Slow Digesting Carbohydrates for Fat Loss and Better Performance?

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Consume fewer calories, use more body fat and feel great during exercise – these are the claims behind slow digesting carbohydrates. Before you ditch your typical sports drink in favor of a slow digesting carbohydrate, check out the truth behind each of these lofty claims.

In this post I will cover:

  • One big fat myth – slow digesting carbohydrates won’t help you burn body fat
  • Trying to burn fat during exercise is pointless
  • Fast carbohydrates are better for high-intensity athletes
  • Advice for those on a low carbohydrate diet

According to Generation UCAN, makers of a slow digesting starch (a type of carbohydrate), typical high sugar sports nutrition products cause a rapid increase in energy followed by low blood sugar leading to a sharp crash, leaving you feeling tired with a bad case of the munchies (“post-workout cravings” according to their website). Generation UCAN’s starch will keep your blood sugar levels nice and steady while delivering long-lasting energy for hard-working muscles. The payoff? You need fewer carbohydrates (and therefore calories) to fuel activity and your insulin levels (a hormone that helps store body fat among other functions) are kept low so your body can pull from a larger supply of body fat (multiple times larger than the amount of carbohydrate stored in muscle and liver).

All of this sounds great in theory. Yet none of it holds up in real life.

Typical sports nutrition products do not cause a sharp crash (symptoms of low blood sugar) when consumed before or during exercise (1). Instead, your body will use the sugar pretty quickly to fuel hard working muscles (2). What about post-workout cravings? Typical sports drinks, gels and gummies won’t lead to cravings, despite possible changes in blood sugar, even if you consume them when your body doesn’t need them – when you are sitting on the couch scrolling through Snapchat videos (3).

One Big Fat Myth – Slow Digesting Carbohydrates Won’t Help You Lose Body Fat

Trying to burn fat during exercise is pointless (unless you are a ultra distance athlete and therefore relying on large amounts of fat for energy to run for several hours at a time). Otherwise it doesn’t matter if more fat is used during exercise. What matters most if you want to lose weight? The total amount of calories burned over time.

You are better off burning fat while sitting in front of your computer or sleeping then trying to maximize fat used during exercise. Why? Fat is a slow source of energy – if you are seriously tapping into your fat stores during exercise you aren’t exercising very hard and therefore you aren’t burning very many calories. If you want to make the most of your exercise sessions, burning as many calories as possible, you’ll need carbohydrates to help you sustain your exercise intensity. It’s the difference between walking and sprinting. You have to walk for a much longer period of time to burn as many calories as you will if you are sprinting or doing intervals.

Fast Carbohydrates are Better for Athletic Performance

slow digesting carbohydratesCarbohydrates are the best source of energy to keep up with the calorie demand of high-intensity exercise. The less carbohydrate you have stored in your muscle (stored from the carbohydrate you eat each day), the more your body will rely on carbohydrate consumed during exercise in the form of sports drinks, gels, beans, gummies etc. Fast carbohydrates (the mix of sugars in common sports nutrition products) have been successfully used for decades. Yet some athletes get an upset stomach when exercising. Generation UCAN says their product will lower risk of stomach upset. Unfortunately, a well-designed study found athletes actually had greater stomach upset on UCAN (a slow digesting carbohydrate) than they did on traditional sports nutrition drinks (8). If you don’t want the nitty-gritty science, skip the next section and move to the following paragraph.

In this crossover study (each study subject experienced each type of drink) 10 male cyclists consumed 1) 60 grams of carbohydrate from a typical sports nutrition drink (sucrose and glucose blend) 30 minutes before and 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour during exercise (Sports Drink); 2) 60 grams of carbohydrate from UCAN (hydrothermally-modified starch; HMS) before and 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour during exercise (Isocaloric HMS); 3) 60 grams of carbohydrate from UCAN before and 30 grams of carbohydrate per hour during exercise (Low HMS). They spent three hours exercising (one hour at a moderate pace followed by intervals and sprints). There was no difference in performance between the Sports Drink and High HMS. Both the Sports Drink and High HMS resulted in slightly better performance compared to Low HMS (less carbohydrate during exercise). Consuming UCAN, whether 30 or 60 grams per hour, led to greater incidence of nausea compared to consuming 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour from a typical Sports Drink (8).

