Welcome to possibly the most heavily debated topic in the nutrition space.
Where do we begin?
First off, it’s important to note that I am unbiased, and objective.
If you’re reading and expecting me to take charge of one side, and present biased information about one camp, and demonize another; I’ll go ahead and let you know that I’m going to be a true disappointment.
Both sides have merit, and both sides have studies to back them.
Are they all objective? No f*cking way.
But, research is available (and plenty of it) to support either side, with a caveat or two, but it’s there nonetheless.
Before I delve into the battle of the energy-macros, there is something more important than this topic, that must be addressed prior…
Calories In Vs. Calories Out
If you’re eating in a surplus, you will gain weight.
If you’re eating in a deficit, you will lose weight.
That is the most important foundational element to this entire conversation.
If this isn’t equated for, we are debating for the purpose of petty argument.
Taken from a low carb-high fat (LCHF) diet study:
“A few relevant observations are as follows: (1) any diet type resulting in reduced energy intake will result in weight loss and related favorable metabolic and functional changes” – click for the study
What is Considered a Low Carb Diet?
Generally, a low carb diet is characterized by <20-30% intake from carbohydrates, all the way down to a 5-10 gram intake, with the dominant energy source being fat.
What is Considered a High Carb Diet?
Generally, a high carb diet is characterized by >45-55% intake from carbohydrates, and can be as high as 200-400+ gram intake, with the lesser energy source being fat.
*I will be speaking from a point of having calories, and protein as variables accounted for. Those are more important than just speaking about the energy macros (carbs/fats), once those are accounted for, we begin:
It Comes Down to The Individual, Always:
What do you prefer? Which do you enjoy more?
If the number one driver of success is adherence, we need to reframe the way we think about these topics.
Which foods do you tend to gravitate towards, carbs or fats?
If you find yourself always reaching for bread, cereals, fruits, oats, sweets – you probably tolerate, and digest these foods pretty well. Meaning, you should aim to incorporate them more, to make your diet less restrictive.
On the other hand, if you tend to find yourself craving saltier, denser foods like fattier meats, nuts & seeds, nut butters, oils, whole eggs, and full fat dairy, you probably want to incorporate more of those to have your diet meet you more in the middle.
In Terms of Training, & Exercise:
If you’re an avid exerciser, and you have at least a decent foundation of lean muscle mass, strength, and performance, a higher carbohydrate diet pretty much always comes out superior in terms of preserving, and retaining that muscle mass (once again, as long as protein stays the same – if not increases).
To highlight my protein point though; in this study, women followed a 1700 calorie diet for 10 weeks, but with different ratios of macros. The superior diet was the diet that accounted for carbohydrates and protein. The group with better results experienced increased satiety following meals, higher levels of fat loss, with less loss in muscle tissue.
If protein is accounted for, carbohydrates tend to be the preferred protein (muscle) sparing source, because glucose (sugar in the blood – converted from carbs) is the preferred energy source in the body.
To get an image here, since we’re talking muscle preservation, think bodybuilders…
What diet do 9/10 bodybuilders follow when “cutting” to get as lean as possible, yet retain as much of their muscle mass as possible?
Higher carb, consistent protein, lower fat diets.
Let’s Think About This:
- Protein: 4 calories per gram
- Carbs: 4 calores per gram
- Fats: 9 calories per gram
So, when you’re in a calorie deficit and trying to lose fat, you need to adhere consistently to the diet, right?
What is number one in terms of throwing you off your diet? (most cases)
Protein is the most satiating and filling source, but after that would be fibrous, micronutrient dense vegetables, and fibrous carbohydrate sources.
Fats have been documented to be the least satiating energy source, and when you’re in a deficit, that can lead to less adherence.
In this study, individuals who consumed a fibrous, carbohydrate rich breakfast experienced higher levels of alertness, and higher levels of fullness throughout the day, which led to them consuming less total calories.
On the other hand, individuals who consumed a high fat breakfast, experienced less fullness throughout the day, ended up consuming more fat sources, and more total calories than the carb/fiber group.
What About Fiber?
It’s important to note, fiber is commonly found in carbohydrate dense sources: fruit, vegetables, potatoes, lentils, beans, whole grains, oats.
Fiber sources that are more fat dense are: nuts and seeds, and avocado.
If you’re looking to consume less total carbs for the fiber content, aim for vegetables, and low sugar fruit.
Recommended daily intake of fiber is about 25g for women, and 38g for men. A better quantification would be 11-15 grams per 1000 calories minimum.
We Need to Lose Fat, Preserve Our Muscle, and Stay Sane
Now, I know many of you are screaming at me because of Keto.
Yes, if you’re correctly performing a ketogenic diet, you’re producing ketones in place of glucose, which will become your protein (muscle) sparing energy source.
The Caveat: I said “stay sane.”
The percentage of people who can stick to a ketogenic diet, is incredibly low.
