sugar in a fat loss diet, so you’re best off sticking with classic “bodybuilding” foods like rice, potatoes, oats and sweet potatoes.
So you’ve established a calorie deficit, which leaves you with a certain amount of carbohydrates to eat each day while still losing weight. When should you have them?
First and foremost, the total daily amount is king. As long as you’re in a deficit, weight loss will happen. So if you just like having a huge breakfast and want to eat your carbs then, you’ll still lose weight. It’s probably not optimal, but it’s not going to ruin you, so if it makes dieting a more bearable experience, go for it.
Having said that, plenty of research shows that consuming your carbs around your personal training sessions make them far more likely to fuel recovery rather than be stored as fat. You can have them all after your session, or split them up into pre and post training meals. In short; earn your carbs.
So now you know the what/when and why of carb intake. Go forth and eat heartily.
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