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Customizing Your Diet to Your Carbohydrate Tolerance for Max Fat Loss

shirtless man flexingCarbohydrates 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, veggies, and low starch. 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. This is a great way to provide extra fuel for your intense workouts so that you can 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.

Now, the majority of people will not have to mess with carbohydrate manipulation, but 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 can help you break through your stalled progress. Good luck!

  • jen

    Is there a good list with all these foods on it, So Im sure Im eating the best choices,or Sample Menus so that I can buy and make weekly menus ?

    • Coach Calorie

      Search the site for “100 healthy foods to eat”. Also, there is an article in the sidebar titled “the ultimate healthy meal plan”. Those two articles should help.

  • Marina

    Thanks so much for your post. I always enjoy reading them! I’m interested in the carb conversation because of my history.

    I gained 25 lbs last year while working full time on a political campaign. I am a sugar junkie and working long hours in a campaign office full of baked goods and junk food + working 15 hour days, 7 days a week was a recipe for disaster.Since November of 2012 I have been struggling to lose weight. I succeed for a couple of months at a time to clean up my diet- cutting out sweets, eating protein, whole grains, tons of veggies etc…even juiced for a couple of months as a supplement to my healthy eating efforts. Inevitably I get derailed by life. Exercise is also on and off. I started working out when I was 15 (I am 33) and it has been an important way for me to stay fit and stay stress free (I spent my 20’s as a lawyer and now am in politics). Running and yoga were traditionally my favorites. I used to live in San Francisco and just walking to the grocery store and back up and down those hills was a work out. Being in Chicago now I am not as active and It is harder to get results. I am discouraged and can’t seem to stick to anything.

    I had success losing around 20 lbs a couple of years ago going low carb (Dukan diet) but then I started working on the campaign, couldn’t keep up the diet and the weight boomeranged. For this reason, I am fearful of going extremely low carb and have been trying to take a more balanced approach to eating. I don’t want to diet but am worried that low carb is the only thing my body will respond to at this point! I am 5’6 and 176 lbs, highest I have been in my life. I weighed 178 in November of 2012. Although I have gone as low as 172 it has been 8 months and I have not been able to get out of the 170’s. My clothes don’t feel much looser, either. I need to lose this weight so I can feel (and look) healthy again. I l felt and looked my best around 140 lbs, which was several years ago. Moreover, being Indian American I come from a long line of diabetics. Both my parents have diabetes, as does my 35 year old brother. Although I check my blood sugar regularly and am fine, I do not want to be next. I have no other health issues that I am aware of and I would like to keep it that way!

    Will try your approaches to handling carbs and hoping something will make a difference. For exercise I have been doing the Insanity workouts but not really seeing results- probably because of my diet. When I don’t see results, on the scale or otherwise, I overeat. Vicious cycle. If you have any specific tips, I’d love to hear them. If not, no worries! I know I need to break the cycle and take some control of my weight and I guess I don’t need anyone to tell me that. :)

    Thanks, again!

  • Coach Calorie

    In your situation I would try to moderate the restriction. Pay close attention to calories, but be a little looser with the types of foods you eat. 80-90% of your daily calories should come from whole foods, but that leaves around 200 calories to play with and enjoy. You need to enjoy your eating if you plan to stick with the lifestyle forever.

    • Marina

      Thanks, Coach! I see where you are coming from with that. It will help me stay sane while I try to shed pounds and work on developing a healthier lifestyle. I absolutely need to eat in a way that is sustainable. I appreciate the feedback! Thanks again for your generosity in sharing your knowledge with me and everyone else on here trying to figure things out.

  • sana

    Love your posts.
    I start my day with a lot of motivation but my dinner is usually late and not so healthy. :(….
    Trying to get rreduce my carbohydrates intake.