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The Sickness- Analysis of Low Carbohydrate Diets
The band Disturbed is right…. “There is a sickness that is spreading….”
…. “Will you give into it?”
In the 80s, high carbohydrate / low fat diets were the silver bullet for the increasing girth of the average Americans waist. Fat was the most calorie dense macronutrient and thermodynamics was king. What goes up must come down, what goes in must equal what comes out, cut out the fat and your problems are solved. Heh…fools, like the single most adaptive organism on the planet could be quantified, controlled, or manipulated so easily.
The human body is an organism far too advanced on the battlefield of survival to be defeated. So if we cannot defeat our body, then we must learn to work with it as a trusted friend and companion, not as an enemy labored and starved into submission in an effort to master. When it comes time for the next battle with the Iron trust your body, fuel it, arm it with every weapon you have and you will win…Deprive it, beat it, betray it, and without question you will lose.
In the 80s the sickness took the form of a plague and the high carb / low fat diet mania spread at an alarming rate, far too fast for people to react and thus gave birth to generation Testosterone reduced Diabetics. In the 90s people became aware of the plague and became carb conscious. The plague was being contained and soon would no longer be a threat. But like any good virus the sickness was forced to adapt, and adapt it did. Only this time something less noticeable, if it spread to fast it would be contained and ultimately killed. But if it were to mask its appearance it could slowly spread its infection and survive, and what better mask than the exterior of a silver bullet to hide its black core. On the surface it does appear to be a silver bullet deceiving many but now we will open the casing to reveal the black core that is carbohydrate reduction dieting. In less than 20 years America has swung from carb mania to carb-a-phobia. The most interesting fact of all is that despite these swings in diet, America is still plagued by obesity and yet other countries who’s diets have not changed dramatically over the last 50 years do not face the incredibly rising obesity rates that America does.
This article will focus on the inherent problems of all carb reduction diets, the premises discussed apply to all forms of carb reduction diets so this applies to the Natural Hormone Enhancement (NHE), Atkins diet, Cyclical Ketonic Diet (CKD), Targeted Ketonic Diet (TKD) and all other carb reduction plans. We define carb reduction as any diet where total carbohydrate intake is limited to less than 100 grams per day for 5 or more days per week. This article is targeted at bodybuilding in terms of training but again the premises are just as applicable if not more so to other forms of athletics and athletic training. Also this article refers to diet in terms of a plan exceeding 4 weeks, as carb rotation, depletion, and super compensation are all successfully used aspects of competitive bodybuilding.
A question to get the wheels of thought spinning is a question of hydration. Weight training without proper hydration causes up to a 13% drop in work output, can one perform at his best with a 13% drop in output? Knowing that once ATP/CP energy pathways are exhausted (which occurs after a few seconds) muscular contraction must be fueled by the glycolytic energy pathway. If something as simple as hydration can cause a 13% drop in output, how much of a drop in output does a depleted energy pathway cause? Further since our muscles are using large quantities of glycogen to weight lift yet carbohydrate intake is low, and fat can’t be converted into glycogen, where is all this glycogen coming from???…. Don’t tell me you believe it’s all from those weekly carb ups….
First we’ll get something straight, this idea that you can maintain muscle while losing fat is completely inaccurate. The body can only build up or break down, but never maintain. The body is not resistant to change, as people like to claim, it is extremely adaptive. When most people consider their physiques goals they think of them in terms of weeks or months, but I’m talking about a much shorter unit of time, not days, not hours, not even minutes, but very seconds. With every second that passes your body is changing on the cellular level. After you finish reading this sentence your body in some way will be changed, the question is will it be a change bringing you closer to your goal or a step further away? Remember you can only have one or the other. With each second that passes your body is destroying older cells and replacing them with new cells, better cells, cells that on a microscopic level are adapted to meet your bodies’ demands. So if you do nothing your cells are getting better at doing nothing and ultimately you are better at doing nothing. Your body has adapted and generated cells that operate on a reduced energy (calorie) intake, through this metabolism drops, muscular atrophy occurs, endurance decreases and such. In essence you have become a well adapted, energy efficient couch potato…the problem more than half of America faces. However fear not for the converse of this is true as well. If with each passing second one could adapt to destroy only the weakest, low energy (calorie) cells and replace them with higher energy demanding higher output cells then over the course of weeks and months the total effect can be tremendous. The idea of maintenance would be a situation where buildup equals breakdown but this is not true maintenance as while LBM remains the same, the metabolic activity of those cells has changed.
