Diet rules suck. Any time you get a dietary recommendation that includes words such as “always”, “never”, “only”, a big red flag should go up. While rules can be great for many things, diet rules can mess up your nutrition. Following the latest diet laws can make nutrition unnecessarily difficult and sometimes completely sabotage your goals. One particular area of nutrition that is flooded with rules is the area of carbohydrates. If you blindly follow traditional carb rules you can get fat, lose muscle, kill your performance and even hurt your health. To avoid these problems, follow the “new rules” (i.e. principles) of carbs.
Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Old Rule: Always have a carbohydrate-rich breakfast
For over half a century the cereal companies have spent billions of dollars in advertising to convince us that some highly-processed, sugar laden junk from a box is “part of a complete breakfast”. Now most fitness-minded folks and athletes know better. However, many are still convinced that they need to pound back the carbs in the morning.
On one hand, carbs for breakfast makes sense. After sleeping all night, your body will have lower glycogen stores, thus making breakfast a good meal to replenish them. The problem with this rule is that it doesn’t account for individuality. We do not all respond to the same to carbs. Some people can eat a high-carb breakfast and feel great while others find themselves falling asleep at their desk. Is it any wonder why people who have breakfast cereal with juice, toast and milk need several cups of coffee to get through the morning?
Experiment with different levels of carbohydrates for breakfast and note your mental and physical performance in the morning. While some may be fine with oatmeal and fruit for breakfast, others may find they are better off with proteins, healthy fats and veggies. For example, famous strength coach Charles Poliquin recommends eating meat and nuts for breakfast.
New Rule: eat the right type and amount of carbs for breakfast that lets you feel and perform at your best
Old Rule: Never eat carbs at night
Many diet rules include things such as “never eat past 7pm” and “never eat carbs at night”. Many people think nighttime is the worst time to eat carbs as they will most certainly would be stored as body fat.
Related: Never Eat Past 7pm?
One of the things we now realize is that although nutrient timing is good, it has often been overrated and overemphasized at the expense of a much more important issue – total calories and macronutrients. If you slammed back carbs all day and then continue to pound back more carbs at night you will likely eat more total calories and more total carbs than you need for the day. This will cause your body to store fat. Also, because many people find their self-control falls asleep before they do, they are more likely to make poor food choices and are too lax on their portion sizes. However, if you eat the same total calories and grams of carbs but simply shift more good carbs to your evening meal (i.e. not late-night TV snack), you won’t have the same problem.
Eating carbs at night can be particularly helpful for some people for 3 reasons:
1. More energy during the day
As I mentioned above, some people find carbs make them sleepy. By emphasizing more proteins, healthy fats, veggies and some fruit during the day, they have more energy and better performance.
2. They sleep better at night
Ever felt sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner? Most people blame the tryptophan in the turkey. Nice try! I’ve eaten enough turkey (outside of Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners) to know that the turkey is not the problem. The reason most people pass out after a Thanksgiving dinner is the carb crash from the boat loads of potatoes, yams (with marshmallows and brown sugar), rolls and pie.
By shifting more of your carbs to your evening meal, you may find you are sleeping better. Better sleep quality goes a long way to improving your health, performance and body composition.
3. It improves morning training performance
Recently one of my clients who trains with me at 7am had an extra-good training session. She went up in weights on nearly all her exercises and did so with ease. Afterwards we were taking and she mentioned she had a good-sized meal for dinner. I encouraged her to keep this up! By getting sufficient glycogen (how your body stores carbs) in the muscles the night before, you will be ready to go if you train first thing in the morning.
