Billy Shakespeare is believed to have written the famous words, “To be, or not to be. That is the question”.
What most people don’t know is that he was actually a nutrition nerd and what his original version said was, “High carb or low carb. That is the question”.
But his editors didn’t understand how important that question really is.
This is perhaps the most contentious question out there right now.
Facebook would be a much different and less entertaining place if high-carb versus low-carb debates didn’t exist.
Yeah Zucks, you can thank the fitness industry for higher user engagement averages whenever a low-carb or high-carb study is published.
Now I know you all are much more sophisticated readers so you are likely interested in knowing should you eat low-carb or high-carb. That is precisely what we will cover in this article.
The goal with this article is to highlight cases where you should go high carb and cases where low carb might be better.
Carbs Do Not Make You Fat
Before we descend into the actual question that Billy Shakespeare never got credit for and discuss whether you should go low carb or high carb, we need to set one idea aside: Carbohydrates make you fat.
I am going to convince you that they do not in less than 150 words.
Here is the idea. Carbs cause a release of insulin which stores fat. This idea that carbs make you fat is a scientific hypothesis, and we can test it. Here’s a list of questions that would be answered “yes” if carbs did make you fat and the actual answers to them:
- When controlled for calories and protein, do high carb diets make you gain more body fat? No1
- When controlled for calories and protein do low carb diets make you lose more body fat? No2,3
- Is it impossible to lose weight on a high-carb diet? No3
- Do insulin levels predict future fat gain? No4
- Does high protein intake (which also elicits a large insulin response) make you gain fat? No5
There you go. There is literally everything you need to know to convince yourself that carbs do not make you fat. Now we can move on.
The Case for High Carb Diets
Diets are tools and you need to use the right diet to achieve certain goals. A high carb diet is an excellent tool for specific goals.
We know that carbohydrates and protein are required to elicit the highest muscle protein synthesis response to a meal and to a post-workout meal. We also know that high carb, high protein diets are essential for maximizing muscle gain during resistance training programs.
The data is super conclusive on this matter. If you want to get jacked, you need protein and you need carbs.
Performing at a high level in sports that demand >65% of your maximal effort for durations greater than 90-180 seconds requires diets that are high in carbohydrates. Low carb diets just do not work at high intensities.
There is over 40 years of data that tells us how the body uses fuel at intensity above 65% and it is mostly carbohydrate oxidation. If you want to perform at your peak capacity for any meaningful duration, you need to consume a high carb diet.
If you want to lose fat, the two most important aspects of fat loss are calorie balance and adherence. There are numerous studies showing that the best adherence on the least effective diet is substantially more effective than sub-par adherence on the most effective diet.
Essentially, this means that if you are trying to lose fat and you can maintain your calorie balance and crush your diet plan by eating only bananas, potatoes, and whey protein, go high carb.
The Case for Low Carb Diets
One of the main benefits of a low-carb diet is you essentially eliminate a vast majority of energy-dense, hyper-palatable foods. I mean think about it, low carb diets by default usually require people to eat proteins, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and a little bit of fruit. Diets like these usually end up being structured such that they induce “spontaneous caloric restriction”.
Essentially, most people usually end up eating a ton of chicken and kale, their calorie intake drops drastically and they lose weight.
This feature of low-carb diets makes them very approachable for the general population and makes ad libitum dieting fairly effortless in many situations.
So if you are someone who is trying to lose weight and enjoys lean proteins and veggies, thinks MyFitnessPal is the devil, and doesn’t enjoy adhering to a strict calorie counting diet, than a low-carb diet is probably going to be a really effective route for you to do to lose weight.
Let me hit you with a little reality check. For a lot of us, low-carb won’t kill you. If you are like me and an “average joe” and you get 6-8 hours a week in the gym, do mostly bodybuilding style training, and are looking to do a cut and drop some body fat, 8-16 weeks of low carb is not going to completely destroy you.
Seriously, your performance might drop a bit, your muscles might look deflated, but it is not going to ruin years of hard work. With some smart nutrient timing you can even retain your muscle mass pretty well.
If you are a physique athlete looking to cut and you find a low-carb diet is practical to implement and helpful, you can successfully employ one during a cutting cycle.
The Wrap Up
It isn’t a battle of low-carb versus high-carb. It is more of a “which tools should I use for my current goal”.
If you are trying to maximize your muscle growth or your athletic performance you would be well served to go high carb.
If you are trying to lose weight, do well on diets high in lean protein and veggies, and do not need to perform at a high level, you can use a low-carb diet quite effectively.
Neither approach is inherently “bad”, but they need to be used in the right context.
P.S. The carbs don’t make you fat segment was 147 words. #victory
- Fat and carbohydrate overfeeding in humans: different effects on energy storage.
- Calorie for calorie, dietary fat restriction results in more body fat loss than carbohydrate restriction in people with obesity.
- Energy expenditure and body composition changes after an isocaloric ketogenic diet in overweight and obese men.
- The entero-insular axis and adipose tissue-related factors in the prediction of weight gain in humans.
- A high-protein diet induces sustained reductions in appetite, ad libitum caloric intake, and body weight despite compensatory changes in diurnal plasma leptin and ghrelin concentrations.