Diana Kelly Levey

The Best Low Carb Diet for Your Goal

Woman with fit abs from low carb diet

September 1, 2019 | Categories:

(This article originally appeared in a Low-Carb Diet magazine published by Centennial. See the full PDF here.)

It’s important when you’re considering a low carb diet to eat according to your goals. Someone who wants to reverse prediabetes or type 2 diabetes needs to approach this lifestyle differently than the endurance athlete who plans to use this approach to sustain energy throughout an event or training.

“You’re reducing carbs, but what are you replacing them with?” asks Visanti Malik, Ph.D., research scientist in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. “You can up the protein and fat, but thinking about what you’re replacing in your diet is where people need to focus because what you’re substituting those carbs with will have an important impact on your health.” Within a low-carb approach, focus on carbohydrate quality, Malik suggests, like vegetables, fruits and fiber-rich whole grains where they fit in.

How to follow a low-carb diet for your needs.

If you want to…lose fat or lose weight

When you want to get lean and show off a sleek physique, eat between 50 to 150 grams of carbs a day, suggests Linda M. Stephens, M.S. Nutritionist, N.A.S.M., C.P.T., who coaches bodybuilders to get them ready for the competition stage.

“That’s lower than what most people are consuming when they start a [weight loss plan],” she says. “If you really want to fast-track your weight and fat loss, you can drop to 20 to 50 grams of carbs,” she says. “The more carbohydrates you eat, the more insulin you release and then the more fats stored in your cells. By keeping the carbs lower, you produce less insulin and have less fat storage.”

Going very low carb definitely gets that fire burning and forces your body to use fat for energy, which is when people start to lose weight, said Stephens. “If someone’s overweight, they’re going to use more fat. If someone is leaner, then they’re going to start to break down their muscle, as well, which is not ideal.”

When Stephens writes up a nutrition program for her clients, she incorporates clean-burning carbs to keep them fueled throughout the day. That might be half-cup of white or brown rice, four ounces of potatoes, or a slice of whole-grain bread. “This little bit of carbs, maybe not at every meal, is enough to give help the person feel satisfied while keeping their metabolism burning enough that they’re still going into fat-burning mode.”

Keep carbs to the daytime hours, Stephens recommends, when you’re trying to lose fat or weight. That’s because you’re up and moving around more, she says. Stick with lean protein and fat in the evening. For a low-carb speedy fat loss plan, consider the ketogenic diet, Atkins, or South Beach Diet.


If you want to…build muscle

You’ve heard that adding more lean muscle mass will help you burn more calories at rest. It’ll also change your body shape and can help you look fitter even if you’re the same weight. To build muscle, you need to do strength and resistance training exercises with weights. “In order to have the energy to do that kind of exercise, you need, grains, fruits, and vegetables because those provide the carbohydrates that are needed to fuel the workout and the muscles,” says Nancy Clark, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook. “Each person’s glycemic response to a food differs. And it differs not only from person to person but also from day to day. I tell my clients to determine how a certain food or a meal makes them feel and adapt their eating plan based on that.” You might want to try a diet that allows for a good balance of carbs and protein, like Paleo, or the Renaissance Periodization diet that’s focused on macronutrient ratios and designed to help you build muscle.


“To build muscle, you need to take in carbohydrates because that’s the body’s fuel source,” says Stephens. “When you eat carbs, your body breaks them down into glucose molecules. They get stored in the liver as glycogen. So, when you go into the gym to lift, you’ve got glycogen stores in your muscles to power through your workout. If you don’t have enough and you use them up, it’s going to be very hard to build muscle.”


Glucose is the fuel you need for strength training. “You don’t want to break down fat and protein for muscle,” says Stephens. “I think a woman staying the 40 percent daily intake of carbs and for men 50 to 60 percent while trying to build muscle is ideal,” says Stephens.


Then, once you’ve built up lean muscle mass, you can carb cycle and aim for lower-carb days (20 to 50 grams) alternating with higher-carb days (50 to 150) to take off extra weight off as you get closer to your beach vacation or that special event you want to look hot for.


If you want to…improve a health condition

When you compare all the different diets out there…it does seem like the low-carb and higher fat pattern might be a little bit more sustainable, says Malik. “I mean it’s a bit more enjoyable, so people tend to stick to it more.” If you want to go low-carb for overall health, consider the Mediterranean style diet, as it’s optimal for health, suggest Malik. (It also took top spot in the U.S. News and World Report rankings for Best Diabetes Diet and Best Heart-Healthy Diet.[1]) “When it comes to improving overall health, drop from 50 percent of daily calories from carbs 40 percent,” says Malik. “I don’t recommend going extreme like Atkins or where you’re eating only 20s or 10 percent carbs.”


It would make sense for a low-carb diet to be beneficial for people with diabetes because glycemic or blood glucose control is an important factor in their management, says Malik. Focus on high-quality carbs in low quantity. “Have a few whole grains and plenty of fruits and vegetables for a positive effect on diabetes risks and management. Add in the healthful proteins and fats,” suggests Malik.


A research paper finds that restricting carbohydrates in type 2 diabetics to achieve nutritional ketosis can improve glycemic control, resulting in weight loss, and help patients significantly reduce medication use.


Quality carbs — fruits, vegetables, grains and beans — promote a healthy

microbiome, which reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, says Clark.


If you’re healthy and want to reduce overall disease risk, talk to your doctor about whether they recommend a low-carb diet based on your health history or, if something like the Mediterranean, DASH or Flexitarian diet would be better for you.


If you want to…train for an endurance event

Traditionally endurance athletes have relied on a high-carb diet to reach their performance goals, but, keto-adapted athletes are using this low-carb approach and having success with it. Although research on endurance athletes on keto is new and often involving small sample sizes, athletes that have followed keto for months have trained their bodies to tap into using fat for fuel. In one study of elite race walkers, after adapting to a keto diet, the athletes had improved aerobic capacity but impaired the endurance athlete’s performance.


“No one really understands how long it takes to fat adapt,” says Jennifer Giamo, C.P.T., owner of Trainers in Transit. “That’s kind of the missing piece. So how long that adaptation period takes can be different for each individual, but once you’re there, you can rely on your fat stores for energy during endurance training. Find out: Can lifting weights make you look younger?


“You don’t hit that wall because you’re not getting those highs and lows you experience when you consume carbs and have glucose fluctuations,” Giamo says. “If you’re eating high-carb, you’re burning through those carbs and when you hit the ‘wall’ during an event, it’s because those carbs are depleted.” On the other hand, on keto or a similar low-carb diet, you have a constant supply of fat and your body runs on that, says Giamo.


“For serious athletes who do intense exercise, take note before following keto,” says Clark. “How long that adaptation period takes can be different for different people, but once you’re there, you can rely on your fat stores for training, for endurance.”


“Keto is a lot of work with no proven performance benefits to date,” says Clark. In fact, a small study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness found that a short-term, low carbohydrate diet like keto can hurt performance in exercises that are dependent on anaerobic systems, like short-burst, high-energy activities—including HIIT, sprinting or weight lifting.


If you’re going low-carb, follow that diet for a few months before you start training for an endurance event like a half marathon, marathon or triathlon. It would be wise to work with a sports nutritionist if you’re training for an endurance event so that you can make sure you’re fueling your body properly before and after workouts.

Learn healthy eating tips from the keto diet.




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