Monday, June 25, 2012

Fat Loss, Minus the Cardio - Month 4 & the longest post on carbohydrates ever.

Well, I know that I've mentioned before that this isn't a nutrition blog - but it's pretty hard to always separate fitness and health from nutrition.  Basically impossible when talking about weight loss, at that!  So I thought I'd explain in long, grueling, excruciating detail why I avoid eating a lot of carbohydrates.  This won't fully explain my diet choices - for example why I consume so much protein and fat (though a good bit of it is that if I'm not eating carbs, those are the 2 macronutrients left to choose from!), but it will go a good ways of explaining it.  

I'll preface this by saying I'm by no means some super nutrition expert.  Hell, I might be flat-out wrong.  Present me with contrary evidence to what I'm posting below and I'll gladly change my mind - I've been known to do that once in a while.  But without further we go!


The main function of carboyhdrates in the body is as a fuel source, especially during high-intensity exercise.  When we take in a source of carbohydrates, our body will generally do one of 3 things with it:
  • Convert it into glycogen that is then stored in the liver or your muscles.  (Your liver can hold about 100g of glycogen, and how much your muscles can store depends on your muscle mass)
  • If these stores are filled, it will convert into fat for future energy needs.
  • Can be used as an immediate energy source. (which is why during long endurance events such as an ultramarathon or Ironman triathalon it is necessary for athletes to periodically take in carbohydrates - also why you don't need that gatorade during a 5 or 10k, your body is providing enough fuel through already-stored glycogen and fat to suffice for such a short distance.)
What it looks like when your body completely runs out of fuel.  THESE people needed some more carbohydrates.  You probably don't.

All carbohydrates are eventually broken down into simple SUGARS - either glucose, fructose or galactose.  These are the simplest forms of carbohydrates.

Forms of Carbohydrates

Which of these it is broken down to and in what amounts depends on what you're eating.  Let's take a look at each:
  • Glucose - blood sugar, immediate source of energy, seen on food labels often as dextrose.
  • Fructose - thought of as "fruit sugar," so obviously found in high quantities in various fruits, though it is present in other sources as well.
  • Galactose - found most often in milk and dairy products, though other vegetables such as leeks and broccoli or fruits like plums contain high quantities as well. 

 You can combine some of these 3 building blocks together to get more complex forms, for example:
  • glucose + fructose = Sucrose (basic table sugar, generally what we think of when we hear the word "sugar," and what is indicated by the "sugar" part of the nutrition label - well that, or high fructose corn syrup.)
  • fructose + galactose = Lactose (found mostly in dairy, lactose-intolerant people can't digest this properly, hence why they can't consume dairy!)
  • glucose + glucose = Maltose (best known in BEER!)

And more complicated chains form even more complex carbohydrates:
  • Starches - formed by long chains of glucose.  Commonly associated with potatos and other root plants, cereals, noodles, pastas and beans.
  • Cellulose, AKA Fiber - the biggest component of a plant's cell wall, so it makes sense that fruits and vegetables are high in fiber.  Also formed with lots of glucose. 
So why does all of this matter?  What does all of this stuff have in common? 
  1. They come from foods that contain carbohydrates.
  2. They are all, in the end, SUGAR.
You know, that thing that everyone avoids when they're on a diet or trying to lose weight?

About this time, a little confusion is understandable.  But you need carbohydrates to keep your blood sugar levels up!  What about whole-grains?  Aren't they better with the fiber and whatnot?  You can't seriously be saying that my Shredded Wheat cereal is comparable to a Snickers!

I am.  (We'll talk about GI later)

And let's be real, you're eating 2 cups of that.  With milk.

Well let's first think about why most people decide that they are going to avoid high-sugar products when on a diet:
  • Causes your blood sugar to spike
If I asked you honestly why it is bad when your blood sugar spikes, would you be able to answer past "because then it crashes back down"? (and why is that bad?)  We'll go over this later.
  • It's high in calories and leaves you craving more not even 30 seconds later. (Related to point 1)
  • Bad for your teeth!
  • It's...bad...for you...?
One phrase that you should try to eliminate from your speech is "<such and such> is good / bad for you."  With only 1 exception that I can think of off the top of my head (trans-fats), most foods can have an occassion to be eaten and be eaten with a good purpose - even these carbohydrates/sugars that I'm going to proceed to talk poorly of. 

