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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Can We Officially Declare Carbophobia Dead?

A small amount of healthy carb can help you lose weight
I have a friend who lost over 60 pounds on Atkins Induction. A year later, she’s kept off the weight and looks fantastic. Over that time she also became a carbophobe, evidenced recently at dinner when she asked our server to substitute her sweet potato for another green vegetable.

“Why the hate for sweet potatoes?” I asked her as our server walked away. “They’re loaded with fiber and beta-carotene. Add a little butter and… delicious.”

She looked at me like I had lost my mind. “A medium sweet baked potato has more net carbs than I’m allowed a day,” she replied, and then recounted how many green vegetables she could get for an equal amount of carb grams.

I admired her discipline even if I wondered why anyone would pass up such a delicious, healthy food.

Stop the Insanity!

For the record, I like low-carb diets. I’ve seen them work for numerous clients and friends who struggled for years on low-calorie, low-fat, and near-starvation diets yet couldn’t maintain their loss.

Because they’re higher in satiating, satisfying protein and healthy fats, low-carb diets keep you full longer. Initially, people become enamored eating formerly forbidden foods like steak and macadamia nuts. A client once told me for the first in nearly forever, she ate bacon and eggs that morning without feeling guilty.

But over time, the novelty and fat loss decline. A few months before, you awoke salivating over a sausage-cheese omelet. Why does the mere thought make you nauseous now?

At that point, I suggest adding healthy carbs to provide your meals variety. For some super-strict carb watchers like my friend, however, introducing quinoa or an apple becomes a terrifying experience.

It shouldn’t be. Even Dr. Atkins intended Induction – probably the lowest of low-carb diets – to be temporary and to find the amount of carbohydrates your body can tolerate.

Deprivation eventually opens the floodgates for binge eating. I’ve seen people militantly maintain a super low-carb diets and then and – once they have a “cheat meal” – devour a whole pizza and a pint of Chunky Monkey. I had one client tell me he likes to eat these meals in private because he was so embarrassed how much he ate. At its worst, this binge-and-purge cycle could set the stage for eating disorders.

Why Low-Carb Doesn’t Work for Muscle Building

Have we all agreed that carb loading constitutes a wildly outdated fitness myth? Eating a bowl of pasta before a big race will certainly provide short-term energy, but along the way you’ll crash (or “hit the wall”), leading to lethargy and eventually burnout.

At the same time, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Whether you’re sprinting at a nearby park or lifting heavy, you need carbs, but the right kind of carbs.

As a trainer, I can vouch that clients do lousy on very low-carb diets. They get lean but can’t build or maintain muscle, and they often become fatigued long before our session ends. Ultimately, that will have a negative impact on your physique. In fact, adding some healthy carbs can actually help you lose some fat.

Spare me the lectures about not needing carbs. I realize you can do just fine on a ketogenic diet, where the predominant amount of energy comes from fat. You might be one of those rare exceptions who does low carb and thrives at the gym. Good for you.

Most people, however, don’t. Once they add some low-glycemic fruit, starchier veggies, and even non-gluten grains, they have more energy and stamina for A-level performance. As my friend Danny J from the Sweaty Betties says "I have been able to get shredded-lean keeping carbs…all I lost when I took carbs away was my sex drive, my memory and my will to live." Exactly.

 “But I Eat Plenty of Veggies…”

Even the strictest low-carb diets allow asparagus, spinach, broccoli, and other leafy and cruciferous veggies. Listen, I want you to love vegetables. I want you to eat Brussels sprouts like those champions at the Coney Island hot dog contest.

Veggies aren’t contentious, but ask a low-carb dieter to have an apple or quinoa, and like my friend at dinner, they suddenly become paranoid that too many carbs will make them gain weight.

Folks, I have never met anyone who got fat eating quinoa. You’re not going to eat a cup of lentils and then not get into your skinny jeans the next morning. When you forego these and other nutrient-rich carbs, consider how many nutrients, fiber, and variety you’re missing.

Do We Need Carbs?

Nowhere do I become more aware about how over-zealous these militant low-carb folks can be than at Paleo conferences. I recently made the “mistake” of telling someone they needed carbs. “The brain runs on glucose,” I said. “When you don’t eat enough carbs, dizziness, brain fog, irritability, mood swings, and really bad stuff like amenorrhea occurs.”

A nearby science twerp heard me. You know the type: he can read double-blind, placebo based studies but has little real-life application and zero social skills. “Jini, haven’t you heard of gluconeogenesis?” he lectured me. “Your body can make all the carbs it needs from protein and fat.” On he droned, certain he had caught me in a scientific faux pas.

Yeah, I know all about gluconeogenesis. (I can even draw you the pathway if you really want to know.) Gluconeogenesis helped our Paleolithic ancestors survive the lean periods, since our brain alone requires about 140 grams of glucose.

But we’re not in survival mode today. We have an abundance of healthy, delicious carb-heavier foods.

Hypothetically speaking, no, we don’t need carbs. But then, we don’t need electricity either. We don’t need our iPhones or laptops or other modern technology. These things, like carbs, provide our lives more variety and satisfaction.

Why deny yourself delicious, nutrient-rich foods that will enhance performance, help you burn fat, and make your meals more interesting?

Choosing the Best Carbs

So you agree: you’re not going to fear or forego carbs but choose the healthiest ones. You’ve probably heard about “good carbs” and “bad carbs.” That’s outdated terminology. Carbs are far more complex than two broad categories.

That said, some carbs are better than others. And especially when you work out strenuously, even the not-so-good ones can become occasional mainstays in your diet.

I classify carbs as “occasional,” better, or best. You already know the best sources: veggies, low-glycemic fruits, and high-fiber starchy carbs like sweet potatoes or quinoa. Better would include brown rice and other non-gluten grains. “Occasional” would include dark chocolate or your aunt’s sinfully rich peanut butter fudge pie.

The only absolute “never” foods are trans fat and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). These 2 guys are bad news in any capacity. Dump ‘em like that no-good boyfriend you let stick around too long during sophomore year in college.

How Many Carbs Do I Need A Day?

Good question that depends on numerous factors, including your physical activity, age, and sex. (I mean gender, not the type of sex… Oh, never mind.)

As a general rule, I would say anywhere from 50 to 100 grams a day. I’ve had heavy lifters thrive on gym days with 150 or 200 grams. But folks, those grams are coming from healthy carbs, not double chunk chocolate chip cookies.

Simply put: if you’ve lifted heavy at the gym and then walked the two miles back to your apartment, you can get away with far more carbs than a sedentary person whose major activity was walking the dog. Hell, you could probably even get away with some dark-chocolate covered strawberries.

Rather than count or measure, over time you’ll develop a good idea about how many carbs work for you.

If counting sounds tedious to you, I also like Dr. Jade Teta’s acronym HEC: hunger, energy, and cravings. You should eat enough carbs to reduce hunger and cravings but maintain an all-day steady energy.

Experiment with carbs until you find that “sweet spot” (pun fully intended!). For most people – including my carbophobic friend – that includes a medium baked sweet potato. She can keep her double green vegetables. I’m going for the veggie and the sweet potato!

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Fitness expert and strength coach Jini Cicero, CSCS, teaches intermediate exercisers how to blast through plateaus to create incredible transformations. Are you ready to take your fitness to a whole new level?  Find out now!  Take Jini's "Are you Ready?" Quiz at © 2011 Jinifit, Inc.

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