Low Carb Dieting: Will it Get You Ripped or Leave You Flat?
A nutritional trend that has persisted for many years within health and strength circles, and has seen countless bodybuilders and fitness devotees lose valuable muscle tissue and become weaker in the gym – all in an attempt to become leaner – is low, or zero, carbohydrate consumption. Conventional wisdom posits that by lowering the carbohydrate content of our diets we are better able to properly modulate insulin to lower blood sugar levels and, by consequence, prevent body-fat storage. It has even been argued that by replacing carbohydrates with fats, and keeping protein consumption consistent (the so called ketogenic diet, during which the user is thought to become more efficient at mobilizing fats for energy while their insulin levels are down-regulated to further lessen fat storage), we can become leaner and more muscular.
Though the “keto” diet may prove effective in the short term, sustaining this approach is likely not feasible over the long term.
While low carb eating plans may work for some people, a meal plan which emphasizes higher complex carbohydrates and proteins, and moderate fats, has been proven by many an athlete to be very effective, and most importantly, sustainable.
Low Carb & Bodybuilders
From Arnold to Ronnie, to modern day giants such as Phil Heath and Ben Pakulski, the standard bodybuilding diet comprised of carbs, proteins and fats in a typical 45:35:20 ratio (though slight modifications can be made based on individual circumstances) has stood the test of time. The great six-time Olympia winner Dorian Yates noted in the extensive nutritional diaries he kept that:
The more he lowered his carbs, the weaker he became, the worse his recovery from exercise was, and the more muscle size he lost.
He reported to FLEX Magazine that upon trying the ketogenic diet his strength “went to hell” and, consequently, he never again tried a low carb approach. Ever-the rationalist, Yates experimented with carb levels until he found the amount that worked best for him. His diet was big on this energy macronutrient. In describing his low carb experimentation, Yates stated, “I felt like dog shit – I couldn’t train hard, and I couldn’t get a pump.” Enough said.
Why Carbohydrate Reduction is Not the Best Option
Low strength levels among those utilizing low carb plans are a commonly reported problem – this on its own should be enough to dissuade most athletes from following a low carb diet.
As the muscles’ most readily useable and efficient fuel source, carbs, in complex form primarily, are of fundamental importance when training with full force. By filling our muscles with glycogen, converted from blood glucose – itself converted from carbohydrates – the ATP (Adenosine Tri Phosphate; as a transporter of chemical energy within cells for metabolic purposes it could be considered the fuel which powers muscular contraction) production process is pulled off without a hitch. As a consequence, strength levels increase and muscular endurance is optimal. Lifters who have replaced carbs with fats report differing results; for some, the process works to a certain point, while others begin to resemble the nutrient they have prioritized in their diet. Ask anyone who has restricted their carbs and you will hear of low training energy and a flat appearance. But low strength and a lack of muscular fullness is not the only potential problem facing those whose carbohydrate intake is minimal at best.
Recovery and LDH Response
One study (examining the effects of carbohydrate intake on muscle recuperation), in assessing two groups (one given maltodextrin, the other, water, and both assessed after nine days of high intensity training) found that the carbohydrate group experienced less DNA damage and fewer circulating leukocytes and monocytes (which indicate a lowered immune response), indicating a smaller stress response to the exercise.
Because carbs replenish muscle glycogen and muscle glycogen is vitally important for powering hard training sessions and facilitating optimal recovery following intensive workouts, many depend upon a sufficient carb intake for bodybuilding success.
Further findings demonstrated that a biochemical marker of muscle damage, LDH, was observed, in significant quantities, in the water group compared to the carb group. An increase in plasma DNA levels accompanied the elevated LDH, supporting the belief that carbohydrate intake protects against exercise-induced tissue damage.
The Benefits of Carbs
As a major component of a well-balanced nutrition plan, carbohydrates…
- Provide energy to perform at optimal levels;
- Provide fiber to cleanse the digestive system and remove waste;
- Provide a variety of other important micronutrients to repair and rebuild weary muscles.
Though the jury is still out on whether a high fat, low carb regime will enhance muscle size and strength for all who try it, carbohydrates have for many decades been known for their protein sparing effect. The more carbs we have on board, the less likely it is that protein will be converted into carbohydrates (gluconeogenesis) to fuel physical and mental processes.
Carbohydrates provide fuel for our brain; without enough carbs of the right kind (over-refined simple sugars can deplete energy), we feel groggy and tired. As bodybuilders, it is especially important that we consume sufficient carbs, not only to support our physical efforts in the gym but also to encourage the mental arousal which enables laser-like focus and intense concentration when hauling the iron.
Complex carbohydrates such as brown rice, sweet potatoes, whole wheat bread and pasta keep us fuller, for longer. The lower calories in carbohydrates (four per gram) relative to fats (nine per gram) make them perfect when peaking to reveal one’s well-defined musculature.