And the majority of people who can, have dreams about bread with jelly, bagels, coconut sticky rice, and donuts every night.
This study, highlights the practical feasibility of low carb high fat (LCHF) diets, stating:
“Sustained adherence to a ketogenic LCHF diet appears to be difficult.” and also goes on to say “There is lack of data supporting long-term efficacy, safety and health benefits of LCHF diets.”
Again, if you prefer fat, don’t crave carbs at all, and can adhere to this type of diet long term, then that’s what works for you!
*Get your blood-work done regularly, check with your doctor, and pay attention to your biomarkers to see if you’re body is agreeing, this is a recommendation for everyone. Regular blood panels tell you how you’re responding with actual measurements, not just biofeedback.
It’s all individual, once again.
I’m only trying to highlight the recommendations for the best, most attainable, and lifestyle-supporting results for the general consensus.
If Training Isn’t Your Biggest Focus, and You’re a Mild Exerciser, or Even More Sedentary, the Recommendations (Probably) Change:
If the gym isn’t your happy place, and/or you’re just getting into this field of “Training & Nutrition”, then the carbs aren’t as necessary, because they won’t be as needed for fuel.
The deficit overall will be providing the fat loss, but a higher carb to fat ratio isn’t needed, since the amount of muscle mass, and training output is lower.
In this case, I recommend a very moderate approach, with protein accounted for.
Generally, those in this position are still really learning their body, what they like, don’t like, and what they digest well, so I think it best to consume everything to a moderate degree, to really focus in on the education of themselves.
The Case for Higher Fat:
If you have any auto-immune, hormonal, or carb tolerance/digestive issues it might be best to have a higher fat-to-carb intake.
What I mean by this is, it may be best to try the process of elimination in your diet, to minimize your intake of “inflammatory,” processed, and refined foods.
Generally, in these cases a more Paleo, or Whole30-ish diet is the frontrunner, because of the elimination of grains, dairy, sugar, legumes, alcohol, and any other processed, or refined foods.
Overall, when one does such, they’ll generally have a higher fat to carb intake from the fattier meats, nuts, seeds, oils, and eggs, and due to less carb options (pretty much only from fruit and vegetables).
So, Once Again, I Come Back To:
Eat a balanced, non (overly) restrictive diet in terms of options, with calories and protein controlled, and filled in with your preferred food options, and you’ll maintain a higher level of health, and sanity.
If We’re Talking Maintenance:
It’s recommended to spend more time at dietary maintenance, than ever in a deficit.
Being in a calorie deficit, is another stressor on the body, and will continue to harmful hormonally, and metabolically if you’re in a constant state of “diet.”
But, that’s a topic for another day, what I’m getting at is:
What about my carb to fat ratio if I’m just trying to maintain?
Once again, it comes back to preference, and your energy expenditure.
If you’re focused on your gym gains, and exercising relatively intensely, carbs will serve you better as an energy source.
If you’re more sedentary, than a more balanced ratio, or even fat dominant ratio of fats to carbs can be implemented.
What If I’m Tryin’ to Get Jacked?”
If you’re trying to get “jacked”, I’m sure you’re training intelligently, with the consistency, volume, intensity, and frequency to facilitate those gains.
If that’s the case, carbs will certainly be the preferred dominant energy macronutrient.
Carbs are converted into glucose, glucose that isn’t readily used is stored in your muscles and liver, and it is the absolute preference energy-wise for your body.
Eating in a surplus, training hard, with a carb-dominant macro profile, accounting for your consistent protein intake, is the preferred way for your body to build muscle.
You’re storing carbs in your body to be used as energy, which is completely sparing your muscles (protein) from being degraded for energy, and you’re consuming enough fat to maintain bodily, and hormonal functions.
You will get jacked.
Fat on the other hand, is fat. When eating in a surplus, which you must do if you want to gain muscle, overconsumption of fat would make fat storage a bit simpler.
Fat is after all, fat. Molecularly it is the same.
Fat is a major energy source, but at rest. Actual energy expenditure, by way of exercise, will be fueled by carbs first. So, over consuming fat won’t have as much carryover, or muscle building benefit.
Yes, fat can be oxidized more readily for fuel if you’re consuming more of it, but that’s the exact reason – because you’re consuming more of it. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be searing that fat off because there’s more to be used as energy.
For gaining muscle, carbs are the initial protein sparing macro, and there’s a much higher probability that weight gained from eating in a surplus (once again – if protein, and calories are accounted for) will be a favorable ratio of muscle to fat.
& The Winner Is:
Whichever can help you adhere, and be consistent.
Whichever provides the greatest amount of dietary enjoyment, and satisfaction.
& whichever one aligns most with your goals.
I will say, for those focused on your training (which should be everyone, that’s how we sustain our long term results), a higher carb to fat ratio would be more ideal!
Thanks for reading! Comment, share, reach out, let me know what I can do for you 🙂
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