Carbohydrates are the most misunderstood nutrients when it comes to fat loss.Far too many people, my past self included, have completely removed carbs from their diet in an effort to speed up fat loss.
However, for most people, the best fat loss results actually come from consuming carbs, not completely cutting them out. A big reason for this is the specific fat burning hormones that only respond when carbs are strategically part of your diet.
This is a critical point, because hormones flat out decide whether or not you are a fat burning machine or just on the road to ending up a skinnier version of yourself with very little change in body fat.
The fact is, anyone can lose weight by simply eating very low calories. But just because you are losing weight doesn’t mean you are losing much body fat.
Just “losing weight” hopefully is not your goal. You want fat loss!
And in order to target body fat, you absolutely must have your hormones under control.
Here are the 4 biggest hormonal players in the fat burning game and how the practice of avoiding carbs puts the brakes on your fat loss in a serious way.
1. Leptin: This hormone is known as the “fat burning hormone”. When leptin is elevated your body is sending the signal to start burning away at body fat stores.Leptin is released from fat cells. The more body fat you have the more leptin your body will release. As you begin to diet for fat loss, the reduction in calories and the loss of body fat naturally leads to less circulating leptin. When leptin levels are lowered, fat burning slows down.
Carbohydrate containing meals happen to be the best way to keep leptin elevated so that you keep burning fat. On the flip side, a low carb diet keeps leptin depressed shutting down your fat burning.
2. Cortisol: You’ve probably heard cortisol described as the stress hormone responsible for accumulation of belly fat. If you haven’t heard this, cortisol is the stress hormone responsible for the accumulation of belly fat.
Anytime your body is placed under stress, (physical, emotional, or mental) the response is to produce cortisol. When cortisol gets out of control, your abdominal fat begins to get packed on.
Carbohydrates are essential for keeping cortisol balanced. Carbs provide an easy energy source for the body, in the form of glucose. When glucose levels are optimized there is no stress response needed to produce energy.
However, when carb intake is kept very low, there are lower levels of readily available glucose to be utilized. In this case, cortisol is released in order to free stored energy and provide the glucose needed to keep you going. If cortisol continues to be released due to low energy levels, as is the case with chronically low carb diets, the end result is belly fat accumulation.
3. Thyroid Hormone: This hormone is produced by the thyroid gland and is largely responsible for your metabolic rate. In other words, healthy levels of thyroid hormone keep your metabolism buzzing, whereas depressed levels of thyroid hormone bring fat burning to a halt.
I’m sure you can guess what is coming next. Low carb diets lead to reduced levels of thyroid hormone putting the brakes on your fat burning efforts. By limiting carbs too heavily, you can actually end up shutting down your metabolism.
4. Insulin: When you eat carbohydrates they are broken down into glucose and your blood sugar becomes elevated. This in turn, signals your pancreas to release insulin. Insulin’s job is to deliver the sugar from the blood into muscle cells making insulin a very anabolic hormone. In a perfect, fat burning world, the story ends there.
However, we don’t always live in a perfect fat burning world. Eventually, your muscle cells get “topped up” and can no longer take in any more sugar. Once your muscle cells are no longer accepting sugar, insulin deposits the remaining energy into body fat. In this way, insulin can be responsible for making you fatter.
This was where the low carb diet was born with the idea that if you completely eliminate carbs from the picture, blood sugar will remain low, insulin will be under control and you will be able to avoid fat accumulation. Now, this works to a degree and short bursts with very little carbs can work wonders for fat loss, but this is not the most effective way to keep your fat loss humming through the entire duration of your diet.
Enter “Insulin Sensitivity”. This term, insulin sensitivity, refers to your muscle cells willingness to accept insulin (carrying blood sugar) so that it can be properly distributed. When you are highly insulin sensitive, sugars get deposited in the right place (muscle cells) and avoid being stored away as body fat.
BUT…because it is carbohydrates that create the most profound effects on insulin, by going too long with very low carbs in your diet and not experiencing bursts of insulin your muscle cells essentially will start rejecting insulin, leading to insulin resistance. When insulin resistance occurs you go into fat storing mode.
All four of the above hormones need to be balanced for optimal fat burning efforts. Get any one of them out of whack and you can say goodbye to fat burning. And when you cut carbs too low for too long, you run the risk of hormonal imbalance.
So stop fearing carbs, instead use them responsibly and strategically to Turbo-Charge your fat loss.
The best time to take on carbs is going to be before and after a strength training session. This will set your body up for maximum fat burning potential. We’ll be back in the next installment to share exactly how you set that up.