There’s a lot of confusion out there these days around carbs, especially in the endurance athlete community. Are carbs good? Are they bad? Do they have a place in our diet or should we avoid them …
My name is Patrick McGilvray, and I’m an experienced marathoner, ultra runner, Sports Nutritionist, Master Life Coach, and weight loss coach for runners. I’ve dedicated my life to helping runners just like you properly fuel your body and your mind. So you can get leaner, get stronger, run faster, and run longer than you ever thought possible. This is Running Lean.
Hey there, and welcome to episode 190 of Running Lean. My name is Patrick McGilvray, The Weight Loss Coach for Runners and today: carbs are not the enemy. So there’s a lot of confusion out there these days around carbs, especially in the endurance athlete community. Are carbs good? Are they bad? Should we be carb loading? Do they have a place in our diet? Should we avoid them altogether?
I think you can probably guess from the title of this episode, ‘Carbs Are Not The Enemy’, that I have a particular stance on this, I don’t think they’re the enemy. But if you’re one of many people who are confused about all the talk on whether carbs are good or bad, my goal today is to help clear all this up for you. So in this episode, I’m gonna explain why carbs are not the enemy. Also, why it might be a good idea to keep your carb intake kind of low most of the time anyway.
But first, if you’ve been thinking about coaching, maybe you’ve been thinking about getting a hold of me, maybe working with me, but you’re still not sure if this is right for you, that’s fine. It’s not a problem at all. The thing is that coaching isn’t for everyone.
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Alright, let’s talk about this carbs are not the enemy. So I hear a lot of people talking about cutting out carbs, you know, going super low carb, keto, carnivore, whatever. And I think that some people get it into their heads that this means they can never eat a carbohydrate again in their life.
And I want to make this very clear today because I do get a lot of questions about this from people. I wanted to make it very clear on my stance on carbohydrates, and what place they can have in your diet and maybe should have in your diet depending on where you are with your training and with your weight loss goals and things like that.
So I just wanted to kind of clear up maybe some of the confusion and firmly take a stand on where I feel about all this stuff here. Okay, so first of all, understand that there are a lot of reasons why I like a low carb diet, why I think keeping your carbs relatively low is really good for you.
So just understand that, you know, when we talk about a low carb diet, that number of carbs per day can differ for different people. Some people consider, you know, 20 to 50 grams of carbs, low carb, other people consider 100 to 150 grams of carbs per day, low carb and really anything under 200, 150-200 grams of carbs is really kind of considered low carb, believe it or not.
So there’s a lot of flexibility there. And what we’re talking about, when we talk about eating a low carb diet, this does not mean that you can have one blueberry a day and a half of a banana once a week or something like that. No, this is about like, you know, you get to eat a banana or two a day and berries and honey and fruit and you know, yogurt and root vegetables and beans and all kinds of foods that contain carbohydrates.
It just means doing it in a very strategic way, in a very mindful way, so that you’re not loading up on refined carbohydrates. And I’ll talk about the difference between these in just a second here. But just understand that we want to eat a diet if your goal is to lose weight and improve your health and improve your running, you want to eat a diet that helps to regulate your blood sugar.
And regulating your blood sugar just means keeping your blood sugar relatively, you know, low and not a hypoglycemic we want to keep we don’t want to go too low, we want to keep your blood sugar, relatively constant, right, instead of having big spikes, and then crashes of blood sugar, because that causes spikes and crashes and energy levels that causes excessive weight gain and things like that.
So we want to keep our blood sugar relatively consistent throughout the day. So that means that the typical high carbohydrate diet that a lot of runners adhere to, it’s probably not going to work for you. Because runners are all about the carbs, all carbs all the time. And if you’re doing that your blood sugar is constantly spiked, and constantly spiked blood sugar means insulin is also constantly spiked, insulin being high.
When insulin is present, your body is storing fat, you’re not able to burn fat when insulin is present. So the right diet is the one that’s going to help your body to maintain its natural ability to burn fat. So we want to keep our blood sugar relatively low and consistent. We want to keep insulin levels relatively low and consistent, so that we can burn fat consistently, right?
