If you’re a gym goer then chances are you will have no doubt heard some person discussing the importance of ‘carb cutting’, ‘carb loading’ or ‘carb back loading’ with their peers. Basically, people are very much attached to the notion that carbohydrate manipulation is the way forward when trying to burn fat, and it is…to a point.
Why cut carbs?
Carbohydrate is your bodies preferred energy source, evolution see’s that our bodies crave it for security in case we need readily available energy to run away from a sabretooth tiger attack! Since our bodies are so efficient at using carbs, there is a possibility that we can overuse them, resulting in a surplus to requirements of energy. So what happens to the excess energy we have floating around our body, well, it gets stored as adipose tissue… better known as fat.
So the reason for people ‘cutting’ the amount of carbs they consume is because too much carbohydrate can actually be converted to fat via a process known as lipogenesis. The conversion of carbs to fat is a relatively inefficient process meaning there is a limit on how much fat you will store from a moderately high carb diet. However, if you increase the amount of carbs you consume consistently over time (particularly refined carbs such as sugar and syrups), as well as reduce the ratio of fat you consume along with the carbs, then your body may upregulate lipogenesis causing you to store MORE FAT!
Therefore the reason that you might see people cut carbs is simple, the less carbs you consume, the less chance you have of consuming more carbs than you need. If carbs are low enough, your body will begin to dip into its glycogen stores (stored glucose), and once these have been spent you will begin burning fat stores for energy. However, cut carbs too abruptly and you can expect to see a compensatory rise in body fat storage, this is due to your body entering a mini starvation mode!
DO NOT cut carbs completely
By cutting carbs completely you are working against your body’s logic. Your body likes to have a drip flow of carbs which enables insulin (your body’s glucose regulating hormone) to gradually enter your muscles and organs for energy. A steady flow of carbs (along with a calorie deficit) is optimal for fat loss because insulin acts as a key for carbs to enter muscle for energy, rather than it being stored as fat. Try to keep insulin levels steady though, peaks and troughs in insulin can indirectly reduce the ability to burn fat.
Too fewer carbs via the diet is a no no. A shortage of carbs will cause a compensatory spike in the amount of glucose being released from your glycogen stores. This glucose spike causes an increase in insulin, and insulin is known to increase your body’s ability to store fat… not what you want (unless you’re a sumo wrestler).
Getting the balance right
The body likes to work in harmony, so there is always a degree of fat being used for energy along with some carbohydrate. Whether our bodies decide to use mainly carbs or fat for energy depends on a number of factors, these include the amount of carbs or fat we consume via the diet, and the amount and type of physical activity we perform.
Although the types of food we eat and the amount of activity we perform are important factors, one of the most overlooked areas is the timing. Now we could delve into the complex world of the citric acid cycle, acetyl co-enzyme A or acetyl CoA, ATP and glycolysis, and how these energy metabolising components effect fat storage/burning, but in truth the only thing we really need to remember is this…
- Don’t chow down a carb and calorie dense meal and then take a nap on the sofa. The calories that you consumed will have no chance of being burned as a fuel, and will therefore be stored as fat.
- Limit the consumption of refined carbs at any time of the day, these include white bread, croissants and any form of food that has had the whole grain removed from it during processing. Also on the refined carbs list are sugary drinks, juices and sodas, chocolates, sweets, biscuits and of course table sugar, all of which can cause those unwanted spikes in blood sugar and insulin.
- Avoid consuming refined carbs before bed. This is for the same reason as point 1 above, the energy content of the carbs will exceed that being spent putting you in positive energy balance. A positive energy balance means you have more calories than you need, and will inevitably promote the storage of fat. The resultant rise in blood sugar right before bed will also increase insulin, which encourages fat storage, and may even cause a compensatory crash in blood sugar during your overnight fast. Not what you need.
Without doubt, one of the easiest ways to manage bodyweight is to consume a diet that puts you in energy balance i.e. a state that see’s you consuming approximately the same amount of calories as you need to expend to maintain your physiological functions and physical activity. Carbohydrates and fat come into this in equal weighting, if your diet comprises approximately 40% carbs, 30% protein and 30% fat then you have what is considered to be an optimal balance. Consume too many carbs and you’ll shift this balance, you can then expect to see a rise in fat storage. Similarly, consume too much fat and you’ll shift the balance and almost certainly see a rise in body fat.
So like the title suggests, try not to overthink carb and fat manipulation, just aim to see that a quarter of your dinner plate includes starchy carbs such as potato, pasta or rice. Try to ensure that the other quarter consists of a protein source such beef, chicken, fish, beans, peas or pulses (for example), and the rest of it is filled with mixed vegetables… and you’re pretty much there.
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