There is a delicate balance with respect to the amount of starch/sugar a person can eat to supply energy for exercise AND activities of daily living, but not over produce insulin, so that the body can burn fat effectively.
Finding this spot is important, and has three primary parameters: amount of carb, type of carb, and timing of carbs.
Amount of Carb
For fat loss, each person needs to find the appropriate amount of carbs that will deliver sustained energy, but not slow fat loss … and as you likely now understand, it's unique to each of us.
In this discussion, think in terms of bites since in today's fast paced society people often eat on the go and don't carry around scales to measure food. We also don't have access to meals labeled with clearly marked grams of carbs. So using bites allows a quick and adjustable means to manipulate the amount of carbs we consume.
So a single bite will be approximately the size of a tablespoon and equal to roughly 5g of carbohydrates. For those new to adjusting your eating with a goal of losing body fat, I recommend no more than 10 bites of carbs eaten exclusively at each of the major meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner). This can then be adjusted up or down based on your fat loss results … AS WELL AS your responses to hunger, cravings, and energy. This is an individual process that needs to be approached with the mindset of a detective.
Type of Carb
The type of carbohydrate corresponds directly with the amount of carbohydrate. The more favorable carbs are consumed in greater amounts of bites and those bites can also be a bit larger. The more detrimental carbs to fat loss are consumed in fewer bites and should be smaller. As an example, if you are eating white rice, have 3 small bites, but if you are eating brown rice eat 5 bigger bites. The types of carbs have much to do with how fast the carbohydrate will raise blood sugar (glycemic index and glycemic load) and the allergy producing potential of the carbohydrate.
The carbs with the highest fiber relative to sugar/starch are basically eaten in unlimited amounts (for most people). These include non-starchy vegetables and whole fruits (berries, apple, pear). But the starchy carbohydrates and sweet carbohydrates have to be managed tightly if body fat reduction is a goal. These include white grains, whole grains, beans, and other carbs. This is often a point of confusion for people as they have heard that the "healthiest carbs" are whole grains and beans because of their high fiber. These carbs ARE high fiber, but they are much higher in starch/sugar and therefore are not as beneficial as the fibrous carbs and fruit. This is an essential insight for body fat reduction and for modifying your carbohydrate consumption to see results.
White grains have nothing but starch/sugar with little fiber. Whole grains and beans have more fiber and less starch, but they are still over 70% starch. They may be healthy, but they are not the best for fat loss. Vegetables and fruits in some cases actually have less fiber than whole grains and beans, but they have far less starch/sugar and also much higher water content. This means they have a low glycemic load and make for great fat loss foods. If you take nothing else about carbohydrates from this, you should know that the only truly free carbs are non-starchy vegetables and low sweet fruits (even fruits can be an issue for some). All others carbs should be consumed as bites.
Timing of Carb
The timing of carbs involves using carbs to control your hunger rhythms and energy needs. A high carb meal induces an insulin response which has been shown to adjust the leptin rhythm determining how hungry we feel from one day to the next. For some, having carbs at each meal is still too much to allow fat loss. In this case it is helpful to reduce carbs further and focus carb intake at specific times. Eating the majority of your carbs at breakfast can help minimize hunger at night.
Another great time to include a higher carb load is post workout. Because exercise makes us uniquely carb sensitive, carbs consumed post workout will be distributed to liver and muscle glycogen stores first and aid muscle development before they are stored as fat. This means higher loads of carbs as well as higher glycemic index carbs can be better tolerated immediately following a challenging workout, if desired. However, this still has to be monitored, and viewed in context. There is a fine line between maximizing glycogen storage for performance compared to controlling carb amounts for fat loss. I'll share a bit more on this tomorrow.
For now, if you've been exercising and eating healthy foods for some time and still have a few more pounds to go, start to think about your carbs in terms of bites. Develop an understanding of the types of carbs available, and what is BEST for your goals. And then consume the types of carbs using the timing suggestions above.
Remember, the key in all of this working for you is the direct feedback you get. How's your energy? Your Hunger? And your cravings? All these should stay in check after eating. This is feedback you receive constantly throughout the day. Then every 3-4 weeks, monitor your body fat loss results. Keep in mind, this is something that takes time to digest, and put into play in YOUR body.
