The important points …
- The leaner you are, the more carbs you can (and should) eat because the leaner you are, the more sensitive you are to insulin. This means that you handle carbs well (store them more in muscle rather than as fat) which means that they will help you build muscle and train harder.
- As you get leaner (through a dieting process), leptin levels will go down which can lead to a metabolic slowdown making it harder to lose fat. It will also give you a stronger cravings. Increasing carbs intake slightly can help counter the decrease in leptin levels.
- When the dieting process progresses, another factor that can contribute to a decreased metabolic rate is a lower conversion rate of the “non-active” thyroid hormone T4 into the active hormone T3. This conversion is influenced by the level of carb intake, so increasing intake when conversion slows down can help maintain a high rate of fat loss.
- Pineapple is one of the best sources you can add to your carb intake. It reduces low-grade systemic inflammation, helps with digestion (especially protein), and can lower cortisol levels and improve immune system health. It is also fairly high in potassium and low in sodium, which along with its antioxidant properties, can help with heart health.
Earn your carbs by getting lean
Strength coach extraordinaire Charles Poliquin was the first one to coin the sentence: “You have to earn your carbs”. What he means by that is that the leaner you get the more carbs you are allowed in your diet. He came to that conclusion after analyzing body composition data of hundreds of clients and noticing a strong correlation between the body fat level of clients and their sensitivity to insulin, leaner individuals being more sensitive.
Why does it matter? Because the more sensitive to insulin you are, the less likely you are to accumulate fat and the easier it will be to lose it.
Because insulin is a storage hormone. Its job is to tell the body’s reserves to store the nutrients you’ve ingested. It tells the muscle cells to store glycogen (carbs), amino acids (protein) and some fat (triglycerides). It also tells the fat cells to build up their fat storage, a pretty well-known fact, and one of the arguments used by low carbs diet proponents: insulin stores fat so if you avoid insulin release (by not consuming carbs) you will not store fat. While there might be some truth to that, not consuming carbs also means that it will be more difficult to store nutrients inside the muscles, making it harder for them to recover and grow.
The fact is we actually want some insulin in our body because it is very anabolic to muscle, but we don’t want it to stay elevated. You see the body is really bad at doing two opposing things. If insulin levels are high, the body is in “storage mode” and “mobilization” of stored resources (fat in this case) is thus extremely reduced, albeit halted. So if insulin stays elevated for a long time after its release, you spend a lot of time not being able to mobilize, use and lose fat.
This is where insulin sensitivity comes in. Being “sensitive” to a hormone means that your body responds easily to it. If your body is sensitive to insulin, it means that it will easily respond to insulin and therefore doesn’t need to produce a lot of it to “get the message”. Contrarily, when you are resistant to insulin the body does not respond well and needs to produce a lot more of it to get the message across. The more insulin your produce, the longer it stays elevated, so if you are insulin resistant, each meal might stop fat loss for a few hours, which is a lot longer than if you are sensitive to it. That’s why if you are sensitive to insulin, you are less likely to store fat and can lose it more easily.
One of the great benefits of strength training is that it can increase insulin sensitivity in the muscles. Not only will you be more sensitive to insulin when you train hard, but your muscles will tend to be more receptive to storing nutrients. What’s more, the larger your muscles are, the more insulin receptors they have making them more responsive. The big picture is, if you are leaner and bigger, you are more sensitive to insulin and as a result, you can afford to eat more carbs (within reason). They will be used to build muscle and replenish glycogen instead of storing more fat and inhibiting fat loss.
Note that some supplements can also improve insulin sensitivity. Omega-3 fatty acids, cyanidin-3-glucoside, alpha-lipoic acid, chromium picolinate, curcumin and magnesium are a few. Cyanidin-3-glucoside is particularly interesting since it specifically increases muscle insulin sensitivity, improving the insulin response but also favoring nutrient transport to the muscles. Some condiments and foods can also help with insulin sensitivity, like cinnamon and apple cider vinegar.
Where to add the carbs?
The best time to add carbs to your diet is either pre or post-training. A case can be made for the superiority of either.