Complex Carbohydrates

Let's start with the most complex of the carbohydrates - the ones that are so very often touted as being "healthy whole grains."  What does that even mean?  What is a whole grain?  What is the difference between whole grain and whole wheat?  If you're going to be buying bread from your grocery store, you should know what exactly your money is going towards.  

First, take a look at a real, whole, intact grain:

This is essentially the anatomy of corn kernels as well, and why they are grains, not vegetables.

There are 3 parts - the bran or husk, the endosperm and the germ.  
  • Bran - what makes a whole grain "whole."  This is the layer that contains most of the fiber and other assorted nutrients you get from your grain product of choice.  
  • Endosperm - the real "meat" of a grain, contains most of the starch.  This is what you're looking at when you see white rice.  
  • Germ - Provides some more nutrients, a little fat and protein.  
Here are some examples of the different types of bread and grains you'll see at your grocery store - let's spend a little time talking about the differences:

Click for larger image to see the full list of ingredients and nutrition info more clearly.

So when it comes to breads and grains, in general we have: 
  • White Bread / Processed Grains - Snack cakes, donuts, white bread, corn flakes, cereal in general; they've all gotten the same treatment: the grain has been stripped of its bran and germ, where most of the nutrients and fiber are.  You're left with essentially empty, starchy calories that are quickly digested and raise blood-glucose (and therefore insulin levels) quite quickly.  No surprises here for most people.
  • Multi-Grain - Simply means that there is more than 1 type of grain present.  Whether or not those grains are whole is up to the manufacturer.  Sounds healthy, could also be no better than white bread with some brown coloring.  
  • Whole Wheat - Indicates that flour for the bread was made from a whole, unprocessed grain of wheat.  More nutritious than white flour because it retained the bran and germ.  Don't get confused with the ingredient "Whole White Wheat Flour," which is whole wheat, but just from a white wheat.  This is different from white, processed flour. 
  • Whole Grain - When talking about bread, interchangeable with "whole wheat."  As by definition, it uses the whole grain - bran, endosperm and germ.  Brown rice is a whole grain, as is corn, oats, etc. 
So Whole Grain and Whole Wheat breads are sources of the complex carbohydrates - fiber and starch.  Of course, the overwhelming majority of the grain is the endosperm, which contains the starch - the energy content of your bread.  Look at the nutrition labels above for the total carbohydrate to fiber ratio: 5:1 on the most natural of them!  


Let's talk a little bit more in-depth about starch, our primary complex carbohydrate.  There are 2 different kinds:

  • Amylose - a long string of glucose, like a chain of pearls.  Breaks down slowly due to a small number of places for enzymes to attach to in order to degrade the molecule.
  • Amylopectin - A more branched structure, think like a tumbleweed or dust bunny.  Many enzyme attachment sites for quick degredation.  
Varying whole-grains, fruits and vegetables have varying ratios of amylose to amylopectin, however the general ranges are ~20-25% : 75-80%, though they can differ from these ranges as well.  This is why some kinds of plants have a higher Glycemic Index than others, such as white potatoes vs. sweet potatoes - one of the reasons why sweet potatoes are popularly considered 'healthier' than white potatoes despite similar nutritional content.  

"In a 100-gram portion, the white potato has 92 calories, 21 grams of carbs, 2.3 grams of dietary fiber, 2.3 g of protein and 17% of the recommended daily value of vitamin C. The same amount of sweet potato, on the other hand, has 90 calories, 21 grams of carbs, 3 grams of fiber, 2 grams of protein, 35% of the recommended daily value of vitamin C and 380% of the daily recommended value of vitamin A." (From

So those who avoid eating white potatoes due to the starch content should also turn a wary eye to ALL grains, tubers and legumes - Popcorn, Corn Flakes, whole-grain Lucky Charms and Pop-Tarts, Shredded Wheat, Oatmeal, beans, potatoes, you get the idea.  Obviously, some of these have a higher / lower GI's than others, differing fiber contents, differing minerals and nutrients, but I will shortly show you why none of this matters if you're trying to lose weight.  

