Quick Reference Guide to Carb Intake

 Ok so we all know that, once food quality is accounted for,  carbohydrate intake is at the root of most popular fat loss programs, or at least it should be for a period of time. Why is that? Well a few reasons but the most relevant and generally agreed upon is its [CHO] effect on insulin release and the potential for down regulation of insulin receptors (insulin resistance).

Carbs and insulin can be a double-edged sword. Insulin is the most anabolic, anti-catabolic hormone in the body. It improves amino acid uptake by muscle tissue, which in turn initiates protein synthesis. It also prevents amino acids (from food or muscle) from being oxidized as a reserve fuel source. On the flipside, it also can be the most lipolytic (fat storing) hormone in the body, shuttling fatty acids and glucose to fat cells to be stored as body fat. These days, the majority of fat loss diets only focus on the negative side of insulin, which seems like a logical approach. You gotta go low-carb to minimize insulin release and lose fat, right? That’s true, especially if you’re overweight, sedentary, and likely insulin resistant – which today represents the majority of the general population and the fire service is no exception. The problem is, that’s not a complete approach, especially for an athlete. No hormone is inherently bad. For a leaner body that’s training intensely and is in an overall calorie deficit, moderate amounts of insulin can actually be a good thing. And the leaner you get (trying to go from lean to shredded), the more you need to start thinking about the positive side of the insulin equation – insulin can help you maintain muscle while the overall dietary prescription continues to strip off fat. That’s why diets for sick, diabetic, sedentary office workers shouldn’t be the same as those for active, lean-to-moderately-lean athletes. Cookie-cutting only works in the cookie making business. The key is whether your body is insulin sensitive or insulin resistant. If your body is insulin sensitive, than you’ll get more of the anabolic effects of insulin. Carbs can be higher in your diet. If your body is insulin resistant, than you’ll get more of the lipolytic effects of insulin. Carbs should be lower in your diet. I realize that at this point in the article you are starting to question the accuracy of the title but I assure you the “quick reference” is forthcoming.

Find yourself in the diagram below and then look to the chart for your recommended carbohydrate intake.

>25% body fat: Low-carb diets would be the best. Think Paleo, Caveman, LaLanne’s “if man made it don’t eat it”, or Poliquin’s “if it didn’t run, fly, or swim, or isn’t green and grows in the ground don’t eat it” approach.

12-25% body fat: Stick with the “earn your carbs” theme. If you’re consistently strength training like a madman, you can reintroduce carbs back into your diet. Start slowly, perhaps 0.75-1.0g/lb of lean body mass. Targeted timing matters – spread intake over periods where insulin sensitivity is at its highest (peri-workout and breakfast).

<10% body fat: In addition to peri-workout nutrition and breakfast, I think carbs should be a consistent part of the diet for this demographic. Something like a traditional bodybuilding high protein, moderate-to-high carb, lower fat, with fat as a by-product of protein sources approach. I would go with 1-2 grams protein per pound of lean body mass spread relatively evenly over the course of the day.

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