Carbs: Are They Hurting us or Helping us?

Carbs: Are They Hurting us or Helping us?

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Even though I would consider myself an expert in the field of health and nutrition, I never stop learning and growing. As testing becomes more precise and the quality of our food changes, my recommendations shift and evolve. Most recently I found myself in a predicament. As a sports dietitian and marathon runner, I focus on carbs and sugar as fuel but as a digestive health expert, I focus on the opposite. I find that general dietary recommendations are not progressive and are too vague to help the majority of people, but more about that in a different post. Whenever I have questions, I start with research and then I talk to the people that are leaving and breathing their own sports nutrition recommendations.

As a fellow meal prep fanatic, I found Chris Roccio through instagram: @Chris.Rocchio_Fit  and when you look at him you know he is the real deal, also his meal prep is amazing. I wanted to pick his brain about his methods and philosophy for fueling. I added some notes to clarify certain concepts and add in my opinion.

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1. What are your thoughts on a ketogenic diet?

All athletes can utilize the ketogenic diet, but there are varying degrees of efficacy depending on what type of training one does. Because of the limits placed on protein, it is not optimal if you are trying to put on muscle mass when weight training (because muscle builds via protein synthesis), but it can still be a good tool for improving body composition when weight training for fat loss. Also, the ketogenic diet is not ideal for sports and training that are highly anaerobic and explosive, due to the slow rate of energy production via ketosis vs. energy production via glycogen. As for endurance athletes… There was a study done by Ohio University in 2015 that showed that elite endurance athletes who trained in a state of ketosis burned twice as much fat as the high-carb athletes during maximum exertion. So if you’re looking to decrease your body fat percentage, this is a proven approach.

Adapting is the hardest part, especially if you’re used to a high-carb diet. A person with this diet typically does not have enough HSL, an enzyme specifically responsible for burning fat. So they often experience fatigue throughout the day because they are wired to burn sugar for energy. However, once your body adapts (usually after 1-2 weeks), this diet can actually improve brain function, which can further fuel workouts, as neurotransmitter production is crucial to your drive and focus during workouts.

Another thing to be careful of is that it is easy to experience nutritional deficiencies if the diet is not done right and combined with intense training.

Fig Notes: The ketogenic diet is defined as 25 grams of carbohydrates or less per day. It’s an extremely hard diet to follow and I am not sold on this as a healthy method for the long term. Basically you are switching your metabolism to burn fat rather than sugar for fuel. I use this method with clients that have a solid workout routine but want to get rid of a little stubborn fat. I would suggest only doing this diet if you are working with a dietitian or nutrition specialist that understands the metabolic concepts at play, like Chris said, you can experience nutritional deficiencies if not done right. 

2. What do you suggest for post-workout fuel?

My approach is simple, you have to earn your carbs. If you are a man with a body fat percentage over 10% or a woman with a BFP (body fat percentage) over 22%, you should skip your post-workout carbs. The only exception is you are working out a second time in the day because you’d have to replenish muscle glycogen. If you are trying to gain muscle, then the 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein is ideal. More specifically, try to have 1.2g of carbs per kg of bodyweight and 0.4g of protein per kg of body weight post-workout. Note, I got this approach from Coach Charles Poliquin.

Fig Notes: If you are focused on weight loss, the carb post-workout approach is not going to be ideal for you. Building muscle mass is important for weight loss as muscle burns more calories than fat. If you are fit and looking to build muscle or if you are training for an endurance event, then the carb post work-out is important. To calculate your body weight in kg take your weight in pounds and divide it by 2.2, ex: 100 pounds = 45.45 kg. 

3. How do you build muscle and lean out?

The first thing I tell them is to stop doing steady state cardio. Long distance training will release cortisol (stress hormone) put the body into catabolism (which breaks down muscle fibers). You’d want to avoid that “10 minute cardio warm-up” before weightlifting as well. If you are going to train, do a mobility warm-up, then do warm-up sets of your first exercise. You want to get the muscles and nervous system ready for 2 things: range of motion and lifting heavy weights. So do a few warm-up sets of low reps to work your way up to the weight you will use on your first set of your first exercise. If you want to lose fat while gaining muscle, do anaerobic movements like sprints AFTER your weight training. Fat is only burned after glucose and glycogen is burned, which brings me to my next point. Avoid fast-burning carbs (see notes below) before your workout if this is your goal. You want a high protein, high fat diet before your workout so you maximize fat loss. Also, do not train hard for more than 45-60 min so as to avoid catabolism. If you are training with intensity, you shouldn’t need more than that. I also tell people to do compound movements like squats, dead-lifts, and power cleans. Try to get about 1.2 grams of protein per lb of bodyweight per day if this is your approach.

Fig Notes: The first thing I tell new runners is that marathon training is not an ideal way to lose weight, in fact many athletes that I have worked with tend to gain weight while training for their first marathon. The body does adapt, so typically by the second marathon, people can start to change their body but that is only when they have been maintaining an active lifestyle between races. 

Fast burning carbs = white bread, white rice, sugar, pineapple, banana, dates, juice, Gatorade to name a few. 

4. What are your views on carb loading/carb cycling?

There is a lot of hype in the fitness industry about carb cycling, and while it sounds logical, it has not been shown to be a superior method to standard calorie restriction (expending more energy than you consume) when it comes to building muscle and weight loss. However, it is still an equally useful tool for burning fat while maintaining muscle mass and strength. One area I do not agree with is consuming low fat on high carb days. High carbs will spike your insulin, and insulin makes you store fat, so having protein and good quality fat is important. It’s especially true for heavy training days. I focus on fat in the form of raw nuts to make sure I get enough choline, a precursor to acetylcholine, which is crucial for the nervous system. That being said, I do my own form of carb cycling. For instance, I do one heavy carb meal after my workout to replenish glycogen stores and to optimize hormonal and nervous system function. When you are completing an intense workout, your body is full of cortisol. Spiking insulin after the workout decreases the testosterone/cortisol ratio and jump starts the parasympathetic nervous system so your body can immediately start to recover. My cycle is more accurately labeled as calorie cycling. Since studies have yet to prove that carb cycling is superior to calorie restriction, I simply alter my calories based on the intensity of my workout.

Fig Notes: Exercise is an inflammatory process and the best way to replete glycogen post-workout and help the body decrease inflammation, is a balanced smoothie. This will give your body the carbs it needs, the protein and the antioxidants/phytonutrients to help clear inflammation. 

5. Do you focus on macros or balanced meals? How do you calculate macros?

I focus on macros and aim to reach (or limit) a certain level every day. For instance, I get 1.2g of protein per pound of body weight to build and maintain muscle. It might seem a bit high, but because I do restrict my heavy carbs during “cut season,” and this amount of protein prevents muscle loss if I’m low on energy. This approach is ideal for those who are already lean, so someone with a higher percentage of body fat can get a way with less protein (around .8g/lb bodyweight). For carbs, I try to limit them to 1g/lb of bodyweight on rest days (sometimes less) and anywhere from 1.25-1.5g/lb on intense training days (depending on what I’m training – 1.5g/lb on leg day). For fats, I usually get 0.5-0.6g/lb of bodyweight. For those who don’t want to do a ton of research, bodybuilding.com has a great macro calculator that takes your weight, age, height, goals, and physical activity into consideration.

Fig Notes: My focus is on preserving digestive health while fueling for performance. I work with clients to incorporate these ideas while focusing on gut friendly nutrition tips! Check out Chris’s insta for some great ideas with meal prepping! 

Macros = macronutrients – carbs, protein and fat. 

A big thank you to Chris for his insight!

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