Typical carbohydrates used in sports nutrition products are digested quickly and used by muscles right away so you can train harder than you would if you relied on slow carbohydrates. The body can use about 30 – 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour, and possibly up to 90 if a mix of different sugars is used. Fat metabolism kicks in after around 20 minutes of aerobic exercise. “After about two hours of continuous endurance exercise, fat is a major source of energy. However, carbohydrate is still essential. Without enough carbohydrate present there is incomplete burning of fatty acids resulting in ketone bodies as a byproduct. When ketones build up, the body’s pH drops (metabolic acidosis) and the body attempts to compensate via respiratory hyperventilation,” states sports dietitian Sally Hara, MS, RD, CSSD, CDE. You won’t improve performance if you consume slow carbohydrates before or during exercise (5).

Fast carbohydrates are also preferential right after exercise – your body can rapidly replenish carbohydrate stores in muscle for use during her next training session. This is very important for athletes who train more than once over the course of an 8-hour period and also important for those who train again less than 24 hours later (6, 7). Anyone who doesn’t train again less than 24 hours later can re-stock their carbohydrate in muscle by consuming enough carbohydrate in their diet from potatoes, rice, quinoa, and other higher carbohydrate foods.

You can function on fewer carbohydrates. However, “there is a difference between functioning and performing your best. Athletes and high-intensity sports to follow a low carbohydrate diet are more likely to get tired early and make mental errors,” states Hara. If you want to perform well and burn more calories while lowering risk of stomach upset, choose a traditional sports nutrition product instead of being swayed by the false marketing promises behind slow digesting carbohydrate products.

 

References

1 Jeukendrup AE, Killer SC. The myths surrounding pre-exercise carbohydrate feeding. Ann Nutr Metab 2010;57 Suppl 2:18-25.

2 Marmy-Conus N, Fabris S, Proietto J, Hargreaves M. Preexercise glucose ingestion and glucose kinetics during exercise. J Appl Physiol 1996;81:853-857.

3 Schultes B, Panknin A, Hallschmid M, Jauch-Chara K, Wilms B, de Courbiere F, Lehnert H, Schmid SM. Glycemic increase induced by intravenous glucose infusion fails to affect hunger, appetite, or satiety following breakfast in healthy men. Appetite 2016;105(1):562-566.

4 Roberts MD, Lockwood C, Dalbo VJ, Volek J, Kerksick CM. Ingestion of a high-molecular-weight hydrothermally modified waxy maize starch alters metabolic responses to prolonged exercise in trained cyclists. Nutr 2011;27(6):659-665.

5 Burdon CA, Spronk I, Cheng H, O’Connor HT. Effect of Glycemic Index of a Pre-exercise Meal on Endurance Exercise Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Sports Med 2016:1-15.

6 Stephens FB, Roig M, Armstrong G, Greenhaff PL. Post-exercise ingestion of a unique, high molecular weight glucose polymer solution improves performance during a subsequent bout of cycling exercise. J Sports Sci 2007:1-6.

7 Aulin KP, Soderlund K, Hultman F. Muscle glycogen resynthesis rate in humans after supplementation of drinks containing carbohydrates with low and high molecular masses. Eur J Appl Physiol 2000;81:346-351.

8 Bauer DA, Vargas F CS, Bach C, Garvey JA, Ormsbee MJ. Slow-Absorbing Modified Starch before and during prolonged cycling increases fat oxidation and gastrointestinal distress without changing performance. Nutrients 2016;8(392):1-16.

Can You Lose Fat and Gain Muscle at the Same Time?

