So... when can I eat a ton of carbs and not worry about it?

As you all know by now, I'm a big fan of watching your carb intake for general health reasons. More and more evidence is coming out supporting the theory that elevated blood sugar levels are the root of metabolic and inflammatory diseases (cardiovascular disease, diabetes, intestinal permeability, etc...)

But are there times when you should up your carb intake? Perhaps even ad libidum?

The answer is yes, absolutely! Here are some of those times:

Times of high stress

I've recently written a couple of pieces on stress: how stress affects weight gain/loss, and how stress affects your fitness training & recovery.

To recap the most relevant point in this discussion: stress causes a hormonal reaction designed to put your body into a "survival" mode, often called "fight or flight" mode.

This means that your "fight of flight" hormones are elevated: Adrenaline and Cortisol, and all other hormones not necessary for "fight or flight' are suppressed: thyroid, Vitamin D (yes it's a hormone), sex hormones, etc...

One way to "sooth" your body and calm it down is to increase your carb intake. When your body is under severe stress, limiting carbs will actually INCREASE the stress response, since now the system has to contend with whatever is causing the stress AND potential "famine" (the message being sent by blood sugar being too low).

Days of back-to-back glycolytic training

As I've said before, while protein and fats have multiple uses & destinations in the body (hormones, cellular membranes, lining of nerves, muscle building, etc.), carbs really have only 3 main destinations:

- Immediate use for energy (e.g. Coke in the middle of a marathon)

Glycogen storage in the liver / muscles: glucose stored for immediate use in high intensity exercise

- Conversion to Triglycerides: which then get deposited as "fat" in your body

That's about it... no other option. This is why I'm generally NOT a fan of eating more carbs when you wake up in the morning: your muscle glycogen stores are full. Yes your liver glycogen is a little low, but not enough to absorb a bowl of oatmeal... unless of course you do a high intensity workout session pre-breakfast to empty your muscle glycogen reserves.

(Of course if you did an intense training session in the evening and didn't have enough protein/carbs at dinner, then yes your glycogen stores in the morning would be empty, but that's a problem in itself: if your glycogen stores are emptied and not refilled within 2 hours, your body will start reducing your ability to store glycogen - just like you would throw away empty water bottles that don't get refilled...)

But suppose you do exactly that: you're a Crossfit athlete and do daily high intensity exercise which "empties" your liver and muscle glycogen stores daily. In this case, you will need more carbs than the average person to "refill" those glycogen stores and have them ready for the next day.

Timing Carb Intake

Timing of carbs intake is critical.

You want to ingest carbs AFTER your glycogen stores are depleted, NOT before.

Eating carbs BEFORE a workout will teach your body to rely on glucose from whatever you're digesting, instead of the glycogen stores in the muscles & liver. Do you feel crappy if you do a high intensity session on an empty stomach? That's either because your glycogen stores are "empty", or (more likely), your body needs to learn to use glycogen and build more glycogen storage capacity (which can only be achieve by frequent "emptying and refilling").


Carb Refeed Days

These are a lot more critical than most people think, and that for 2 main reasons: Insulin Sensitivity and Thyroid Function. 

Even if you're on a relatively low-carb diet, you want to ensure that you get a "carb refeed day" every 7 to 10 days, where you consume 300-500g of "good quality" carbs.

Insulin Sensitivity

When you're on a low carb diet, your insulin levels are low, and you're avoiding big spikes in insulin (a good thing) - your pancreas is nice and relaxed and functioning at a comfortable pace. 

However, from time to time, you want to introduce a higher amount of carbs which triggers a bigger insulin reaction. This helps maintain healthy levels of insulin sensitivity (your liver and muscles' response to insulin) and maintain your pancreas' ability to produce more insulin if required.

Thyroid Function

A certain level of carbs is necessary for low thyroid function. Chronic low carb intake has been linked to depressed thyroid function. This does not mean that a high carb diet is the way to go however, but rather that a "varied" diet that includes higher carb days "occasionally" is a better option.
 

Bottom Line

- A low carb way of eating is the healthier way to go for general health, keeping disease at bay and maintaining longevity
- Increase your carb intake on days of high levels of stress
- Increase your carb intake around periods of high-intensity training
- Introduce a "carb refeed days every 7-10 days for healthy pancreas & thyroid function

For more info about carbs, read the first part of the Carbs series (I haven't had the chance to write parts 2 and 3 yet!, and that's MY stress factor!).

 

Tony