Following a diet plan with roughly 45% carbs will enable us to maintain a low fat eating plan without binging on the wrong foods.
The problem with high fat diet plans is that the body is so conditioned to eating carbs for energy that it is extremely hard to eliminate them entirely; eating the high saturated fat and cholesterol laden foods included in ketogenic diets, without the carbs which so often accompany such foods, is not sustainable for many. Therefore, as someone looking to put on (and keep) lean muscle, it’s probably best to follow the time-tested 45:35:20 approach.
So Why the Bad Rap?
In short – bro-science.
The popularity of low carb diets has soared in recent years, in fact, if you ask the average gym trainee for their advice on how best to drop stored body fat, they’re likely to tell you to cut the carbs. Actually, they’re partly correct, but let’s be more exact. You want to cut out the bad carbs, and consume the right carbs at the right time in the proper amounts. Increase the wrong carbs, at the wrong time, in the wrong amounts, and it’s absolutely true, your body fat will increase.
Some Carbohydrate Consumption Tips
To benefit from carbohydrate consumption, here are some suggestions.
Avoid Bad Carbs
While strategically consuming simple carbs immediately post-workout may help to elevate performance and enhance muscle growth, there are those (cakes, cookies, sweets, donuts, etc.) which will confer little, if any, benefit. These, from a health standpoint, are nutritionally inert carbs and will only serve to strip valuable nutrients from your body as they migrate to your waistline.
Achieve a Good Mix
Consuming a good mix of complex and fibrous carbs is not only a more nutritionally beneficial practice, but will ensure greater metabolic efficiency. Fibrous carbs like broccoli and asparagus utilize significant energy to process, and there is a lower likelihood that they will be stored as fat. Too many simple sugars, for example honey, fruit and juice, will promote excessive insulin release, while the complex variety will be released slowly to sustain human activity while keeping blood sugar at lower levels.
More carb sources will also ensure greater variety to encourage adherence to your eating plan. If you don’t like what you’re eating, it’s hard to stick to a plan.
Eat Carbs Early & Directly Following Workouts
By eating most of your carbs over the first nine hours of the day, the physical activity that takes place around this time will ensure blood sugar modulation is optimal and fat storage is less likely. Avoid eating carb-rich foods in the evening.
By consuming simple sugar carbs (30 – 40 g) directly after training, the muscles’ greater receptivity to them will ensure they are stored in muscle tissue, not converted to fat (which may occur if taken at other times of the day). But beware, not all simple sugars are created equal! According to a study by Ivy:
Supplements composed of glucose or glucose polymers are the most effective for replenishment of muscle glycogen, whereas fructose is most beneficial for the replenishment of liver glycogen.
Amount to Consume
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that humans consume 45% – 65% of their daily calories in the form of carbs (158 g – 228 g per 1,400 daily calories consumed), a hard training bodybuilder will need more: 258 g – 374 g per 2,300 daily calories (when aiming to pack on size in the off-season, 400+ per day may be needed). To ensure quality muscle gains are achieved, and fat accumulation is kept to a minimum, gauge your carb consumption (in line with the above recommendations) and if necessary reduce them by 30 g until the desired range is achieved.
If one wishes to trial a low carb/high fat diet, or practice carb restriction for a short period to reduce that last layer of body fat, then such methods are certainly worth investigating. However, given the findings and observations outlined above it might be wiser to adhere to a good balance of carbs, proteins and fats. Not only may your body function better, with improved physical performance, greater muscular fullness and more mental energy being the more obvious outcomes, but you will achieve a more sustainable, and nutritionally desirable ratio of macro and micronutrients, including fiber, enzymes and valuable vitamins and minerals to boost health and recovery.
- Daniel R. Moore, Nicole C. Del Bel, Kevin I. Nizi, Joseph W. Hartman, Jason E. Tang, David Armstrong, & Stuart M. Phillips. Resistance Training Reduces Fasted- and Fed-State Leucine Turnover and Increases Dietary Nitrogen Retention in Previously Untrained Young Men
- J. Nutr. April 2007 137: 985-991Eur j Appl Physiol, 109: 507-516
- Maysa Vieira de Sousa, Klavs Madsen, Herbert Gustavo Simões, Rosa Maria Rodrigues Pereira, Carlos Eduardo Negrão, Ronaldo Zucatelli Mendonça, Liliam Takayama, Rosa Fukui, & Maria Elizabeth Rossi da Silva. Effects of carbohydrate supplementation on competitive runners undergoing overload training followed by a session of intermittent exercise. European Journal of Applied Physiology June 2010, Volume 109, Issue 3, pp 507-516
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 [Online] http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/dietaryguidelines.htm – Retrieved on 5/12/12
- Ivy JL. Glycogen resynthesis after exercise: effect of carbohydrate intake. Int J Sports Med. 1998 Jun;19 Suppl 2:S142-5. PMID: 9694422. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9694422