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Eat fewer calories than you burn each day and you’ll lose weight. There’s one major issue with this time-tested approach: you’ll probably strip away more than just body fat. Weight loss, especially fast weight loss, achieved after crash dieting or drastically slashing calorie intake, leads to a decrease in muscle mass and subsequent drop in metabolism. A slower metabolism means your body needs even fewer calories to maintain your new weight (weight loss alone = fewer calories needed to carry around a smaller body, add muscle loss and your calorie needs drop even more). In addition, with less muscle you won’t be able to push yourself as hard during workouts (and therefore burn as many calories). This can put you on the fast track to yo-yo dieting, weight loss and regain. There’s a much better approach and a recently published study highlights how you can lose body fat and gain muscle at the same time.

crash dieting leads to muscle loss

In this article I’ll cover:

  1. How dieting can slow your metabolism;
  2. The latest evidence on losing fat and building muscle at the same time;
  3. Why researchers didn’t use a low carbohydrate diet;
  4. How you can keep the weight off.

How Dieting Slows Your Metabolism

When you eat fewer calories than you need each day, your body is forced to pull from its backup supply, body fat and muscle, to maintain your energy (calorie) needs. Some people lose a substantial amount of muscle when dieting, 30% or more, of their initial muscle mass. In addition to a decrease in muscle mass and slower metabolism, lower calorie diets decrease the intracellular signaling necessary for the synthesis of new proteins in muscle. Plus, muscle tissue may be less sensitive to protein when you’re dieting. In other words, it’s really tough to build muscle when dieting to lose weight. Based on these physiological changes, there’s an age-old theory suggesting it’s impossible to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. However, scientists from McMaster University in Canada found it is not only possible but also, doable even when losing a substantial amount of body fat in a relatively short period of time.

Building Muscle While Losing Body Fat

In the McMaster University study, young overweight recreationally active men (prior to the study they exercised 1-2 times per week) were placed on an intense four-week diet and exercise program. Their diet contained 40% fewer calories each day than needed for weight maintenance. All meals were prepared and provided to participants during the study. The men were randomly selected for one of two diet groups:

  Higher Protein Group

 

Lower Protein (Control Group)

 

Total daily calorie intake 15 calories per pound of lean body mass 15 calories per pound of lean body mass
Macronutrients 35% protein, 50% carbohydrate and 15% fat 15% protein, 50% carbohydrates, 35% fat
Total daily protein intake 1.09 grams of protein per lb. body weight (2.4 grams of protein per kg) 0.55 grams of protein per lb. bodyweight (1.2 grams of protein per kg) – 2x the RDA (0.8 g/kg) for protein

 

Per meal protein intake 0.22 grams of protein per lb. of body weight

 

0.10 grams of protein per lb. of body weight

 

Dairy shakes 3- 4 / day including one after exercise (depending on body weight; higher protein, lower carbohydrate shakes compared to the Lower Protein Group)

 

3- 4 / day including one after exercise (depending on body weight; lower protein, higher carbohydrate shakes compared to the Higher Protein Group)

 

Training Program
Supervised workouts consisted of full-body resistance circuit training twice per week and high intensity interval training six days per week. In addition to their structured exercise program, all participants were instructed to get at least 10,000 steps per day as monitored by a pedometer worn on their hip.

Resistance Training Circuit
2 times per week
3 sets of 10 reps at 80% 1 RM with the last set of each exercise to failure
No rest between sets
1-minute rest between each circuit

Sprint Interval Training
1 time per week
Four to eight 30-second bouts on a stationary bike (participants started with four sets and progressed to eight sets)
4 minutes rest between bouts

Modified High Intensity Interval Training
1 time per week
10 bouts of all-out sprint for one minute at 90% VO2max
1-minute rest intervals at 50% VO2max

Time Trial
1 time per week as fast as possible until approximately 250 calories were burned

Plyometric bodyweight circuit
30-second rest between exercises

Results
Both the lower protein and higher protein groups lost weight with no significant difference between groups. Men in the higher protein group gained 2.64 lbs. of muscle and lost 10.56 lbs. of body fat while men in the control group gained little muscle (0.22 lbs.) and lost 7.7 lbs. of fat. Both groups improved all but one measure of strength in addition to aerobic and anaerobic capacity. There were no differences between groups in strength, power, aerobic fitness or performance at the end of the study.