This is all pretty basic, this is just the science behind why the low carb diet is so effective. So whether your body is burning fat, or storing energy as fat is all based on the types of foods you eat. And there’s other factors involved, but mainly on the types of foods you eat, and how much carbohydrate you’re consuming.
So if eating a lot of carbohydrates will spike your blood sugar, then what can we do about that? So I had another podcast that I did, called Good Carbs, Bad Carbs. And I’ll link to that in the show notes here. But just understand that all carbs are not bad. But there is a spectrum. You know, carbohydrates are sugar.
So sugar, you know, white sugar is just a concentrated, super concentrated refined form of carbohydrate. So on one end of the spectrum, we have super, super refined white sugar, super concentrated form of carbohydrate. And 100 grams of sugar is 100 grams of carbohydrates, right?
So this is something that if you consume this particular I’m going to use the finger quotes food if you consume this food, sugar is like not really a food. It’s a very concentrated, refined carbohydrate. But this substance that you consume will spike your blood sugar like crazy, which is going to spike insulin like crazy, which is going to make it very hard for you to lose weight, since your body’s going to shut down fat burning while you’re metabolizing that sugar.
Okay, eat a lot of sugar, your body is constantly going to be storing fat and not able to burn fat. This is not good. If you want to use fat as an endurance fuel. This is not good if you want to burn fat so you can lose weight.
Okay, so on one end of the spectrum, we have super concentrated forms of carbohydrate, like pure white sugar. On the other end of the spectrum, we have foods that contain carbohydrates, but they’re just very low, like whole foods like an avocado for example. 100 grams of avocado has like nine grams of carbohydrates. Right?
And so yeah, we’re eating some carbs, but it’s a tiny portion. It’s like 9% of that fruit. Oh, avocados are a fruit by the way, 9% of that fruit is carbohydrate as opposed to 100% with pure sugar. 100 grams of broccoli has just like seven grams of carbs. Right, so 7%.
So these foods contain fiber, which helps to reduce the carbohydrate impact, these foods will not spike your blood sugar, your blood sugar when you eat foods like broccoli and avocados and other foods with low carb, low carb foods, they will raise your blood sugar a little bit but very little and very slowly and then it will fall back to normal again pretty quickly, like it should, your blood sugar should go up a little bit when you eat, that’s normal. Insulin should go up a little bit when you eat, that’s normal. And then it should come back down to baseline pretty quickly, which is normal.
But eating that high carbohydrate diet does not do that, it completely jacks up the system. It totally spikes blood sugar, totally spikes insulin, and then your body’s just busy metabolizing all that carbohydrate. Okay, so carbs, not the enemy. But we want to eat a diet that does not cause all these spikes and crashes, that helps to kind of regulate our blood sugar.
So we want to keep blood sugar low, we want to keep insulin levels low. And we want to keep our body in that fat burning mode. So fat burning is the key here. And that should be your goal. If you’re somebody who wants to improve your running performance and you want to lose weight, or improve your body composition, then fat burning is your goal.
Because if you can improve fat burning, you can improve your endurance. If you can improve fat burning, you can lose weight. If you want to lose weight, you have to burn fat, I think that is just common knowledge. If you want to lose weight, you have to burn fat, so why not keep your body in a key fat burning state, you know, pretty consistently, you’re going to lose weight if you do that.
So keeping the carbohydrates moderately low is a great way to keep your body burning fat. Improving your endurance, you know, if you want to be able to run whether it’s 5k or 50k or 100 miles, if you can improve your ability to burn fat, your endurance is going to go up, your endurance is going to improve, you’re going to be able to run longer, and you’ll be able to run faster as well, you’ll be able to increase your your high intensity running as well.
So this is a pretty simple concept, let’s just increase fat burning, let’s, you know, optimize your body to burn more fat. This is very simple. It’s a simple concept. But people tend to complicate this stuff, right? They over complicate it, they talk about you know you know being going keto or doing carnivore or you know going zero carb and you know, I gotta keep it under 50 grams of carbs every single day all the time.