The smart use of carbohydrates is one of the most important concepts in body fat reduction and changing your body. Smart manipulation of hormones allows for two of the most critical aspects of fat loss: the right amount of calories and balanced insulin. And always remember that this is totally different for everyone.
One of the most common mistakes made by fat loss seekers is the "lower is better" mantra. This is especially true of carbohydrates. Keep in mind that cutting carbs or calories too low can cause a slowed metabolic rate, insatiable hunger, uncontrollable cravings, unbalanced energy, lack of energy for workouts, changes in mood, and perhaps most importantly, a loss of lean muscle tissue. It is no wonder that diet focused programs rely so heavily on willpower. Avoid the trap of assuming lower is better, but rather find the tipping point (the amount of carbohydrates or calories that is low enough to initiate fat loss, but high enough to maintain energy, reduce cravings, and blunt hunger). The "carb tipping point" is individual, needs to be adjustable, and when used correctly is a reliable and reproducible way to help you find your ideal fat loss formula.
Please remember, we are all uniquely different and require a unique blend of macronutrients. What works for your best friend will NOT be what works for you. It's one of the reasons diets books don't work. A 22 year old athlete that trains with the team 3 hours per day can (and should) consume tons of calories. She has LESS of a need to focus on a regimen of fibrous carbs, and has a lot of leeway for the simple sugars, and starchy carbs, compared to a 37 year old working mother of 3.
Even two 37 year old working mothers of 3 will vary GREATLY on their carb tipping points.
Here is how you can begin finding your tipping point:
1). Pay close attention to your body's hormonal feedback mechanisms. As you well know by now, these include hunger, energy level, and cravings, but also include mood, motivation, digestion, focus and sleep. The proper response should be no hunger between major meals, no cravings, and increased energy. You should also feel motivated and focused without anxiety and depression. Gas and bloating should not be present and sleep should normalize. Don't make the mistake of assuming these symptoms are not related to food intake. Getting your carb tipping point correct will balance metabolic function. When it's off, your body will let you know. Use these symptoms to monitor the mix of energy (food and exercise) you put in your body. Remember carbs don't work alone. Your protein, fiber and fat intake will need to be regulated as well.
2) If hunger, energy and cravings are stable you can be assured you have things balanced, but you will need to monitor fat loss using a RELIABLE body fat tool (the bathroom scale doesn't measure fat loss). If all the biofeedback sensations are stable AND you are losing fat, you found your tipping point. All you need to do now is stay there. Do not be tempted to cut carbs further. Doing so will sacrifice your energy and make your fat loss results unsustainable. If you want to speed results, proceed slowly and immediately increase carbs back again if your energy falters.
3) If the biofeedback sensations are not stable or they are stable but you are not losing fat, you have not found the tipping point. You will need to alter your plan in one of two ways:
FIRST– If sensations are not balanced, increase the amount of fiber, protein and water you take in. This is important. More times than not the issue has nothing to do with carbs, but is a protein issue. Wait a few days. If still having issues raise the protein content and fiber content one more time. If this still is not effective, increase the starch content of your meals by 5 to 10g (one bite is ~5g of carbs, as mentioned in yesterday's email) at a time until you find the issues resolve. This is a trial and error phase where you will need to alter your intake of the major macronutrients (protein, fat, carbs) to find your unique fat loss formula. This takes time and patience for some, and involves manipulating protein, fiber, starch and fat intake. This can take some work, but once you find it you have a system of body change that will never fail you even when your metabolism changes as you age.
SECOND – If all hormonal sensations are stable and you are not losing fat, then begin to decrease the amount of starch at each meal by 5 to 10g. Also, begin to look at your fat and sodium intake. Adjust fat, carb, and sodium intake downwards every few days until the fat begins to come off your body. As you do this you should be ramping up protein and vegetable intake. Often, this is the stage where you will appreciate the difference between healthy food and fat loss food. If managing carbs/starch and fat are not helping the desired results, then look at fruit and dairy next. These are two important sources of sugar/starch that can keep some from the results they want. Finding your carb tipping point may mean you need to cut these foods back as well, at least temporarily.
You might consider printing this out, re-reading and fully digesting to get you started on this process. It's really all about building on all of your success to this point, and refining your approach. Paying attention to your body's hormonal feedback mechanisms, and measuring your fat loss.
Brian Calkins NSCA-CPT, ACE
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