Am I Eating Too Many Carbs or Not Enough?
August 13, 2012 8:41 AM   Subscribe

Self-directed low carb/paleo diet. Totally wrung out after 30 minutes in the gym. Am I doin it rong?

I've cut out all starches, grains, potatoes, sugars and processed foods. My diet is most often whey powder, almond milk and 2/3 a cup of frozen berries in a blender for breakfast (sometimes, I add flax or coconut oil to that), salad of some sort with chicken or plain bunless burger (handmade, not fast food) with salsa for lunch. Dinner is usually chicken, salmon or (much more rarely) lamb or beef, all commonly broiled with a large spinach salad (tomato, baby spinach, cukes, lots of herbs like parsley & basil, dressed with only olive oil and lemon juice) and/or some steamed or roasted veg such as broccoli, asparagus, green beans, zucchini, etc. I don't often snack, but if I do it's usually some almonds and/or a bit of imported cheddar cheese. I put some grass-fed butter on my meats and cook some of them in the coconut oil as well. I also take fish oil supplements. I've backed off a lot of the dairy consumption that low-carb diets advise, but still eat small amounts of cheese and butter.

It's all pretty low carb, but for the berries, I suppose. We're going through cherry season, and cherries being my favorite fruit, I had been gorging on them between meals up until two weeks ago. I know Paleo diets tend to be more fruit-friendly than low-carb, but I have regained weight like crazy since I started adding more fruit to my diet. I've had to buy larger sized pants. Since this has been happening, I've tried to really curtail the fruit consumption, but I'm wondering if even the berries are too much sugar for my system. I do give in the occasional peach or strawberries, but then I fear I've had way too much sugar. This happens maybe twice a week or less.

I'm also working out with a personal trainer doing lots of whole-body resistance exercises (walking lunges with a curl, kettlebell squats, weighted woodchoppers) so I'm wondering if that combined with my high protein intake is kind of making my bum & leg muscles grow? Could that account for all my pants being much tighter across the hips & upper thigh?

My trainer recommends I eat all kinds of stuff like plain oatmeal for breakfast, bananas with peanut butter, yogurt with low-fat granola and all other kinds of non-starters for me, but I have to agree with him that my stamina is in pretty short supply when we go through our routine. Then again, this is the first thing I do when I get up and I rarely have time to eat anything first. All the food he recommends give me wicked heartburn, so I'd really rather not, but my legs and arms get wobbly pretty quickly, and I really haven't progressed much in terms of how much weight I can handle.

Oh yeah, I'm a lady, about 35, hitting 180lbs right now (up from about 160 last year) I work as desk job, and I do go in to the gym at least once or twice more a week to do about 50 minutes of cardio. I'm also on an SSRI right now. Hope me tweak my diet?
posted by Kitty Stardust to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Eat something before you do weight training. I've found that no matter what it is (you'll probably want to wait a bit longer for protein-rich meals to digest than something that will give you energy more quickly, like carbs), if you have something to eat before you work out, you won't bonk so easily.
posted by xingcat at 8:49 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Carbs give you energy! Low carbs, low energy.
posted by Mr. Justice at 8:49 AM on August 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

I've tried a similar paleo regime a few times, and always had that same experience. I personally decided that means it's not right for me. One thing the paleo gurus don't really talk about much is that there was a pretty wide variety of hunter-gatherer diets and many of them were a lot higher-starch than the popular paleo diets. But the key was that they weren't eating processed foods loaded with high fructose corn syrup and soybean oil.

And yeah, your pants being tight could be because of increased muscle mass or water retention.
posted by lunasol at 8:54 AM on August 13, 2012

My trainer recommends I eat all kinds of stuff like plain oatmeal for breakfast, bananas with peanut butter, yogurt with low-fat granola and all other kinds of non-starters for me

First thing I'd say is that if you are paying this guy, maybe you should consider following his advice. He presumably has at least some experience with what sort of nutrition works well for people he's training. Plain oatmeal gives you heartburn? Even when you make it using water? Can you eat earlier before your workout?

Your muscles need carbohydrates to work.
posted by grouse at 8:56 AM on August 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

There are lots of paleo blogs out there that chronicle the same issue - they tend to recommend consuming slightly higher carb items like sweet potato before working out, to help give you energy.
posted by LN at 8:57 AM on August 13, 2012

Ugh. I could have written this post, right down to the cherry consumption - except for the energy problem during workouts. Same weight, same goal, I'm training six times a week when injuries allow and I eat pretty much how you do except my breakfast is eggs with spinach and a little cheese. I cut the cherries back though when I started noticing a weight loss plateau about three weeks ago. It's so easy to eat twenty when that's the equivalent of two large peaches.