No matter what this is, we don’t need to worry about a lot of that stuff, right, you can just simply keep your carbs low, stay away from foods that spike your blood sugar, and keep your body in fat burning mode. And if you do that you’re going to be successful with this. Okay.
So there’s lots of benefits to improving your health, including, you know, not just the things that I’ve mentioned above, but some of the other things like lowering your risk for diabetes, improving your blood pressure, lowering triglycerides, improving your cholesterol numbers.
Also, if your goal is to lose weight, a low carb diet can definitely help with that because you’re burning more fat, you’re optimizing your body for fat burning, which is how you lose weight. But also it helps to decrease your appetite. You will feel more full when you do eat. And the reason for this is due to two hormones, ghrelin and leptin.
Ghrelin is the hunger hormone, which when you eat a lot of carbohydrates, that hunger hormone gets over active. And so you tend to be more hungry all the time. Have you ever noticed that if you eat a lot of carbs throughout the day, you’re constantly hungry throughout the day and you feel like you have to keep eating, keep eating, keep eating.
And then if you’ve ever done a super low carb regimen where you’ve stopped eating a lot of the refined carbs and stuff like that, and you’ve gone you know very low carb, you’ll notice that you’re not hungry throughout the day. And it’s much easier to not overeat when you’re not hungry all the time. Right. It just makes it so much easier because if you’re just not hungry, you don’t really feel like eating then you don’t need to worry about overeating because you’re just naturally not going to overeat.
The other hormone, leptin, which controls how full you are when you eat. So when you eat a big load of carbohydrate, like let’s say a big bowl of cereal or oatmeal or something like that, then leptin actually gets deregulated. So it actually is not produced the way that it should be. And so you do not feel full when you eat that.
So you end up overeating that particular food, it’s much easier to overeat carbohydrates than it is to overeat, like protein. Have you ever tried to sit down and eat like two pounds of chicken breast? I’ve tried it, I can’t do it. Like I can eat like maybe like I can sit down and eat up a pound of meat at a time, most of the time.
Chicken is one of those things that I have a really hard time and because it’s just pure protein. And I get to about three quarters of a pound. And I’m just like darn, like, I cannot eat any more. That’s like 12 ounces of chicken and I’m just like totally stuffed. I can’t eat anything else.
But if I sat down to eat, let’s say what is like one of my favorite carbohydrates, sweet treats something like cheesecake. Oh my God, even though that’s like super dense and rich, I can eat a pound of cheesecake, two pounds of cheesecake, no problem at all. Especially if it’s got like caramel sauce on it. And whipped cream. Heck, yeah, I can tear that up.
That’s because those hormones are just jacked up, they don’t, they don’t work the way they’re supposed to. And so all of a sudden, I’m not feeling full, I’m excessively hungry, and I can overeat carbohydrates, whereas, you know, it’s really hard to overeat protein, okay.
So again, there’s a lot of benefits to eating a lower carb diet, you know, also understand there’s tons of benefits for running. So fat is an amazing fuel source for endurance athletes, we all know that. If you’ve listened to this podcast at all, you know, I talk about this a lot. And you have a virtually unlimited supply of fat on board.
And really, it doesn’t even matter your body composition. If you’ve got anywhere, you know, upwards of you know, 6 or 8% body fat you’ve got tons of fat on board to use for fuel for running. So you know, you can run on fat alone for many distances, half marathon, marathon, 50k, 50 mile, 100 miles.
Mike McKnight famously ran 100 miles on zero calories, just to show the world that you can use your own stored body fat as fuel very effectively. And he’s a super small dude and really lean. And so he was able to run 100 miles on fat alone, body fat alone.
And studies have even shown that you can train yourself to burn more fat and perform at even higher intensities. So the common belief is that you know, at some point, you’re going to cross over from fat burning to sugar burning, where you’re going to be burning mostly sugar, and you’re going to stop burning mostly fat and start burning mostly sugar.
