Help! Are Carbs My Problem?

Without fail, the number one nutritional question  trainers hear concerns carbs, and secondly, gluten. With folks being bombarded by a ton of misleading carbohydrate info, it’s no wonder. Paleo, Atkins, South Beach and many other diet plans condemn carbs as the source of your weight problem, and advocate carb denial to various extents as the path to being healthy. Does it work for some people? No doubt, but in small numbers. Does it work for the majority, and are losses from carb depletion sustained? There the water gets a bit more murky. And now, there’s the gluten issue that we see everywhere in media. The fact that people tend to follow trends without fully understanding them is illustrated by this late night TV host, Jimmy Kimmel, who recently sent out a camera crew to interview people that were on gluten free plans. The great majority had no idea what gluten even is, or why they were avoiding it (see it here).

No less of an authority than Precision Nutrition (the largest private nutrition coaching and research company in the world)  recently weighed in on the carb subject. In an article published for their members, they address three of the biggest claims concerning carbs. (Read the entire article here)

  • Carbs spike your blood sugar and insulin, which slathers on the body fat.
  • Carbs, especially sugar and grains, cause inflammation.
  • Carbs are not an essential part of the diet like fat and protein.

The facts of the matter are far less than simple. For those of us who train figure and bodybuilding competitors, a substantial lowering of carbs is an essential part of the “shredding” phase, or the leaning out leading up to a competition. This leads to a show physique for the competitor, but is not part of their year round nutritional plan. By depleting carbs, the competitors do lean out, but then consume a large intake of carbs just before the competition, which makes their muscles and definition “pop” and helps them present better on stage. Soon after the competition, when carb intake is resumed, much of the weight lost in the shredding phase is regained. So why not leave the carbs out after a comp and maintain the lean physique? If it were only that simple. Competitors know that removing carbs causes a significant drop in energy levels, which leads to a lower intensity workout, and consequently giving back much of their hard earned muscle gains. One of the major challenges faced in the shredding phase is how to avoid losing muscle while leaning out.

Reducing carbs by too much can lead to other complications. According to the Precision Nutrition article mentioned above, those problems include;

  • decreased thyroid output
  • increased cortisol output
  • decreased testosterone
  • impaired mood and cognitive function
  • muscle catabolism
  • suppressed immune function

The net result of a food plan too low in carbs can be a slowing in your metabolism, which can actually lead to weight gain, and a deficiency in the hormones needed to add muscle. In addition, for women, the disruption in hormone production can not only hamper weigh loss, it can result in;

  • a stopped or irregular menstrual cycle;
  • lowered fertility;
  • hypoglycemia and blood sugar swings;
  • more body fat (especially around the middle);
  • loss of bone density;
  • anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues;
  • chronic inflammation and worse chronic pain;
  • chronic fatigue and disrupted sleep; and
  • a host of other chronic problems

So, what is the right answer? As a recent publication by the University of Illinois stated, there is no “magic pill” or “magic diet”. They add the following about what is the right plan; It should contain a balance of carbohydrates, fat, and protein. It will allow you to eat any type of healthy food, as long as you do not over eat. It will provide almost all the nutrients you need for good health without adding vitamin or mineral supplements. It will require exercise or other types of physical activity. Replacing “bad” carbohydrates such as potato chips, cookies, cakes and pies with healthier ones is a better way to control weight and be healthy. So what does this mean you need to look for in your food plan? Balance. First, it isn’t about carbs or no carbs as much as it is quality versus low quality carbs. Complex carbohydrates provide good energy sources, without much downside. I include carbs, like quinoa, brown rice, sweet potatoes and oatmeal, in every client’s food plan, and, without exception, they are seeing great results when they stick to it along with their exercise prescriptions. White potatoes, corn and most breads don’t make the cut. Simple carbs, like foods high in sugar, are a different story. Those in the fitness industry have a term, the “trio of death”, to refer to white sugar, white flour and white rice. There is some research recently out claiming that white rice may not belong in this group, but the sugar and flour have few, if any, defenders. When a patient is diagnosed with type two diabetes, among the first things removed from their food plans are white flour and high sugar content foods.


So, your overall health is really determined more by a balance of five major categories than the removal of one food group. Resistance training, cardio training, nutrition, hydration and rest are the five key components of a fit lifestyle. Gimmicks, like fad diets with little or no basis in nutritional science, may provide short term gains in one aspect, weight loss, but are not contributors to an overall healthy life. Stay tuned for an upcoming article on why everyone, especially women, should include resistance training in their prescriptions, and why cardio training alone leaves you short of your fitness goals.

Jim Harris