Consuming carbs pre-workout (15-30 minutes prior) will protect your glycogen stores by giving you the energy that is more readily usable, decrease the cortisol response to training, and can increase protein uptake by the muscles during the training (if amino acids are already present in the bloodstream). However, there is a possibility that consuming carbs pre-training might decrease the amount of fat burned during the session.
Having your carbs post-workout is effective for replenishing the glycogen stores used up during your training session and might also help send protein to the trained muscles to facilitate recovery. Since it won’t raise insulin pre-training, it will not interfere with the fat loss that would occur during the workout.
If your main goal is to add muscle, I would suggest adding the carbs (with some protein) pre-training and if it is fat loss, I would add the carbs (and protein) post-workout.
It can also be a good idea to consume carbs in the evening. This might seem to go against the grain since popular belief is that because you are inactive during the evening you will not use carbs and instead store them as fat. Hormonally, however, it is the moment that makes the most sense, because consuming carbs blunts cortisol (the stress hormone) and increases the release of serotonin (the well-being neurotransmitter).
One of the reasons your body releases cortisol is to mobilize carbs, so providing it with carbs in the evening helps maintain cortisol levels low. In an optimal hormonal system, cortisol should be elevated in the morning but low in the evening because it can interfere with proper recovery during sleep
More reasons why having elevated cortisol in the evening is bad:
- Cortisol, testosterone and estrogen are fabricated from the same hormone, pregnenolone, which is in limited supply. So the more cortisol you produce, the less pregnenolone you have to produce testosterone (or estrogen). A combination of high cortisol and low testosterone will make it very hard to gain muscle, kill your libido and have a strong negative impact on your mood and well-being.
- When cortisol is constantly elevated and remains so during the evening/night it can screw up your natural hormonal cycle or worse, lead to adrenal burnout. When this happens cortisol is no longer elevated in the morning. Having a super hard time getting started in the morning is the first sign of low cortisol levels.
Another positive element of consuming carbs in the evening is the increase in serotonin it provides. Serotonin is the well-being neurotransmitter that helps with quality of sleep, mood and mental alertness. It also puts you in a more relaxed state. Having elevated serotonin levels in the evening will help you unwind after a stressful day, recover properly and get better quality sleep.
How much to add?
When adding carbs the biggest mistake to make is to add a large quantity right off the bat, especially if you’re trying to get lean. It is always best to titrate it up until you find a level that allows you to consume as many carbs as possible while progressing at your optimal pace. I like to add 25g of carbs per day for a week. If the abdomen caliper measurement and body weight are doing what they are supposed to do (decrease in caliper measurement if fat loss is your main goal and stable caliper measurement/increased body weight if muscle growth is your main goal), you can add another 25g per day. Repeat this process weekly to see if you can add some more carbs, if you need to stay there or if you need to take it down a notch.
What food to eat?
Initially, your main food sources will be things like potatoes, rice, oatmeal, yams, berries, etc. Once you get leaner you can add one of my favorite sources: pineapple. I would not use it with people who are not quite lean yet and/or who have bad insulin sensitivity because it does have a decent amount of sugar in it. However, if you are more sensitive to insulin it is one of the foods with the most benefits for the lifter wanting to build muscle, not to mention its benefits on overall health.
A word of caution here. I’m talking about fresh pineapples, not canned. Canned pineapples contain about twice the amount of sugar and less than half the nutrients of their fresh counterparts.
Pineapple contains a fair amount of bromelain, an enzyme that helps with digestion, especially digestion of proteins (which is important to us who want to build muscle). It’s also a good anti-inflammatory, having a positive impact on low-grade systemic inflammation. It’s full of vitamin C which is a strong antioxidant and has positive impact on the immune system. It has ten times more potassium than sodium which will help reduce blood pressure and rebalance the sodium-potassium ratio that tends to favor sodium too much. It’s one of the best sources of “fast carbs” that a person can ingest peri-training.
One cup of fresh pineapple gives you approximately 20g of carbs. So if you are titrating your carbs up, start with about a cup (or slightly more) of pineapple after your training session.
Carbs are not evil!
In fact, very few people can naturally add a significant amount of muscle without carbs. They key however, is finding the carb sweet spot that allows you to perform better, build more muscle, and be happier without gaining excessive fat.