Let’s clear up another dieting misconception. If your strength remains the same while dieting then you have not lost any muscle? Not necessarily true; truth is far too many lifters waste away hard earned muscle with poor diets, yet their strength remains virtually unchanged because their body has adapted to their poor diet. From a survival point of view the body needs X amount of strength but also needs to reduce calorie-demanding tissue to make up for the drop in caloric intake. The body doesn’t know if it needs X strength to push over a small tree to get food or if it needs X strength to push a 225lb bar. All it knows it needs that strength so the compromise comes from muscle fiber activation. Muscle tissue is cannibalized to reduce caloric demand and muscle fiber activation is increased to meet the strength demand. Makes you wonder how much muscle tissue is being wasted when strength decreases during a diet phase. My point here you cannot judge the effectiveness of a diet based on how much strength you lose or keep because it is just as worthless of a measurement as bodyweight.
I’ve been a bit abstract in an attempt to get the wheels of thought spinning, let’s jump into specifics.
Insulin sensitivity / resistance- Some carb reduction plans claim that by depriving your body of carbs you are “priming” it for carbs during carb up periods so when you do carb up which is necessary for any sort of success at building muscle your body will store more carbs as glycogen and less will be stored as fat (this would be an increase in insulin sensitivity.) This is only true for the early periods of carb deprivation. Truth is that as your body becomes more efficient at processing fat over time it become less efficient at processing carbs. This means over time there is a dramatic decrease in insulin sensitivity; this is known as Insulin resistance. So your carb ups become less and less effective as your body releases more insulin each carb up, leading to more of your carbs being stored as fat and less as muscle glycogen. This is the main reason why athletic coaches slowly reintroduce carbs into an athlete’s diet over a period of weeks to avoid excess fat gain after a period of carb reduction. Low testosterone can cause insulin resistance as well, but we will touch on this later.
There is an inherent problem with most studies that compare T levels between different groups. Some studies use a one times sampling and only measure “total” Testosterone, but “total” Test levels don’t tell the whole story anyway. The most basic problem with “total” Testosterone is it’s cyclical so it spikes and falls throughout the day making it easily manipulated in studies. I’d imagine this is how MuscleTech was able to market a Zinc based supplement that supposedly increased Test levels over 300%. I suspect it was dishonest manipulation of data by comparing nighttime T levels, with morning T levels since T is always highest in the morning. So let the buyer beware of any supplements that claim enormous boosts in T.
But back to the diet, being as erectile function (your best measure of T levels without an actual blood panel) is tied mainly to “free” Testosterone rather than “total” Testosterone. Only about 2%-5% of your “total” Testosterone is actually “free” Testosterone. Free T is Testosterone that is not bound to sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG) or albumin. Only “free” Testosterone is capable of binding to the androgen receptor to exert Testosterones many effects in the body, one of which being sexual function. The interesting thing is it is possible for a person to have T levels in the low range, yet have no symptoms of low Testosterone. In this case SHBG and albumin levels also are also in low range, which leads to high percentage of “free” T. Since a higher percentage of that low T is unbound “free” T levels are still in the normal range. In such a case a person would suffer no signs of low T since a normal amount of Testosterone (“free” T) is binding to the androgen receptor. The opposite effect of this is true as well, which is where carb reduction comes in. It is possible for someone to suffer erectile dysfunction and other symptoms of low Testosterone while their “total” testosterone level is normal, this indicates Testosterone production normal but an insufficient amount of “free” Testosterone due to high SHBG or hyper albumin. This is what seems to account for sexual disturbances in a carb reduced state, as an inverse relationship exists between insulin and SHBG. When insulin is kept very low SHBG is very high so while “total” Testosterone is maximized, “free” Testosterone, the number we are concerned with is minimized, creating a diet induced artificial state of low Testosterone. Brief large infrequent insulin spikes like carb ups don’t seem to correct this problem either as dramatic spikes in T seem to also spike albumin levels; so even if SHBG were lowered briefly albumin would bind to any T that has been freed up from the carb up.