In this study, a higher protein, reduced calorie diet combined with a high intensity circuit-training program including interval training and sprints helped participants build muscle. In addition to their total protein intake, participants in the higher protein group also consumed more protein per meal (approximately 49 grams per meal) than those in the lower protein group (approximately 22 grams per meal).

Why Didn’t They Cut Carbohydrates?

Low carbohydrate diets are not only popular, but they may lead to greater weight loss (in overweight and obese individuals), initially, than higher carbohydrate, low fat diets (some of this is water weight). However, when giving up carbohydrates you also sacrifice something else, intense training. Carbohydrates are the primary source of fuel used during high-intensity exercise because your body can readily access and utilize them for energy. Fat is a slow source of energy and therefore, your body cannot access and use fat quickly enough to sustain high intensity training. In this study, both groups of participants consumed 50% of their calorie intake from carbohydrate. If the study authors cut carbohydrates, the participants wouldn’t make it through their high intensity training program that was specifically designed to take off fat and increase muscle mass.

Keeping the Weight Off

Consider a program like the one used in this study a short-term jumpstart. It isn’t sustainable over a long period of time. The transition to a longer-term approach after weight loss should include a gradual increase in calorie intake while maintaining a higher protein diet (at least 0.55 grams of protein per lb. of body weight to maintain muscle while considerably more, along the lines of 1.09 – 1.41 grams of protein per lb. of body weight may be necessary to continue building muscle during periods of reduced calorie intake). This gradual increase in calorie intake is important because substantial weight loss results in a slower metabolism even if you maintain or build muscle during your jumpstart weight loss program. It isn’t entirely clear why this happens and the drop is greater than scientists can predict based on a decrease in muscle mass. Even if you build some muscle, this won’t rev fire up your metabolism to make up for a drastic decrease in body weight.

One pound of muscle burns a measly 5.9 calories per day at rest while a pound of fat burns 2 calories per day at rest.

Greater weight lost while dieting means an even greater drop in metabolism – something dieters must account for so they can maintain their new weight.

In addition to slowly increasing calorie intake and consuming a higher protein diet, each meal should contain at least 25 – 30 grams of protein. We don’t know the exact amount of protein per meal needed to maximally stimulate muscle building.

Your exercise regimen should continue to include resistance training and you’d be wise to continually vary your training program. Be sure to move each day as well. Research shows many people naturally adjust to greater amounts of aerobic exercise by decreasing their activities of daily living. They exercise intensely at the gym and then sit the rest of the day. Circumvent this by using one of the many devices that counts steps each day. Also, consider doing more work around your house including cleaning, mowing your lawn, gardening, and washing your car. Get moving and stay moving all day long.

If you want to get rid of your love handles while building a six-pack at the same time, combine an effective resistance training and high intensity interval-training program with a reduced calorie, higher protein diet. Your diet and exercise program does not need to be as rigorous as the one in this study. Instead, you can adjust the McMaster University approach to fit your lifestyle, though your results may take more time. Once you reach your goal weight, slowly transition your training program and diet to an approach you can live with.

References
Weinheimer EM, Sands LP, Campbell WW. A systematic review of the separate and combined effects of energy restriction and exercise on fat free mass in middle-aged and older adults: implications for sarcopenic obesity. Nutr Rev 2010;68:375–88.

Stiegler P, Cunliffe A. The role of diet and exercise for the maintenance of fat-free mass and resting metabolic rate during weight loss. Sports Med 2006;36(3):239-62.

Heymsfield SB, Gonzalez MCC, Shen W, Redman L, Thomas D. Weight Loss Composition is One-Fourth Fat-Free Mass: A Critical Review and Critique of This Widely Cited Rule. Obes Rev 2014; 15(4):310–321.

