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Carbs are not the Devil, and Other Things Lifters Should Know About Nutrition

Carbs are not the Devil, and Other Things Lifters Should Know About Nutrition

This is a blog about strength – physical, mental, and spiritual – but we can’t ignore the nutrition piece that comes along with it.

The thing is…nutrition is confusing.

Recently, nutrition trends have been all about low-carb, high-fat. A few years ago, we all bought into the low-fat craze. Somewhere in between, there was super high-fat in the name of high protein (hello, Dr. Atkins). I think right this very second, sugar is the devil.

The problem that many of us fail to realize (myself included), is that, in the food marketing industry, they’re really just manipulating variables: if research comes out that sugar is bad, the processed food on the shelves that’s “now lower sugar!” is also “now higher in salt and fat!” {Read Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss if you’d like a fascinating peek into the food marketing industry.} The research that gets to us is a mess: the studies are done in a controlled environment hardly anything like the one in which we eat, and the results are interpreted not by food scientists, but by food marketers, who proceed to cherry pick things that serve their interests ($$) from the studies and, a la Dr. Frankenstein, create “healthier” versions of the foods that already exist.

In short, we’d do a lot better to take all of the sensational headlines with a grain of salt (no pun intended…okay, maybe a little.), learn what each nutrient actually does for us, learn how our individual bodies deal with different foods, and go from there.

I’m a habit-based coach: not a proponent of quick fixes or 12-week plans (hey, I gotta live in this body for the rest of my life, not just the next 12 weeks, God-willing. There’s always time.). This means I’ve spent a greeeeat deal of time getting to know what goes on in here, and I’m always learning. Trial and error is my friend, especially when it comes to my diet. This may sound daunting (it did to me when I started, as the queen of wanting everything done yesterday), but it’s a wonderful opportunity to get to know ourselves, what works for us despite the literature, and what doesn’t.

Once we understand how our bodies process different types of foods differently, we get to make choices in service to ourselves, rather than in service to the latest blurb coming from Buzzfeed (nothing wrong with Buzzfeed, disclaimer).

The basics of any body change are the same: eat in a caloric deficit (for fat loss) or surplus (for muscle gain) consistently, matching our nutrition to our training (which allows for “diet breaks”/”refeeds”/whatever else you see them called, except instead of programming them in at random, they come as a natural result of eating in conjunction with our activity). Eat mostly whole, minimally-processed foods. Drink a lot of water.

I’d add eating the foods we enjoy to the list, personally, because if you give me a list of foods that support my goals but they’re all boring, 100 times out of 100, I’ll go totally crazy and eat an entire pizza, a whole bag of chips, and a carton of ice cream…probably 4 days into the plan. Keeping in a few things that may not traditionally fall on “the plan” but allow for some wiggle room keep me from going HAM on some things that aren’t even close…and that, more importantly, make me feel like crap later (because how worth it is it really if we enjoy a whole pizza but then spend the next 3 days bloated, sluggish, mucus-y, and miserable? Not for me. Could be for you…it was for me for a while.).

The basics of finding the foods that we enjoy that also serve our goals are pretty simple, but it does take some work (read: some time.). Finding this culinary sweet spot, though, saved me some time in the long run: adios diet plans that weren’t really written for me, hello way of eating that actually keeps me sane/not fixated on food/not feeling deprived-then-needing-to-binge.

Our nutrition looks different in the context of activity v the context of inactivity. For the sake of simplicity (and not talking your ear off for the next 4 days), we’ll discuss food in the context of activity, relatively briefly. Feel free to reply for more details on your specific situation!

Carbs are the big bad wolf, in this scenario…not because they’re evil, but because, if we listened to the people who don’t pay attention to calories, we’d think that if we eliminated carbs, we’d solve all of our problems. I’m here to tell you: wrong (read in interrupt-y debate voice.).

Before we go any further, I’d like to point out: I’m not big on calorie counting, mostly because it leads to being obsessed, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid. I do, however, support calorie counting for a week or so if you’ve never done it, just to get an idea of what a certain amount of calories actually looks like. From there, we can gauge how full we feel on a certain (approximate) number of calories, manipulate/redistribute where those calories are coming from to support our fullness and energy, and not have to actually count much in the future. How can we know where to go if we don’t know where we are?

Anyway, back to the carb point: cutting calories at random, especially from one particular molecule (especially carbs, because our brains run on glucose, the building block of carbs), can actually lead to the exact thing we’re trying to avoid: fat storage and a slower metabolism. Carbs are necessary not just for our brains to work properly, but they also give us energy, so if you’re about to head into the gym to lift something heavy and you don’t want to pass out, maybe include something with carbs in it earlier in the day (or the night before, if you’re an early morning exerciser and completely worthless after 2p like me).

Everyone’s tolerance to carbs is different – some people can eat more than others (leaner people tolerate more carbs, in general) – but we all need some. The key for carbs is to pick the ones that support us, which are usually low in starch, low in sugar, high in fiber, and high in water content. Examples include apples, grapefruit, leafy greens (spinach, collards, chard, kale), quinoa, oatmeal, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, berries, oranges, cauliflower, rice, and skin-on potatoes.

Not everything you thought, eh? The carbs that are relatively starchy on that list are also high in fiber and/or water, whereas breads, cereals, and pasta are not. I wouldn’t say *never* eat things like that, because we all know what happens when something goes on the never list, but let’s pick and choose our battles and always remember that we are choosing in support of our health.

In the context of lifting (and life, but more so if we’re lifting most days of the week), we also need a fair amount of protein and fat. Protein is the building block of muscle, and that’s the goal here, isn’t it? To lift stuff, increase the amount of stuff we can lift, and also look like we do that? Studies on how much protein, exactly, vary, but a safe place to start is 0.8-1.2g protein per 1kg of body weight. That usually keeps us in a range that will support our activity but not have us going hog-wild and way over our calorie targets.

Fat is also key…mostly for satiety (our perception of fullness between meals). And for the delicious factor. Limiting fat is a good idea – mostly because it has 9 calories per gram, where carbs and protein have 4 – but eliminating (or close to it) fat isn’t, because it does serve quite a few purposes in our bodies, as a source of energy, a support for certain essential vitamins to be absorbed (A, D, E, and K), and a structural component of our cell membranes. In an effort to not go waaaay over my ideal amount of food for the day, I’d rather put half an avocado on a salad than be hungry an hour after said salad and eat M&Ms. Priorities.

SO. With our nutritional priorities in check, or working towards it, I’d like to issue a mini lifting challenge to you guys today! The graphic below is a relatively well-known metabolic conditioning circuit known as the Cosgrove complex. It’s 8 exercises that are chained from 6 down to 1 (meaning, do 6 reps of each, take 90s rest, then 5 reps of each, take 90s rest, and so on, down to 1 rep of everything). It uses a barbell, but if all you have available are dumbbells, that will work too. The weight should be heavy enough and you should be moving with enough intensity that you actually need those 90s rest. If you’re up for it, complete it and post your times on IG using #StrongBySteph! I’ll pick my favorite to share next week, if I get permission. :) 

Next week is the last post before Christmas, so we’re going to move briefly away from lifting and nutrition and into a brief newsletter on boundaries, love, and togetherness…topics I feel are just as important to strength during the holiday season as food and exercise are.

Survive the Holidays: Set Some Boundaries; Choose to Love (always).

Survive the Holidays: Set Some Boundaries; Choose to Love (always).

I Lift Things Up, and Put Them Down (and I Hate to Jog). Here's Why.

I Lift Things Up, and Put Them Down (and I Hate to Jog). Here's Why.