As stated above low Testosterone promotes insulin resistance, so the second problem has now compounded with the first. Testosterone levels also effect body fat distribution, particularly around the waist in males. Low T levels also affect sleep patterns as it can cause insomnia or excessive tiredness. Low Testosterone levels can also cause fatigue, decrease recovery, and effect the immune system. So clearly some carbs must be present to balance the relationship between Testosterone and Insulin, as the situation just described could be the worst foundation possible for building muscle or losing fat.
Growth Hormone (GH)
There has been a great deal of buzz the last few years over growth hormones anti-aging and fat burning abilities. Much how years ago scientist modified the molecule testosterone to create anabolic steroids, scientists are now experimenting with modified forms of growth hormone in an attempt to isolate growth hormones fat burning ability, or at least reduce the chance of side effects from since GH replacement is becoming more popular. Truth is that aside from actually injecting exogenous GH there is not a great deal of benefit that can be achieved from endogenous GH manipulation. Interestingly GH seems to also be a type of survival hormone as its levels spike the highest from fear, pain, and fasting. So while your welcome have people scare you while you jab yourself with pins after fasting for 10 hours to maximize GH, I don’t think this will lead to the physique you desire. While sleep does lead to a cascade of hormone release, GH release is the highest during sleep because it is the longest period a person goes without eating (fasting). Carbohydrate consumption prior to bedtime has no real bearing on this different than any other macronutrient. Eating prior to bed time will simply delay GH response.
Cortisol has unfairly received a bad reputation, I’m guessing because a hormonal dysfunction leading to excessive cortisol production is considered a wasting disease, so I’m willing to bet someone applied this to the increase in cortisol from weight training (which is actually a good thing). Cortisol has two very important functions for bodybuilders. First cortisol is a potent anti-inflammatory agent, anyone who has used the drug Cytadren to suppress cortisol output will attest to the severe point pain that would actually prevent one from weight training. Secondly Cortisol does not just indiscriminately destroy muscle tissue. Much how one is only as strong as their weakest link, a muscle fiber is only as strong as its weakest cell. Cortisol seems to act as the bodies “remapping” agent, as it directs and aids in breakdown of the weakest muscle fiber cells, so the body may replace these cells with stronger, higher output, higher caloric demanding, better adapted muscle cells. This is where I believe the physical appearance referred to as “muscle maturity” comes from. Muscle maturity seems to occur independent of age as it is simply not attributed to older people and lifters rather than younger people and lifters (older referring to age with gym time being equal). Muscle maturity seems to develop based on years and year of training regardless of drug use. I believe this is because muscle maturity is an attribute of years and years of cortisol breaking down muscle cells and then having those cells replaced by better adapted/ functional cells for weight lifting. The total effect of these adapted cells creates more functional muscle fiber in terms of firing rate and recruitment. After years of this process the sum of all these adapted muscle fibers visually appears to the human eye as what is called “muscle maturity”, but again this is just my theory.
Weight Training and Recovery
Training is obviously limited due to insufficient glycogen stores but ever wonder why recovery is so poor on a reduced carb diet? In a true carb depleted state it takes 24 hours after lifting for protein synthesis to shift into a positive balance. Since protein synthesis can only be in a positive or negative balance this would mean that every bodybuilder who works out two or more days in a row would get smaller because successive workout from the first would drive a person deeper and deeper into a catabolic nightmare. Even with workouts scheduled every other day one would only get about 24 hours of anabolism before protein synthesis comes to a screeching halt from the next workout.
The problem here is insulin, or more specifically the lack their of. Insulin is your transport hormone, ingested protein post workout is not utilized because it is unable to enter the muscle cell, and instead those aminos float thought the blood stream until ultimately being converted into carbs via gluconeogenesis. Your body’s first concern post workout is to refill glycogen stores; if you don’t do this you delay recovery because your body will make the necessary glycogen from protein via gluconeogenesis. The large insulin spike is kind of cause and effect because you must eat enough carbs post workout to spare protein and kick start the wheels of recovery (in as little as 4 hours), once glycogen is refilled then protein breakdown levels off and buildup begins. Now the large amount of insulin shuttles those extra ingested aminos into the muscle, without enough insulin most of that protein will just circulate until converted to glucose, which will cause more insulin to be released which will shuttle a bit more protein into the cell while the body forms more glucose from ingested protein leading to more insulin and the process will keep cycling until enough glycogen is stored. This cycle is what causes the slow recovery process, as your body must make the glucose it is deprived of from protein. The take home message here, carbs spare amino acids because your body will manufacture glycogen from amino acids (protein) if it is deprived of the carbohydrates it needs to meet its glycogen needs.