Deurenberg P, Weststrate JA, Hautvast JG. Changes in fat-free mass during weight loss measured by bioelectrical impedance and by densitometry. Am J Clin Nutr 1989;49(1):33-6.

Johannsen DL, Knuth ND, Huizenga R, Rood JC, Ravussin E, Hall KD. Metabolic Slowing with Massive Weight Loss despite Preservation of Fat-Free Mass. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2012; 97(7): 2489–2496.

Ravussin E, Bogardus C. Review Relationship of genetics, age, and physical fitness to daily energy expenditure and fuel utilization. Am J Clin Nutr 1989; 49(5 Suppl):968-75.

Phillips SM. A Brief Review of Higher Dietary Protein Diets in Weight Loss: A Focus on Athletes. Sports Med 2014; 44(Suppl 2): 149–153.

Longland T, Oikawa SY, Mitchell CJ, Devries MC, Phillips S. Higher compared with lower dietary protein during an energy deficit combined with intense exercise promotes greater lean mass gain and fat mass loss: a randomized trial. Am J Clin Nutr 2016;103:738-46.

Heydari M, Freund J, Boutcher SH. The effect of high-intensity intermittent exercise on body composition of overweight young males. J Obes 2012;2012:480467.

Areta JL, Burke LM, Camera DM, West DW, Crawshay S, Moore DR,Stellingwerff T, Phillips SM, Hawley JA, Coffey VG. Reduced resting skeletal muscle protein synthesis is rescued by resistance exercise and protein ingestion following short-term energy deficit. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 2014;306:E989–97.

Pasiakos SM, Vislocky LM, Carbone JW, Altieri N, Konopelski K, Freake HC, Anderson JM, Ferrando AA, Wolfe RR, Rodriguez NR. Acute energy deprivation affects skeletal muscle protein synthesis and associated intracellular signaling proteins in physically active adults. J Nutr 2010;140:745–51.

Hector AJ, Marcotte GR, Churchward-Venne TA, Murphy CH, Breen, von AM, Baker SK, Phillips SM. Whey protein supplementation preserves postprandial myofibrillar protein synthesis during short-term energy restriction in overweight and obese adults. J Nutr 2015;145:246–52.

Murphy CH, Churchward-Venne TA, Mitchell CJ, Kolar NM, KassisA, Karagounis LG, Burke LM, Hawley JA, Phillips SM. Hypoenergetic diet-induced reductions in myofibrillar protein synthesis are restored with resistance training and balanced daily protein ingestion in older men. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 2015;308:E734–43.

Chaston TB, Dixon JB, O’Brien PE. Changes in fat-free mass during significant weight loss: a systematic review. Int J Obes (Lond) 2007; 31(5):743-50.

Garthe I, Raastad T, Refsnes PE, Koivisto A, Sundgot-Borgen J. Effect of two different weight-loss rates on body composition and strength and power-related performance in elite athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 2011; 21(2):97-104.

Churchward-Venne TA, Murphy CH, Longland TM, Phillips SM. Role of protein and amino acids in promoting lean mass accretion with resistance exercise and attenuating lean mass loss during energy deficit in humans. Amino Acids 2013; 45(2):231-40.

Helms ER, Zinn C, Rowlands DS, Brown SR. A systematic review of dietary protein during caloric restriction in resistance trained lean athletes: a case for higher intakes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 2014; 24(2):127-38.

When You Should Eat if You Want to Lose Weight

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As adults we are taught to eat when it is time to eat – first thing when we wake up before leaving for work, during our lunch hour, at dinnertime. And, if you’ve ever been on a diet you probably followed specific rules regarding  when you should eat and when you should put your fork down. And though all of these time-based schedules for eating contradict intuitive eating – eat when you are hungry (hello simplicity!) – there may be something to meal timing if your goal is weight loss…

Animal studies suggest when we eat may be just as important as what we eat. And, a recent human study examining the timing of meals and weight loss while on a Mediterranean diet + physical activity intervention provided support for this meal timing theory. Study authors found those who were described as “late lunch eaters” (before 3 pm) lost significantly less weight than “early lunch eaters” (after 3 pm) though reported calorie intake was similar between both groups. Another pattern that is important to note – those who ate lunch late also ate dinner late compared to the early lunch eaters.