Fiber / Cellulose

I feel that fiber deserves a slightly more elaborate explanation - most people know that fiber aids in digestion but let's break it down a little bit more:

Fiber is not actually able to be digested by humans - it instead absorbs water as it passes through the digestive track, causing fecal matter to become more solid and pass more easily.  So since fiber ISN'T digested, your body does not use it for fuel.  But before you go and try to calculate out how many less calories your fiber-enriched Lucky Charms are, remember: in the United States it is legal for manufacturers to go ahead and remove the calories from fiber on the nutrition label. 

Go ahead and do the math.  1g carb/protein = 4 calories.  1g fat = 9 calories.  So, (1x9) + (25x4) + (2x4) = 117 calories.  But the label says 60!  Well, 14g of fiber, so: 117-(14x4) = 61.  Pretty cool.  They should consider making this cereal in a shape that does not look like a million tiny worms though.  Appetizing.

Fiber is also a great aid for the dieter for a couple of other reasons: it slows the rate of intestinal carbohydrate absorption (along with fat and protein), decreasing the response of insulin as well as increasing the transit speed of consumed foods through the digestive track, inducing satiety more quickly when eating.  

Simple Carbohydrates

Next, let's take a more in-depth look at the most popular simple sugars: sucrose (which is interchangeable with high-fructose corn syrup), fructose and glucose.  

When it comes down to it, remind yourself of the 3 main functions of carbohydrates: 
  • Provide quick, immediate energy.
  • Replenish glycogen stores when they are low.
  • Become stored as fat for future energy needs. 
Some types of foods provide quicker energy than others - a way to measure how quickly is by using what is called the Glycemic Index.
"The glycemic index (GI) is a ranking of carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 according to the extent to which they raise blood sugar levels after eating. Foods with a high GI are those which are rapidly digested and absorbed and result in marked fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Low-GI foods, by virtue of their slow digestion and absorption, produce gradual rises in blood sugar and insulin levels" (From
Pure glucose has a GI of 100 and is what all other food's rating is based off of.  Remember that blood sugar = blood glucose, the form of energy used by all living things and all cells in your body.  So take the example of the Snickers Bar vs. Shredded Wheat Cereal:

One would think that Shredded Wheat Cereal, with its ONE ingredient of a source of complex carbohydrates, Whole Grain Wheat, would have a low GI compared to a Snickers Bar that has a heap of simple sugar.  To figure out WHY Shredded Wheat has a GI of 75 (Corn Flakes is even higher), yet candy has a GI of 55, let's think about the things that decrease a food's GI:
  • Form of the carbohydrate (is it refined?  What is ratio of amylopectin to amylose?)
  • Preparation (Cooked foods tend to have higher GI's because heat helps to break down compounds before it reaches our mouth)
  • Fiber content (Remember fiber slows digestion)
  • Presence of protein and/or fat (these also slow the digestion process) 
So while Shredded Wheat has only 1 ingredient, it DID have to be processed and cooked in order to go from a grain of wheat into a nice rectangular, shredded shape.  Though it does have more fiber than the Snickers, the ratio still isn't great.  While I'm not certain on exactly why the GI is so much higher, if I had to hazard a guess, I'd say that it is the lack of fat content.

Well, that has a whole range of implications on a multitude of supermarket products and on why the low-fat craze has had disastrous effects.  But first, let's talk about why a high GI and blood sugar spike is a bad thing.    


First off, insulin is stimulated by glucose, and by extension by sucrose (glucose + fructose).  If you'd like to learn more about why fructose and sucrose are so exceptionally terrible, I'm going to defer to someone much smarter and much more qualified than me to talk about that exact subject for about an hour and a half.  

Even if you don't have the time now, this is a very thought-provoking lecture, if nothing else.  I recommend taking some time to watch the whole thing.

