This isn’t what you’re probably expecting.
I’ve noticed over the last six months or so that there is a real swing happening towards more flexible and moderate approaches to nutrition, which I would describe as “common sense” approaches which also happen to have scientific backing if you’re following the right people. I’m optimistic that it is a swing away from restrictive diets and the scientific half truths and revisionist history that has been popular the past few years… but it could just be that I’ve insulated myself from being exposed to nonsense by only networking with a better class of more intelligent, eloquent and ethical industry people. We shall see.
Regardless of this, I guess there are always going to be people who stick to their guns even though those ideas are going out of vogue and despite (much more importantly) the overwhelming real world evidence to the contrary. As such I’ve been shown a couple of articles this week still pushing the “carbs are bad” rhetoric which has inspired me to put this entry together. I’m not going to link to the articles because frankly those sites are stupid and full of nonsense and they don’t deserve to get any extra traffic especially from my blog which is awesome and full of brilliance, but there was one about “carb overload” and another one explaining how “over eating processed carbs is worse than over eating healthier foods”; both basically trying to tell you “carbs are bad and you should buy this here low carb diet book from our sponsor”.
“Calories are not equal” is the other thing that you’ll hear a lot from these people, and in some regards this is actually correct. Hear me out, flexible dieters! Obviously our bodies utilise carbohydrates, fats and proteins for different purposes… I don’t think anyone disputes this. However depending on who the source is, the argument made is either that ALL carbohydrates are doing you harm, or the slightly more moderate position that there are “good carbs” and “bad carbs” and our body has a use for one type but not the other and therefore deals with them differently.
That’s not correct but where there is some truth in the idea that “calories are not equal” is the difference not between supposed “good” and “bad” calories but between regular calories and EXCESS calories. This should be obvious to anyone with reasonable level of intelligence and willingness to apply that intelligence towards reaching a logical conclusion. In particular reference to the article I mentioned about about deliberately overeating, of course your body is going to deal with those calories differently. You’re deliberately consuming more than double your required daily intake, and mostly from low nutrient, low fibre, quickly digested foods. You are training your body to become very, very efficient at storing fat… and you’re doing it deliberately.
Now if you’re to believe the take home message of these articles… the lessons we learn from deliberately following the best possible course of action to achieve maximum fat gain are applicable to people trying to lose weight as well. And since EXCESS carbs are very efficiently turned into fat, carbs need to be avoided under every circumstance.
Ab. Solute. Bollocks.
Have you ever known someone who lost weight simply by cutting out soft drinks / sodas and drinking water instead? Maybe you’ve done so yourself. Since the calories in soft drinks are mostly derived from simple sugars, wouldn’t this imply that one (if not all) of the “carbs are the culprit” theories are correct?
The answer is yes. But not in the way that you’re lead to believe.
Let’s assume a hypothetical male client of about my height and weight, working in an office job and we’ll say downing a 600ml bottle of a certain cola beverage at lunch time most days. Now in case you didn’t know, in real life I am actually overweight because I’m a muscular beast and phenomenally strong. But in this example let’s assume the extra weight is mostly body fat, and I’m getting a little exercise a couple of times per week rather than every day at a reasonably advanced level as per real life. This is quite a believable, realistic set of circumstances wouldn’t you agree?
Now as I crunch the numbers on this hypothetical client I see that with only a lightly active lifestyle, there is only a relatively small difference between “calories expected to maintain current weight” and “calories expected to maintain healthy goal weight”. In other words; if you are not terribly active those excess calories will add up very quickly and result in significant weight gain from increased body fat. Now by simply cutting out that daily 600ml bottle, we reduce total intake by 258 calories per day, 1806 per week. You can see that this is a sufficient deficit to produce at least a few kilograms of weight loss, especially if we make the (rather bold, I admit) assumption that the client’s eating habits are otherwise not too far removed from what we would expect to maintain a healthy weight.
Let’s say though that instead of cutting out the bottle of soft drink, you decide to drop two baked potatoes out of your lunch or dinner. Roughly the same amount of calories, although there’s some protein and fibre in there this time. All things considered, we’d still expect about the same amount of weight loss as we’re ending up at about the same amount of calories. The big difference though is that you’d be bloody hungry missing out on those potatoes, and more likely to end up giving in and eating something else instead – ending up back in excess calories again. Can the same be said when cutting out the same amount of calories from that bottle of drink?
The problem then is not that carbs (or sugars) are bad and need to be avoided. The problem is with food and beverage products that deliver a large amount of carbohydrates in a serving size that is disproportionate to the amount of energy and the amount of satiety they provide. In other words, products that are more likely to put you into excess calories, while still leaving you hungry and therefore likely to go even further into excess.
With all of that being said though, the important thing to remember is that even if you do indulge, you will not gain fat or ruin your progress if you are not going into excess calories regularly. When you train strategically, your calorie requirements go up, and if you have a good plan you can find a little space for some indulgence when you really feel like it.