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Saturday, December 8, 2007

No need to feel low about low carb

Most people cringe at the thought of cutting out carbs drastically. They report initial weakness, tiredness, feeling a lack of energy in the gym, loss of muscle tone and a general feeling of no well-being.
Our studio is a huge low carb lab. We have the rare chance to watch hundreds of compliant and not so compliant people that have chosen to follow the low carb approach and have modified it to suit their lifestyles. Very often, while explaining the benefits of a low carb approach to a new client, I get...well, I did the protein thing and it didn't work. I got so and so side effects, I lost some weight, but I felt terrible. When did the low carb approach become high-protein?

Let's look at the composition of a low carb diet:

* low carbs
* moderate protein
* high fat

It's as simple as that, yet many people disregard it's simplicity. They fight against the fat that is going on their plates harder than they fight the stubborn fat on their abs.

The people that report feeling low on low carbs usually have done one or more of the following:

* limited calories and carbs at the same time
* did not eat high fat
* ate too much protein
* ate too rarely and too little

There is an inherent need to do things right when cutting out carbs:

* eat at maintenance at first and only lower calories if fat loss does not happen for 2 weeks
* set your protein anywhere from 0.75 to 1.25 grams of protein per lb of bodyweight depending on physical activity and gender
* set your fat intake above 65% of total calories
* choose highly nutritious foods that naturally contain both fat and protein
* do not rely on dairy to fill your protein and calorie needs at least at first, since most people report unwanted digestive trouble when they do that; use dairy as a flavor, not as a main staple of your meals
* follow the approach for a long time, e.g. 3-6 months before you judge how you feel

Here are some of the benefits on eating lower carbs that I have experienced during the past 4 and a half years:

* improved body composition
* improved immune system status
* higher amount of muscle
* better mental clarity and improved concentration
* less frequent blood sugar drops
* improved digestion
* improved sleep
* improved joint health

I have frequently asked does one need to stay in ketosis to reap the benefits of low carb? I believe it is not so. I think the only times we need to drastically reduce carbs (e.g. <20-30 grams a day) is when we want to remind our bodies they need to rely on fat as a fuel source. Appropriate times are:

* after a number of days with higher carbs
* after a high carb cheat meal
* during a fat loss plateau
* before periods when discipline eating will not be possible
* in the beginning of a longer dietary cycle that includes calorie restriction

I also believe that the food choices are what makes the low carb approach successful. I constantly see frustrated people that have eaten nothing but chicken breast and white fish and greens and feel terrible.

Here are my top favorite low carb staples:


cod liver
whole free range eggs
parmesan cheese
feta cheese
cottage cheese
whole yogurt



olive oil
coconut oil

A typical day would therefore include:
(for a 125 lb female on a weight/fat loss cycle)

3 eggs
cup of yogurt

cabbage salad

cod liver

spinach with butter
cottage cheese

I have recently discovered the convenience of canned raw cod liver, which is extremely rich in vitamins and essential fatty acids and ranks very high on the satiety scale.

A lot of people like to take a meal off a week, and I think that is perfectly fine if you are reaching your goals. If not, I find that strict dieting can still be fun with foods like:

peanut butter
coconut milk and cream
sour cream mixed in with protein powder
all natural hot cocoa

Last, but not least, limiting carbs still leaves place for limiting calories. Since most low carb foods are also rich in nutrients and energy, measuring and weighing becomes an important factor to success. Truth be told, 80% of my clients have great results without ever tracking quantity and relying on their body's ability to self regulate. Those of us that have a long history of dieting and hard time shedding body fat should definitely respect the calorie law. We are also the ones that would mostly benefit from refeeds, calories cycling and other approaches we can integrate withing the low carb lifestyle.


Roland said...

Good info. I'm curious about your clients who want to gain muscle. Do you still prescribe low carb?

I believe it's healthier, overall, but when gaining muscle, is it better to go with more carbs?

Galina Talkington said...

The guys who have trained with us to gain muscle have all eaten low carb.
Milko and I have both gained lean body mass eating low carb. I believe one can gain more "weight" by eating a mixed diet for a number of reasons:
1. a diet that has more carbs will also stimulate appetite more, low carb lowers appetite
2. higher carb means less satiety, so you can eat more
3. higher carb means you can also have a lot of variety of how you prepare and mix your protein + the added benefit of calories and sugar from workout drinks

Overall, you will always gain more weight eating more carbs. Stop training though, and most of that weight melts away, whereas the lean body mass that people gain slower eating low carb stays around longer. Many of the people we train have experience gaining lean body mass both ways and can tell the difference. To me it's absurd that one can't gain muscle on low carb, we do it all the time, it's a question of changing habits, which is harder for some people, that's all.

Ryan J. Zielonka said...

I think that's the big advantage to low carb - you naturally eat less from both a convenience and physiological standpoint. I'm not so convinced that it's optimal in all cases for clients wanting to lose weight.

That said, for your typical inactive population (getting maybe 3 hours of purposeful exercise a week), I can see merit in slicing away heavily at carbs. However, it's the first thing I look at if someone is complaining about mood, lethargy, irritability etc. I've found low balling carbs (rather than 'overtraining') is almost always the culprit.

Galina Talkington said...

The people that we train rarely get more than 3 hours of activity a week. The other thing I am looking at is that the people that compete in a sport and train every day (grapplers and kick boxers for example) all report higher energy levels, more sustainable energy during the day and no feeling of "hunger lows". We are talking guys that weigh over 210 lbs here.

I find that girls need a lot more tweaking, most of my clients eat a protein and fat rich breakfast with some fruit added before noon and that takes care of things.

With myself, I have played with low carb approaches a lot and it's interesting to find that the reaction to the same approach is often quite different depending on mood, time of year and food choices available.