In terms of overall growth, recovery can be spurred in as little as 4 hours with rapid glycogen replenishment post workout. In a 48-hour period a carb depleted trainee will spend 24 hours in catabolic state and 24 hours in anabolic state if workouts are not on successive days. Whereas a non-depleted trainee will spend 44 hours in anabolic state and only 4 hours in a catabolic state, or 20 anabolic and 4 catabolic if workouts are done successively. The first problem is exercise recovery is literally almost cut in half; the other problem with this is up to 40% of your dietary protein can be converted to glucose when carbs are heavily restricted. Since the body can only absorb so much protein per sitting it becomes near impossible to optimize protein intake when 40% of what is absorbed is being lost to glucose conversion. No doubt about it 40% is huge! A 200 lb bodybuilder taking in 300 grams of protein a day to meet his 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight is losing up to 120 grams of protein to gluconeogenesis; leaving only 180 grams of protein for muscle cells, not even 1 gram per pound of bodyweight. In this case a 200 lb bodybuilder would have to consume about 500 grams of protein per day to meet his optimal daily protein needs. 500 grams/day not even considering the arguments about maximum protein absorption per feeding or even the exorbitant cost, have you ever tried to eat this much protein? I think you would find it to be quite the endeavor for just a day, let alone week in and week out.
So recovery and protein intake are not optimized with carb reduction plans, hell they are barely even adequate.
Lets touch on Thermodynamics for a bit since it seems to confuse newer dieters and while this article is about carb reduction plans the ultimate goal of this article is to provide the tools for one to make their own decision on how to build an effective diet. Thermodynamics is another attempt to over simplify the complicated in terms of diet. If the thermodynamics were true someone who had maintenance caloric intake of 2500 calories/day would get the same results eating 2000 calories of Burger King as someone eating 2000 calories of chicken, oatmeal, and flax. In the Burger King case a person would lose muscle and gain fat. In the chicken and oatmeal case a person would build muscle and lose fat. Ever notice that you can consume far more calories and remain leaner when you bulk “clean” as opposed to just eating pizza and protein shakes. Your body will partition nutrients and calories differently based on the food you eat. If someone ate 400 calories of Oatmeal 80% might get turned into glycogen and utilized in your muscle building efforts and only 20% gets stored as fat. Now if someone ate a 400 calorie glazed donut only 30% might get turned into glycogen and 70% go to your fat stores, there is a huge difference. Now apply this concept to every food you eat and then build an entire diet around that food, If a person needed 3000 calories to bulk who builds more muscle and gains less fat the person who’s body is using 80% of the calories they eat towards building muscle and storing only 20% or the person using 30% for building muscle of their 3000 and storing 70% as fat??? So Thermodynamics while correct in term of the physics of energy transfer the body operates on countless different energy required pathways so thermodynamics has no baring on what you body does with calories, yes it will do something with the energy is derives but protein synthesis, fat breakdown, waste disposal, organ function, cell division, DNA replication are just some of the countless possibilities.
It would seem that low carb plans are not the best course of action and high carb plans certainly are not the answer. So the best plan lies somewhere in the middle, with the starting point being a good balance of all macro nutrients. Calorie and carb rotation, insulin and leptin manipulation, as well as other advanced dieting techniques are beyond the scope of this article but the information provided should provide the necessary foundation for planning, building, and implementing an effective diet. Remember just because something is extreme does not mean it is effective, and just because something is effective does not mean it is extreme. At the most basic level proteins are the building blocks of all cells, carbohydrates are the energy system, and fats form the hormonal foundation which great bodies are built upon; all primary requirements for maximum results.
There is no universal plan, but there are guidelines, when these guidelines are adapted into your individual lifestyle there is no other option than success.
Written by Severed Ties.
Discuss, comment or ask a question
If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums - The Sickness- Analysis of Low Carbohydrate Diets discussion thread.