And typically this is around 65% of your VO2 max. And this will be for most carb adapted athletes. So if you’re somebody that’s eating a traditional high carbohydrate diet, you’re not fat adapted, meaning your body isn’t burning fat super effectively, then around 65% of your VO2 max is where you’re going to make that crossover.
Well, fat adapted athletes don’t hit that crossover until much later, maybe 80, 90 or 100% of their VO2 max or even over 100% or their VO2 max. So they’re burning fat up to and even over 100% of their VO2 max.
Jeff Browning is an elite Ultra runner who has been tested to burn fat at like 90-95% of his VO2 max. It’s pretty incredible. So that means that you can run at even higher intensities and you’re still just utilizing fat you haven’t crossed over from fat to sugar burning. Right.
And so most of us weekend warriors and, you know, age group athletes or who are out there, you know, we can utilize, we’re probably not going to be running at close to 100% of our VO2 max for any race.
Maybe you would, you know, but just understand that for most age groupers out there, you’re going to be burning mostly fat no matter what you’re doing. So if you’re fat adapted, this is a profound performance enhancer for you. Okay, so all of this is to say that maintaining a low carb diet can have profound performance benefits and profound health benefits for you.
If you want to lose weight, keep your carbs low. If you want to burn more fat, keep your carbs low. If you want to prove your running, keep your carbs low. If you want improve your health markers, you know cholesterol and blood pressure and things like that, keep your carbs low, right?
So the logical conclusion a lot of people come to then is like, Oh, if low carb is good, I’m just gonna go zero carbs, isn’t zero carbs better? Doesn’t this make sense? Like, you know, if low carb as good as zero carbs better? And I’m gonna say like, probably not.
This all depends on the individual. I don’t think so. I don’t think the zero carbs is really right for everybody. I do know some people that have done really well on a carnivore type of diet, maybe zero carbs for a period of time.
Now I’ve done this before, I’ve gone 30, 60 or 90 days, doing like strict carnivore, where I had almost zero carbs, it’s really hard to keep your carbs zero, like you can’t eat vegetables at all, you can’t eat a tomato, you can’t eat anything other than like meat and eggs. Even eggs have a tiny bit of carbs in there, like one or two grams of carbs.
So anyway, it’s hard to do. But I’ve done this for a period of time, and I’ve kept the carbs super low. And there are some benefits to doing that for sure. But I don’t think it’s something that you want to do all the time. Carbs are not the enemy. Okay, carbs can definitely have a place in your diet.
And what low carb means is low carb does not mean the same thing for everybody. But it doesn’t mean zero carbs. Right. So there, there is a spectrum here of where you want to be in the low carb world. Okay. So, carbs are not the enemy, we don’t need to be afraid of carbs, they can definitely have a place in your diet.
And so, for example, if you want to lose weight, and you want to improve your running, in general, and again, this is going to vary for each person. But you might start out pretty low carb, so say like 50 grams a day or so. And you might maintain that for around 30 days, this helps to regulate your hormones, get your blood sugar normalized, helps to reduce cravings for sweet foods and gets your hunger signals working the way they’re supposed to.
Then after 30 days, you might bump that daily carb number up, you might go to 75 or 100 or 150 grams of carbs. And this all depends on you, depends on your metabolism, your calorie requirements, where you are in your training cycle, your particular goals, are you trying to lose a lot of weight? Are you just trying to improve your running? Are you running 5K’s?
Are you running ultra marathons like all these things are going to factor into this, okay? There’s tons of factors involved in this, why you have to kind of experiment with this and you got to test this, why offer coaching, instead of just handing over guidelines to people like I’m even a little leery of throwing these numbers out there because they are not going to work for everyone.
All of this is on a spectrum. And every single person is a little bit different. So I work with you on an individual basis, we look at all of these factors, we come up with some guidelines based on all of these factors. And then we kind of see if it is working or not. And then we continually make minor changes and minor tweaks to get things working properly for you.
