Using carbs to optimize fat-burn

Carbs are the double-edge sword of the fitness world. (I’ve talked about this extensively in other places in this blog). On the one hand, they provide just the right kind of energy we need to fuel our more demanding activities (such as workouts). On the other hand, they act as the mechanism that tell our fat-cells to open up and start storing more fat!

I’ve talked about the glycemic index in the past, but here’s a refresher in case you aren’t sure how this works.

When you eat carbs, your body responds by producing insulin in your blood stream. The more insulin in your blood stream, the more energy you have.  And if you don’t use or need that energy, the result is that your body goes into full fat-storage mode — it’ll start converting anything you eat (or anything you’ve eaten recently) into fat.

The more simple the carb (e.g. the more sugar it has), the higher the insulin spike, the more your body goes into fat-store mode.  This is why I want to scream when I hear people say “If you want to lose weight, you need to eat more fruits and vegetables.”…. Yeah, they’re sort of right… but with a LOT of caveats about what kind of fruits and vegetables.. and when the fruits and vegetables ought to be consumed to prevent fat-storage mode from kicking in.  (Apples, bananas, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, etc. are all very high on the glycemic index — meaning, they’re loaded with sugar. Eating too much of them can actually prevent the production of fat-burning enzymes).

Side note:  This is the core concept behind the chemistry involved in the Ketogenic approach to dieting (super high protein, very high-fat, and very, very low carbs). The goal in the keto approach is to prevent ANY sort of insulin spike, ever, no matter what. The chemistry is somewhat complex, but the net result is that your body shifts its entire digestive process to get energy from fat, so long as you don’t ever cause an insulin spike. (This is why carbs from fiber don’t count on a keto diet — because they are digested slow enough that they prevent that insulin spike from occurring).

Getting back on track for a second.. the following only applies if you’re NOT using a ketogenic approach to weight loss…

If you are trying to lose weight in a traditional fashion, the BEST way to use carbs is to consume 25 to 45 grams of fast-acting protein, such as whey, fish, or egg whites, combined with 25 to 50 grams of simple carbs within 30 minutes of your workout.

Ideally, the carbohydrates should to be fiber-based, such as oatmeal, oat bran, peas or corn. Fiber slows the breakdown of carbohydrates, allowing them to be delivered in an almost “time-released” fashion. The benefit: slower-digesting carbohydrates result in moderate insulin rises, and moderate insulin is our goal. Moderate insulin offers anabolic or building support, without reversing the fat-burning state induced with cardio.

Simple carbs, such as white bread, juices or high glycemic carbs, should be avoided because they tend to spike insulin levels, and the resulting spike can compromise fat burning by suppressing fat-burning hormones and enzymes.

The benefit to this approach? Without getting into the chemistry, the combination of low-glycemic carbs and quality protein right after your workout will give your body exactly the right kind of fuel that it needs to NOT feel as though it needs to turn to your muscle-mass for the protein it needs. (We want to burn FAT, not muscle!!). You’ll also feel great because the low-glycemic carbs effectively re-fill the energy gas tanks (glycogen stores) that you just depleted during your workout!

(Note that if you are eating and lifting to bulk, and NOT trying to cut fat, the rules are different… I won’t get into them here… but you DO want to spike your insulin levels pretty significantly immediately post-workout, in that case.. So you would take a different approach than the one outlined here).