Workout Nutrition: How To Use Carbs and Protein To Your Advantage

27 03 2013

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I was reading a great article yesterday from the Metabolic Effect (which itself offers a wealth of information on fat-loss and exercise), and although there are many things that I’d like to touch on from this article (I’ll surely reference the article again in the near future), I really wanted to comment on their statement about carbs and proteins, in reference to workout nutrition:

“Carbs are for building, protein is for cutting, and both are for shaping.”

As they themselves mention, this is an oversimplified statement, but it’s concise and a damn useful way for people to go about planning how to best manipulate their macronutrients for their own personal goals.

To elaborate a bit on the statement, here are my recommendations:

First of all, you can keep the protein intake roughly the same for each strategy. As I’ve recommended in the past, you’re going to want to ensure that you’re consuming at least 1 g of protein per lb of body weight, no matter what your goals are.  You need protein for building muscle mass, you need it for maintaining muscle mass in a cutting phase, and you need it to properly shape your muscles. Going below 1 g per lb of body weight wouldn’t make any sense. I can see the logic in consuming 1.5 to 2 g per lb of body weight if your goals are to get bigger and stronger (I usually float around the 1.5 mark, as I train primarily for strength), but deviating outside the 1-2 g area is almost surely either detrimental or unnecessary.

Secondly, your fat and carbohydrate consumption will be somewhat inversely proportional in order to maintain an ideal calorie intake. On a building plan, you’ll need more carbohydrate in your diet, so your dietary fat will need to be decreased unless you want a calorie excess (which will bring fat storage along with your muscle growth). On a cutting plan, you will have very few carbohydrates in your diet, and you will therefore need to increase your dietary fat intake to ensure enough calories for muscle growth and maintenance. As long-term low-carb and low-fat diets (especially low-fat diets) can be detrimental to your healthy, it is advisable to take a break from these “extreme” plans for a week or so every few training cycles. Nutrient type and timing are paramount in any kind of body-manipulation plan, but don’t forget that overall caloric intake must also be kept in check.

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If your primary goal is to build muscle mass, you’ll need more carbs in your diet. As I’ve mentioned before, when you workout, your muscles are torn apart and your body reacts by selectively shuttling post-workout nutrients to muscle cells instead of fat cells. For this reason, you can tolerate a higher-carbohydrate diet if you workout on a regular basis. If you consume a high-carb diet in the absence of exercise, your blood sugar will spike, but the nutrients will be shuttled primarily to fat cells for storage because your muscles don’t need the energy- they’ll be well rested and will have no demand for “food”. Flooding your body post-workout with a 3:1 or 4:1 or even 5:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio will ensure optimal muscle growth. Again, if your goal is to get bigger, feel free to overdo it a bit, but monitor your progress in the mirror. If you are putting on too much fat, keep the same ratio (don’t go lower than 3:1), but simply reduce the number of total calories. Eventually you will find the “sweet spot” where you’re providing your body with enough nutrients for optimal muscle growth, but not so many that you’re packing on extra fat. You’ll likely want to be consuming carbs at every meal if your goal is to get bigger, so keep the carbs high, but watch the fat intake.

If your primary goal is to cut body fat and maintain muscle, you’ll want to load up on the fats and protein and significantly cut back on the carbs. For optimal cutting results, you should still consume at least 50 g of carbs daily, but make sure that they fall within the 2-hour window post-workout when your muscles will be starving for nutrients- the carbs will help shuttle protein to your starving muscle. Outside of this window, your body will simply have to break down fat stores to provide the body with the nutrients it needs, which is why cutting carbs is effective in cutting body fat.

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If your primary goal is to shape your body (whatever that means), again you’ll need a high protein intake, a balanced carb intake, and a fat intake that corresponds to your caloric demands. A shaping diet plan would likely look very similar to a cutting plan, but with a few more carbs outside of the post-workout window and less overall dietary fat; the real shaping however will be determined by the work you do in the gym.

Before picking one of these strategies and going full-steam ahead, I encourage you to really think about your actual training goals. Do you want to get stronger? Bigger? Bigger and stronger? What if you add fat in the process? Is that acceptable? Maybe your real goal is to burn fat and then build muscle. Like I said, think it through. If you waffle with your training goals, you’ll waffle on your nutrition, and you’ll never get anywhere. Set your goals, set your plan, and stick to it for an extended period of time. Then and only then will you see the results you’re looking for.

That’s all for now, but if you have any specific questions about workout nutrient, don’t hesitate to drop me a line!

Happy Hump Day!

DW