Okay, so for me, I vary my carb intake pretty regularly. So some days, I’m pretty low carb, so that might be 30 to 50 grams of carbs. Other days, I might be 100 to 120 grams of carbs. And this all depends on my activity level.
So I look at, you know, what my running schedule is like, what my weightlifting schedule is like, and how much of that carbohydrate that I’m actually going to be utilizing. So if I’m going to be burning the carbs through my workouts, great, I can up the carb intake. But if I’m just going to be a little more sedentary or have an off day or something like that, if I were to keep the carbs, you know, at the higher end of the spectrum 120 grams or something like that, I’ll probably be storing more of that as fat instead of burning it through the workout.
So this is an important distinction because I don’t want to just add a bunch of stored body fat so I want to time the carbs around my workouts and time the carbs with my lifestyle and my activity levels so that I am oxidizing the carbs as well as maintaining them. Oxidation of fat, right?
We don’t want to be shutting down your fat metabolism, your fat oxidation. Eating too many carbs, or the wrong types of carbs, will do this though. So if you eat refined sugars that’s going to shut down fat burning or definitely dampened fat burning. So I tend to gravitate toward whole foods sources of carbs, slow burning types of carbs that will not spike my blood sugar that won’t shut down the fat burning.
So some of the go to’s for me would be sweet potatoes, legumes, fruit, some dairy, things like that. So carbs are not the enemy. And but I would argue that refined carbs like white sugar and white flour are really not good for you. Like, I don’t think they really have a place in the human diet. There’s no real positive health benefits to eating refined white sugars and refined white flowers, right? There’s only negative side effects, there’s only negative effects on your body.
It’s kind of like alcohol, alcohol is not really a health food, it’s not good for you. Right? It’s a poison, but even alcohol in moderation, very strict moderation is okay. You know, it’s not great. It’s not like it’s not good for you. Sugar is not good for you. White flour is not good for you. But every now and then it’s okay.
It’s okay to have a drink every now and then it’s okay to eat a piece of cake every now and then, or have a piece of bread every now and then. It’s like, I’m never going to tell you or even myself that I’m never going to have that stuff again, although I don’t drink so I’m probably never gonna have alcohol again.
But as far as like the white sugar, and the flour and the cake and the cheesecake and things like that, I’m gonna have some of that every now and then. But it’s very sporadic. It’s very sporadic, I do not eat that stuff all the time. So just understand that carbs are on a spectrum, that they’re not the enemy, but you got to maintain the right carb level for you and the right amount of carbs, it’s going to help to help you to reach your weight loss goals, your health goals, your fitness goals, your running goals.
And also, that’s not going to cause damage, right. So we got to be careful with this stuff and got it you know, eat the right types of carbs. So carbohydrates do have a place in our diet. We’ve been consuming carbs for millions of years as human beings. But we’re not, we weren’t consuming the refined and processed carbs, the genetically modified carbs that we have available to us today.
Like back in the day, we used to eat things like bulbs, tubers and berries. We weren’t eating refined white sugar and bread and pasta, like these foods will do a number on our blood sugar and basically shut down fat burning. We didn’t have those kinds of foods available to us.
So the carbohydrates we were consuming, you know, tens of thousands of years ago for millions of years, was a very low glycemic diet and very slow burning types of carbs. Even the fruit we used back then was much different than the modified fruit we have today, which is you know, pure sugar. A lot of it is just really, really high in sugar.
So stick to whole foods, sources of carbs. Think slow burning carbohydrates like root vegetables, temper through, say berries, dairy, like Greek yogurt, legumes like beans, lentils, these types of foods, they will not spike your blood sugar. They’re slow burning carbs, they will help you too. They will help enhance your running performance and they will help to keep you burning fat, which is what you want.
You want to continue to burn fat so you can lose weight. You want to continue to burn fat so you can run faster and run longer and keep that performance edge that you want. Okay, so carbs are not the enemy. You just gotta do it the right way. All right. That’s all I got for you today. Love you all, keep on Running Lean. And I’ll talk to you soon.