A few key points to take away from that lecture, however, is: 
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup is no worse than sugar, but it is also no better.  Both are equally awful.  HFCS just has the added benefit of being incredibly cheap and easily added into a myriad of products from soda to fruit juice to bread to mustard.  Go the the grocery store and TRY to find packaged non-meat products without it.
  • Sugar promotes the creation of "Small Dense LDL's," (Not to be confused with harmless Large Buoyant LDL's) that promote heart disease and high blood pressure.
  • Fructose does not suppress ghrelin, the hunger-stimulating hormone.
  • Fructose does not stimulate leptin, which in turn will not send the signal to the brain that it has eaten.  (Why drinking soda has at best no effect on hunger, and at worst making you hungrier.) 
  • While fruit does contain fructose, it is also packed with fiber, vitamins and minerals in much higher quantities than grains.  
Your blood glucose has a set level it likes to stay at: about 1 teaspoon of glucose in your entire body.

Just 1 teaspoon.

So what happens when you consume more than 1tsp of sugar (glucose)? (For reference, a 12oz coke has almost 10 tsp of  just sucrose)  Well, your body wants to bring that level down quickly.  To do this, it recruits insulin to take the glucose and perform one of the 3 main functions: 
  • Provide quick, immediate energy.
  • Replenish glycogen stores when they are low.
  • Become stored as fat for future energy needs. 
So in something with a high GI, such as shredded wheat, insulin needs to act quickly.  So instead of a small rise in your insulin levels, your pancreas creates a much higher amount to escort the glucose off to do one of those 3 functions.  While insulin is around, your body will not take energy from your fat stores.  Insulin blocks the hormones responsible for transporting energy from fat cells to the rest of your body.  So once your insulin levels are sky-high, your blood-glucose levels tend to be low.  When this happens, your body resorts to making you do one of 2 options:
  • GET MORE ENERGY (SUGAR) NOW.  (Repeat cycle)
  • Get sleepy until your body can restore your blood-glucose balance.
Now, contrary to popular belief, not eating or not consuming glucose will not cause these blood-glucose levels to drop and crash your metabolism.  Typically when you are not performing vigorous exercise, your prime source of energy actually does come from fat (see a previous post about differing intensity exercises and fat/carb use here) - provided you didn't just eat some Shredded Wheat. If you work out in a fasted state, your muscle glycogen stores are more than enough to get you through with good performance - provided you aren't running a marathon or lifting weights for 3 hours or something equally ridiculous and you have adapted to working out under these conditions.

If you're sitting around and not consuming any carbohydrates and your cells are slowly using up present glucose, your body can create more from either protein or fat stores via gluconeogenesis.  If you participate in some sort of strength training (which you should be!), your body will tend to pass over protein in favor of fat.

As we all know, chronically high levels of insulin - which are stimulated by carbohydrates of all kinds - leads to a very tired pancreas, which leads to less insulin being able to be produced, which leads to high blood-glucose levels, which leads to a fully exhausted pancreas, which leads to Type II Diabetes.  

A very straight-forward and helpful video on insulin.

A clip from the movie "Fat Head" about insulin.  I disagree with many points in this movie, but it is certainly thought-provoking and a good watch- if you can stand the narrator's smug voice anyway.

So clearly, having elevated blood-sugar levels and needing insulin aren't exactly ideal things for the person who wants to lose weight or the person with diabetes.  Wouldn't the logical conclusion then be to simply...not take in carbohydrates?

But wait!  Fruits and vegetables have carbohydrates, don't they?









There are, of course, starchier vegetables such as carrots and potatoes, and fruits with more sugar and starch such as apples.  However, these still have higher vitamin and mineral content than breads, cereals, rices and pastas, and chances are a lower GI.  


So why does all of this matter?

It means that by removing the fat from Oreos, snack crackers, donuts, etc. they are even worse than they were before - even if they have less calories, because the fat lowered their GI and made them taste good - now to be palatable they have to have even more carbohydrates in the form of sucrose.  

It means that if you aren't working out, you don't need extra carbohydrates

It means commercials like this REALLY PISS ME OFF.


