Temperatures are dropping, the light is fading and you, my friend, are getting hungry. During the winter months, most people eat more and exercise less. The urge to hibernate in front of a 50-inch TV with enough carbohydrates to see you through to spring seems almost biologically irresistible. And who’s going to argue with Mother Nature? Not you, right? No maam! Pass me another bag of Doritos!
And yet_ While Ma Nature surely has your best interests at heart, you dont live in a cave. Theres not an Ice Age outside your double-glazed windows and energy-dense comfort foods are far too easy to come by in the 21st century. Especially during the winter, when all of Western society hops from one carb-fuelled public holiday to the next.
So it’s important to be mindful of your carb intake at this time of year for a number of reasons, and your fraying belt notches are just one of them. The biggest reason of all is insulin management. The intake of quickly-digested carbohydrates creates insulin spikes in your body, the hormone the body uses to break down and digest carbs Ð but this can also lead to crashes.
You know how it goes: you have a huge sandwich for lunch, maybe some crisps, a few biscuits Ð oh, and some coke Ð and you feel great. Thats because the insulin spike leads to an increase in serotonin, and a number of other things that make you feel good. Then, like clockwork, comes the crash. The clock strikes three, insulin falls, serotonin depletes and it almost feels like youre eating to feed a drug addiction. Which, in fact, you kind of are.
This is bad Ð obviously Ð because it causes you to overeat and puts your energy levels on a roller coaster. But the larger issue is that creating this spike/crash, spike/crash process can create insulin resistance or at the very least insulin insensitivity. What that means is that in order to elicit the same response, your body has to produce more and more insulin. This can eventually lead to diabetes, which itself is a precursor to heart disease.
Now, before you order an Atkins cookbook from Amazon, know that what Im saying is not that you have to avoid eating carbohydrates in general, completely, until the rapture. Instead, what youre looking to avoid are those spikes and crashes. So what follows is a tired, hungry mans guide to carbohydrates. The rules arent nearly as strict as you probably fear_
Beware processed, refined or simple carbs Starting with the basics, it is best to limit your intake of refined carbs and processed foods of any kinds. Thats everything you suspect is bad for you anyway: cakes and cookies, white bread and white pasta, sugary drinks and, well, sugary anything. These are quick for your body to process and digest. They create the spikiest of insulin spikes and are most likely to see you add weight.
Fruit is a simple carb, too_ Your apples and pears have as much fructose as many processed, sugary snacks. Of course, fruit also gives you a bounty of fibre and micronutrients that strengthen your body in countless ways, but the point stands: if youre eating bowlfuls of fruit regularly, youre likely causing similar insulin spikes to guys with a KitKat habit. By no means give fruit up but be smart about how much and when you eat it. Speaking of which_
Carbs are best eaten at the gym Or at least around your workout. You need energy to run 10K or lift a barbell from your chest. Carbs are the fastest way to supply that energy and they also help you recover afterwards. If youre trying to lose weight, Id advise try to pack 50% of your total daily calories before and after training.
Go carb cycling If you are working out regularly then you can have your carbs and eat them. Carb cycling is simple Ð its about matching the energy you put into your body with the energy you spend working out. On days that you tax your body significantly at the gym it’s important to have more carbs and calories to cover the work youre doing. Its fuel in the tank. So, on a training day, I would recommend anywhere between 10-15% above your normal calorific intake. Let’s say your body needs 2000 calories. On a training day, eat between 2200 and 2500 calories Ð but no more than around 120g of carbs. On days you dont train, have slightly less than 2000 calories and perhaps as little as 30g of carbs.
The type of carbs are less important than the total amount I dont want to micromanage you. If you want to get all your carbs from chocolate bars, I cant tell you not to. And if youre training hard, it wont make as much of a difference to your body composition. A big movement in the fitness industry right now is called If It Fits Your Macros (search #IIFYM on social media). Alan Aragon and others in the IIFYM community basically states that as long as you are hitting your overall carb target it doesnt matter if it comes from an apple, a doughnut or a sweet potato, so long as youre getting the 120g your body needs. If youre looking for proof, search the hashtag above and youll find pictures of hundreds of super-fit girls posting pictures of themselves eating ice cream and Cheerios. It seems to work for them, but I do think there is potential to do metabolic damage by constantly elevating your insulin levels.
A note on timing_ As I mentioned, Id always recommend eating the majority of your carbohydrates around your time at the gym. Some people go further than this Ð a long-held belief among trainers is that you shouldnt eat carbs after dark, or even after lunch. Personally, I dont buy into that too much, because I think its impractical. Plus, theres some evidence from a guy called John Keifer that ‘carb backloading Ð eating carbs at night Ð could potentially be good for you because of the way your natural insulin levels ebb and flow.
Go with your head, not with your gut All theories aside, the single most important thing is creating a diet that’s liveable. When you start creating too many rules it can become difficult to eat and easy to fail. My philosophy on carbs and dieting in general comes down to a great quote that I heard from Howard Stern many years ago: "Don’t be an idiot, you moron." As I said, I dont want to micromanage, but nor would I advise you get all your carbs from table sugar. The odd vegetable might be a good idea.
John Romaniello is a coach, best-selling fitness author and self-confessed defender of cheat days. He writes regularly for AskMen on fitness and nutrition to help you build the body you want.