Though you may want to start setting your alarm clock for mealtime, keep in mind that this study showed an association, not causation (they didn’t intervene and change meal times and then analyze the results). And therefore, it is possible that those who ate lunch early had specific lifestyle characteristics, genetics or sleep patterns that contributed to their changes in weight while on this diet and exercise intervention. Plus, they didn’t report changes in body fat (though they did take these measures) so it isn’t clear if the early eaters lost more fat or muscle or both. But, here’s how you can take this new study and additional research (plus my observations) on this topic and figure out what is best for you:

  • If you have disordered eating/an eating disorder, follow the advice of your RD regarding meal timing.
  • Shift your food intake to earlier in the day because, eating earlier may prevent bingeing or overeating later on. Clients who have a skewed eating pattern – dieting during the day and eating as little as possible – tend to overeat at night (and make less than wise choices). So, make sure you actually eat meals (at least 3 per day).
  • Eating more often seems to decrease hunger and improve appetite control.
  • Eating multiple times per day will not make you burn more calories.
  • Eat a good amount of protein at each meal to preserve muscle during weight loss (30 grams or about the size of your palm; more than this if you have little hands). The more calories you cut the more protein you need to hold on to your muscle.
  •  If you hate breakfast, skip it. But, eat a meal as soon as you are hungry (I don’t care if it isn’t “mealtime”) and eat your lunch whenever you are hungry after that.
  • Eat your meals when you are hungry (or a snack to hold you off if you are eating with others at a set time). There’s something to be said for paying attention to your body. If you just ate lunch and you are hungry an hour later, than eat. Have a little faith in your hunger cues.

References:

J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2011; 8: 4.
Int J Obes (Lond). 2013;37(4):604-611.

You Booze, You Lose. How Alcohol Can Wreck Your Athletic Performance

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It’s called a beer gut for a reason. But, over drinking will do more than just cover up those abs you’ve been working so hard for. Take a close look at how it will wreck your athletic performance:

Athletic Performance & Recovery

Alcohol has a number of effects on the body that can impair performance and delay recovery by:

  • Impairing muscle growth in the short-term – decreasing gains you’ve worked for in the weight room and on the field
  • Disrupting your sleep cycle, which impairs how you learn and retain/recall information (slowed reaction time on the field several days after consumption)
  • Decreasing blood testosterone levels for up to 24 hours after consumption which decreases aggression, lean muscle mass, recovery and overall athletic performance
  • Causing nausea, vomiting and drowsiness for several days after consumption

Body Fat

  • Alcohol interrupts your sleep cycle, which decreases your body’s production of HGH (human growth hormone). HGH promotes muscle mass while decreasing fat mass, is critical for recovery (by stimulating protein synthesis) and is important for immune system functioning.
  • Alcohol suppresses testosterone production.
  • Alcoholic drinks are high in calories and metabolized first, before food so extra calories from food are stored as body fat. Because your liver is busy processing alcohol, fat metabolism is delayed.
  • Alcohol also inhibits your body’s absorption of vitamins B1, B12, folic acid and zinc.

Dehydration

Alcohol is a diuretic that leads to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. And, dehydration can increase one’s risk of muscle cramps and other muscle injuries.

For all of the younger athletes reading this who feel peer pressure about drinking, think about this, the effects of 3 drinks will last a few days. Drink on Thursday and your reaction time on Saturday will still be impaired (and it may be impaired on Sunday too). Need an out? You just got one. Need another out? Use my all time favorite response when someone asks if you want a drink, “That’s a Clown Question, Bro.”

References:

  • J Clin Endocrin & Metab 1980;51:759-764.
  • Firth G. Manzo LG. For the Athlete: Alcohol and Athletic Performance. University of Notre Dame; 2004.
  • J Am Acad Dermatol 43(1 Pt 1):1-16.