It means that if you're taking in carbohydrates when you don't need them, they only have one place to go: fat cells.

It means that you still need to eat your fruits and vegetables - but these come packed with fiber and essential vitamins and minerals at a lower carbohydrate cost than breads and other grains.  

So for someone like me, ideally, my eating plan would consist of low-carbohydrates when I'm not working out, and higher-carbohydrates when I am.

Remember when I said most all foods can have their place under the right circumstances?  If I just finished a hard workout and depleted a lot of my glycogen stores, a Reese's Cup suddenly goes from fattening to restorative.  Is it the ideal?  Of course not - a potato would work just as well and provide me with some fiber and nutrients to boot.  But if I'm going to eat a fried-egg bacon cheeseburger with fries (which goodness knows I do), I'm going to do it post-workout when I need the carbohydrates and protein and calories to recover in time for my next workout.

If I was going to play a 3-day frisbee tournament, you bet I'd be eating pasta and bread like crazy.

If I was going to sit on my butt for 3 days, you bet I'd be sticking to protein and low-starch vegetables.  

Now, many low-carb enthusiasts will scream all day "A CALORIE IS NOT A CALORIE!!"  While I certainly agree with this (as if you couldn't tell based upon this post) your calories still matter.  If you only burn through 2000 calories a day and you eat 2500 calories of eggs (About 35 1/2 eggs, good luck), protein taken in is extremely capable of being turned into fat.  It's just a little bit harder to take in more calories than you need when all you're eating is steak and broccoli - you'll get full quick, whereas I'm pretty sure I could eat 3000 calories of cheesecake without even thinking about it.

Carbohydrates are only part of the equation, and there are several other reasons I eat so much fat and protein, but I think this post is quite long enough already.  

tl;dr : carbs are energy.  If you're not doing tasks that require energy, you don't need them.

Here are a lot more resources (some concise, some more random) on the subject from much smarter people than myself if this has sparked your interest at all:

Damn Dirty Carbohydrates - Justin Stoneman 

Mark Sisson's Grain Series: 
There are a million more things I could link here, but I'll refrain.

Month 4 - Pictures and Updates

Well it's been an eventful month for me in physical performance, but not so much on the weight-loss side of things.

I've heard that I still look like I'm losing weight - and we're always notoriously bad at seeing changes ourselves!  I'll leave it for you to judge from the pictures.  

Weight (6/24/12): 158lbs

So only 2lbs over a month, which is a little disappointing.  But, we'll see what I can do with July!  

On the plus side, I accomplished a MAJOR goal this month!  I've wanted to do a bodyweight pull-up since I was probably 14 or 15 years old.  Over the years I've done my fair share of back-strengthening exercises, but I never seriously worked towards the pull-up until about December or January.  I made it a New Year's resolution at that!  Well, June 14th I FINALLY did one (I actually ended up doing 3 that day)!  Very, very slowly, but I felt like I was flying.  I hadn't gotten such an adrenaline rush since I first hit a 225lb deadlift!

Unfortunately I'm not tech saavy enough to know how to get a facebook video I don't own onto here.  I do have a link to the facebook video, but presumably you'd have to "like" my work place's facebook page to see it.

So onto the pictures!

Taken 6/24

I was making a stupid face again.

Back (Relaxed)
Back (Flexed)
I'm really gonna look up how to properly back flex for the next month.  Also would have been nice if my photographer told me my sports bra was uneven!!

Weight Loss

3/18/12 - 175
3/29/12 - 171 (-4)
4/13/12 - 167 (-4)
4/29/12 - 164 (-3, )
5/14/12 - 161.3 (-2.7)
5/27/12 - 160lbs (-1.3)
Weight (6/24/12): 158 (-2, -17 total)

Going to exclude the exercise log because this post is long enough and nothing exciting happened besides that pull-up anyway.  The gist is that I've been trying to slowly come back in to squats and deadlifts - light box squats and deadlifts for few reps and a lot of sets.  

This month however I'll be steadily increasing the weights and seeing how my back does!  

Thanks for reading, and if you made it this far and actually read this whole post...I'm impressed!