Confused About Carb Loading?

Have you ever eaten a bagel or muffin for breakfast, and then felt either so ravenously hungry or lethargic by late-morning that you wolfed down a sugar-filled energy bar? Now ask yourself why anyone would want to go to the gym in that condition—you'd probably spend the whole workout feeling like you couldn't get out of first gear. The rapid rise in blood sugar that comes from this type of high-carb load produces a very different outcome than most anticipate. It signals the body to release a big spurt of insulin, which actually lowers blood sugar and energy levels—a recipe for a mid-workout crash.

The original thinking behind carbohydrate loading was that it effectively restocked blood-sugar stores (glycogen) in the days before a major competitive event to provide long-lasting energy. But as you can see, carb loading at the wrong time (right before exercise) produces just the opposite outcome, leaving the body with less, rather than more, energy. Consistent energy is the goal, and avoiding sugar spikes and troughs is the answer!

In one study, 12 normal-weight men switched from their regular diet (about 48 percent carbohydrate) to a higher protein, low-carb diet (eight percent carbohydrate) for six weeks. Another eight men stayed on the regular diet for comparison. The men were encouraged to eat plenty of calories in order to maintain their weight. At the end of the six weeks, the men who had consumed higher protein and restricted carbs had significantly decreased their body fat by an average of 7.5 pounds and significantly increased lean body mass by an average of 2.4 pounds¹.

Why Protein Is Key

What would have happened if those men had also stepped up their exercise regimen during that time? They likely would have seen an even greater increase in muscle-to-fat ratio, because exercise builds muscle tissue when there is adequate protein in the diet.

Proteins, in fact, are the building blocks for muscle tissue. During exercise, the muscles are stressed—essentially causing dozens of tiny tears in the tissue. Proteins subsequently repair and rebuild this tissue, which is how your muscles maintain themselves and grow stronger. If you're an active person, this occurs underneath your skin every day. In fact, protein actually improves sports performance. Carb loading has been the norm, but it appears that drinks or bars with a more balanced mix of protein and carbs deliver much more benefits than carbs alone. Researchers from James Madison University reported that, when compared to carbohydrate-only drinks, protein and carb mixtures increased the parameters of exercise performance, decreased muscle fatigue, improved exercise endurance (by 19 percent), decreased muscle damage (by 75 percent), and even improved muscle functioning measured 24 hours later (by 16 percent). Impressively, for NCAA Division 1 cross-country runners, a protein/carb mix reduced muscle damage by 27% and muscle soreness by 30%.

Water remains the best drink for exercise, as even a small amount of dehydration can seriously decrease performance. But all-carb beverages (or bars) don't offer nearly the benefits that protein-carb mixes do. You can get an ideal blend of protein and carbs by either drinking an Atkins Advantage shake along with a piece of fruit like an apple, or by consuming an Atkins Advantage bar. The Carmel Chocolate Peanut Nougat bar, for example, offers a terrific blend of 11 grams of protein together with 17 grams of carbs, not to mention 9 grams of fiber, no trans-fats and 1 gram of sugar.

Exercise and Atkins

Another important note about exercise: There is a growing consensus that says exercise as a weight-loss strategy by itself is ineffective. In fact, it can be downright discouraging and demoralizing if weight loss is your only goal. An hour of moderate exercise burns about 300 to 600 calories. To get rid of one pound of body fat, you need to burn 3,500 calories. To put it in perspective, you burn about 100 calories per mile when you run. So you would have to run 35 miles to take off one pound of fat—hardly instant gratification. If you try to exercise and limit calories, it's a double whammy: You may not be consuming enough calories to fuel your body during exercise, so it becomes very difficult, you don't enjoy it and ultimately you give it up.

Contrast that with Atkins, which preserves lean body mass, enhances energy and helps you lose fat almost immediately—meaning that in a short time, you're not only feeling better, you're looking better in those gym clothes. Best of all, it comfortably allows you to lose weight without restricting your caloric intake and therefore without excessive hunger and cravings. Your muscles feel stronger because you're not starving your body, and you enjoy consistent energy. Result: You're more comfortable exercising and enjoy it more. That, of course, encourages you to do it more often. More exercise also raises your carb threshold, which means you can eat a greater variety of foods. And, as you surely know, regular exercise provides more health benefits than just about anything else on the planet. It's a win-win proposition.

Be Your Own Coach

Some general rules of thumb about doing Atkins and exercising are to listen to your body and hydrate like crazy. During the Induction phase, especially, while your body is switching over from a carb-burning metabolism to a fat-burning one, take it easy. Only do what feels good (but, of course, if it feels good, do it!). Making this metabolic conversion is different for everyone, so you have to be your own coach. By now, you've heard about the fluid loss that occurs any time you start a weight-loss program and burn through some of your excess energy stores. Stepping up your consumption of water is especially important when following a low-carb approach.

The bottom line is that when you combine exercise and a controlled-carb eating program, you are getting the greatest benefits from both. And it's a combination that can, quite literally, add years to your life.

When Carbs and Exercise Go Together

There are some times when increased carb consumption does make sense and can enhance exercise performance.

  • During a workout of an hour or more. In contrast to research suggesting that consuming a carbohydrate snack one to two hours prior to exercise can result in lowered blood sugar levels, some carbohydrate intake can be beneficial and result in greater exercise tolerance. For those performing aerobic exercise lasting 60 minutes or more, consumption of a carbohydrate and electrolyte-replacement drink during exercise can enhance performance².
  • During preparation for longer-duration exercise events such as 20-mile runs or races. One study demonstrated that individuals who normally control their carbs and then consumed a high-carbohydrate diet in the days before an event increased glycogen storage and had much higher rates of fat oxidation than individuals who regularly consume a high-carb diet³.
  • When recovering post-workout. This recovery period is an important time to fit in at least a portion of your daily carb consumption to maximize muscle recovery and to aid the process of preparing for your next exercise session (carbs consumed immediately after exercise begin to replenish glycogen stores).

References Cited

1. Volek, J.S., Sharman, M.J., Love, D.M., et al., "Body Composition and Hormonal Responses to a Carbohydrate-Restricted Diet," Metabolism, 2002, 51, pages 864–870.

2. Rowlands, D.S., Hopkins, W.G., "Effects of High-Fat and High-Carbohydrate Diets on Metabolism and Performance in Cycling," Metabolism, 2002, 51(6), pages 678–690

3. Burke, L.M., Angus, D.J., Cox, G.R., et al., "Effect of Fat Adaptation and Carbohydrate Restoration on Metabolism and Performance During Prolonged Cycling," Journal of Applied Physiology, 2000, 89, pages 2413–2421.