New Rule: Do not fear eating carbs at night if doing so is helpful for you
Old Rule: Only eat low Glycemic index carbs
Back in the 90’s the glycemic index started popping up in nearly every nutrition book. The idea behind the glycemic index was good – help diabetics understand which carbs spike blood sugar and raise insulin levels and which ones don’t. The concept got picked up by those in the exercise and sport nutrition communities as a way to improve health and leanness by avoiding foods that spike your blood sugar. However, there are 4 major problems to the glycemic index:
1) It doesn’t account for typical serving sizes
The glycemic index used 50g of carbs for the research, but not all carb foods are eating in 50g servings. Thankfully, the glycemic load was created which took into consideration the typical serving size. For example, carrots are considered high glycemic. If you have 50g of carbs in the form of carrot juice, it will spike your sugar levels as if you just ate plain sugar. However, a single carrot has about 3g of natural sugar – hardly something to worry about.
Related: Glycemic Load
2) It lead people to believe that low glycemic = good and high glycemic = bad
While there is general trend of natural foods being low glycemic and unnatural, highly processed foods being high glycemic, it is not that simple. There are healthy foods (e.g. carrots) that are high glycemic and unhealthy foods (e.g. processed, powdered fructose) which are low glycemic.
3) People don’t eat just carbs
The biggest problem with the glycemic index is that it is completely unrealistic to how people eat. No one sits down and eats 2 plain baked potatoes as a meal. Instead carb servings are included with protein, fibrous vegetables and fats – all of which will lower the overall glycemic impact of the meal.
4) Sometimes you want to spike your insulin levels
While chronically elevated insulin levels can lead to a host of health problems, insulin is not bad. One often overlooked benefit to insulin is that it is very anabolic. Using healthy, high glycemic foods (e.g. dates) after hard training can be a helpful way to improve recovery and stimulate muscle growth.
New rule: Limit sugary, highly processed foods and emphasize balanced meals
Old Rule: Only eat whole grains
Whole grains are good for you – right? Generally speaking – yes. Whole grains digest slower than refined grains and have more nutrients. They also contain soluble fiber which helps to lower cholesterol (which you would know from the Cheerio boxes). However, there are 3 things problems you can run into with whole grains:
1. Mock health foods
Smart food marketers have capitalized on the recommendations to eat more whole grains but letting you know that their highly-processed, sugar-laden food are “made with whole grain”. Next thing we’ll have the sugar companies telling us that their sugar was “made with natural cane plants”.
2. Not everyone tolerates whole grains well
While whole grains can be healthy, some people find they irritate their digestive systems. Use caution if this is you and consider experimenting with different grains to see if you do better with some than others.
3. Those with huge carb requirements
For hard-training athletes or lifters who need huge amounts of carbohydrates, it can be difficult to get these through whole grains. Too much fiber can cause digestive track discomfort and bloating. Potatoes are an excellent source of starchy carbs. White rice which is very easily digested and well-tolerated by almost everyone has been a popular bodybuilding staple for decades.
New rule: include whole grains if you tolerate them well, but don’t be afraid to eat white rice and potatoes if you truly need the extra carbs
Old Rule: You should only have X% of your calories from carbs
Back in the 80’s and 90’s, fat was demonized and everyone pushed carbs. While this was great for high-level endurance athletes and those who were naturally skinny, it failed miserably for those who were not active or who did not tolerate carbs well and stored body fat easily.
Then, in the carbophobic days of the late 90’s and early 2000’s people shunned carbs. At this point in nutrition history, carbs were of the devil. Carbs made you fat, carbs gave you diabetes and carbs made you unhealthy. I remember trying low carb eating and before I knew it, almost 20lbs of muscle fell off my body.
Related: How to Personalize Your Carb Intake
Ignore blanket rules about everyone needing to eat X amount of carbs per day.
New rule: eat the right amount of carbs for your body, your needs and your goals
Related: Be Trend Wise
The diet industry has and always will be full of silly fads and blanket rules. Don’t blindly follow them. Learn to think for yourself. Experiment to find what works best for you – even if it doesn’t fit today’s diet fashion.
How about you? How what types and amounts of carbs do you find work best for you? I invite you to leave your questions and comments below or on my Facebook Page.