Carbohydrates have gotten a bit of a bad rap over the years. They have been labeled by many as the source of their weight loss frustrations. People have been successful with close to zero carb diets and others can eat hundreds while still getting lean. As always, the middle ground is where most of us live, and your carbohydrate tolerance will help you decide how to structure your diet.
Why Does Carbohydrate Tolerance Matter?
Carbohydrates have the biggest impact on your blood sugar and insulin levels. While insulin is a powerful anti-catabolic hormone (preventing the breakdown of muscle tissue), it is also a powerful fat storage hormone if left uncontrolled. People that don’t tolerate carbohydrates well (even the good ones) tend to be insulin resistant – meaning they need a higher amount of insulin to shuttle glucose into their cells.
What does that mean? It means insulin levels remain too elevated to allow fatty acids to be mobilized and burned off for energy. Obviously, this isn’t what we want when we’re trying to lose body fat. The good news is that there is still plenty you can do to tailor your diet to work with your individual tolerance levels without overly restricting your food choices.
Factors That Influence Your Carb Tolerance
So then, how do we figure out our own individual tolerance, and what are the biggest factors that influence it. The following bullet points will help you figure that out.
- Are you just now beginning to clean up your diet? If so, you likely have a reduced tolerance to carbohydrates. Your previous diet probably consisted of mostly processed carbohydrates that wreaked havoc on your blood sugar and insulin levels. You might even be a borderline type II diabetic. It will take time to improve your carbohydrate tolerance, and you might get frustrated in the meantime with your lack of progress.
- Do you get tired and lethargic an hour or so after a meal consisting of carbohydrates? If so, you are likely carbohydrate intolerant. The carbohydrates are causing a rapid rise in blood glucose levels which results in larger than normal levels of insulin to be released. This is what’s supposed to happen, but the problem is that insulin works too well – removing too much glucose from your blood and leaving your with low blood sugar. This low blood sugar is accompanied by feelings of sleepiness and lethargy.
- Are you hungry shortly after eating a meal with carbohydrates? Again, similar to the example above, the rapid rise and fall of blood sugar levels leave you feeling hungry even though you just finishing eating.
- Are you eating a diet high in carbohydrates but do little in the way of intense exercise? Carbohydrates are a high-octane fuel. They fuel high-intensity exercise and central nervous system function. If you feel like you have a calorie deficit yet you can’t lose any weight, you might have a carbohydrate intolerance.
Now, let’s go ahead and get something out of the way. Carbohydrates from whole foods are healthy for you and should be included as part of a healthy and fit lifestyle. They are packed with vitamins, nutrients, antioxidants, and energy. However, for people that have a degree of intolerance to them, they must be controlled and earned.
Manipulating Your Diet
Lucky for us, there is much that can be done even for the most carbohydrate intolerant person. I’ve listed these following tips in order of my most favorite and effective to “least” effective, yet still very effective none-the-less.
- Nutrient Timing – take advantage of the times of day when your insulin sensitivity is at its highest – first thing in the morning and pre/post workout. Eating the bulk of your carbohydrates at these times will keep your insulin levels level so that fatty acids can still be mobilized. The rest of your meals will be protein, healthy fats, and veggies. This is very effective for maintaining lean body mass while shedding fat. Read more about nutrient timing and how to implement it.
- Carbohydrate Cycling – the gist of this method is cycling your carbohydrates between low and high days. Have higher carb days on workout days and lower carbs on non-workout days. Again, this is a great way to build and maintain muscle while losing fat in a hypo-caloric environment. Read more about carbohydrate cycling and how to implement it.
- Carbohydrate Tapering – as the name suggests, you taper your carbohydrate intake as the day goes on. Each successive meal contains less and less carbohydrates until your final meal – which usually consists of protein, healthy fats, and veggies.
If after your diet is already 90% whole foods with sufficient calories and you’re including intense exercise, strength training, and keeping active, yet you still can’t make any progress, one of the 3 eating methods outlined above will help you break through your stalled progress. Good luck!