I do have a large cup of coffee with skim milk before I train, and it's not a bad time to indulge in a handful of cherries. Both those things help me with alertness and energy - in particular coffee helps release fatty acids which your body can use as a source of fuel early in the morning. Another thing you might try is a tablespoon of almond butter early on - there's carbs and good fats in there and it's Paleo. You don't say how long you have been doing the Paleo thing. After almost a year I don't really get hungry in the mornings anymore, it took a couple of months to get there though. I don't get sleepy after lunch either - my energy levels stay relatively stable until after dinner, when I pretty much just want to sleep.

Regarding the weight gain - it's possible that the training is bulking you up but more likely that it's the sugar content in the fruit. Keep track of calories for a few days (they do still matter!) and see how high you are tracking with fruit. I bet it's more than you think.
posted by yogalemon at 8:58 AM on August 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't agree about eating carbs and I never eat before the gym, but not everyone agrees with me. I wouldn't worry about lbs, but rather inches. Are your pants tighter because your muscles are bigger? When you say "gorging', do you mean that you down a couple of pounds of cherries at a sitting? Overeating healthy food is still overeating. I know that when I'm in real keto diet mode, I can eat more carbs and still not knock myself out of ketosis, but ymmv.

posted by Ideefixe at 8:59 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

My trainer recommends I eat all kinds of stuff like plain oatmeal for breakfast, bananas with peanut butter, yogurt with low-fat granola and all other kinds of non-starters for me, but I have to agree with him that my stamina is in pretty short supply when we go through our routine. Then again, this is the first thing I do when I get up and I rarely have time to eat anything first. All the food he recommends give me wicked heartburn, so I'd really rather not, but my legs and arms get wobbly pretty quickly, and I really haven't progressed much in terms of how much weight I can handle.

I don't follow a planned diet myself, but the stereotypical advice regarding paleo is that by cutting out all carbohydrates from your diet you have basically hamstrung your calorie intake. Since you're limiting yourself to protein and fats, the next suggestion is typically to eat a lot more fat. For this reason I have nicknamed paleo the "bacon diet."

I'm sure personal trainers who subscribe to low-carb, or paleo, or Atkins practices exist and you can probably find one who will work within your dietary choices. The advice your current trainer is giving you now is completely non-specific to you. It's what everyone gets: your trainer is basically telling you to consume a balanced diet of carbs, protein, and healthy fats, for some values of "balanced" and "healthy," and is naming generic and commonly available foods that have that profile.


(1) Avoid drastic dietary changes unless and until you know their effects on your health and energy level. A lot of people treat sticking to a diet as a matter of willpower and personal strength, and to hell with how you feel. Don't be those people. There is no need for total and unwavering commitment.

(2) Find a trainer who will work with you, your goals, your dietary choices, and your level of athleticism. Generic advice is not necessarily bad advice, but it's not necessarily good advice either.
posted by Nomyte at 9:05 AM on August 13, 2012

Make sure you're getting enough fat, and experiment with eating sweet potatoes (or white rice, even, if it doesn't upset your applecart) before or after a strenuous workout.
posted by padraigin at 9:19 AM on August 13, 2012

You could totally be putting on muscle on your ass and thighs. Honestly, being focused on weight loss is not really a sanity-preserving strategy - especially if you're doing a bunch of lifting, which will totally change your set point as you add on muscle. If you are feeling like ass and your workouts are tanking, eat more carbs. It might slow your weight loss down, but you will be healthier and feel better, and I strongly suspect your body fat percentage will not increase.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:22 AM on August 13, 2012

Eat more fat. Looking at your diet description shows minimal fat, and low carbs...where is your fuel coming from? Eat more nuts, avocados, seeds, olive-oil dressing on a big salads, and cheese if you can tolerate it. Put butter on everything. Get a jar of almond butter and a spoon :)

If you're doing low-carb, you need to seriously increase your fat consumption to have energy. This is because you're converting your body from carb-burning for fuel to fat-burning, and unless you're trying to perform athletics at a high level you don't *need* the carbs. 30min at the gym is not enough to need the carbs unless you're trying to set a 5k record every day.

It's also worth reading a few of the Paleo books, for as simple as the diet is described it's also fairly specific in what you need do and it's easy to unknowingly sabotage yourself. I highly recommend The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf, it's a an easy read that's not too hard to follow.
posted by jpeacock at 9:23 AM on August 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Your muscles do not "need carbs to work", at least not with regards to the typical low-carb diet -- tons of serious lifters eat paleo and/or low-carb with great success. That said, you appear to going both low-carb and rather low-fat, and that is not viable given your exercise level. Fats are what your body will use for energy in lieu of carbs.

"This is the first thing I do when I get up and I rarely have time to eat anything first" is probably 90% of the problem; you need to make sure you get that shake within an hour or so before your workout every morning. I'd also recommend supplementing it with extra fat (almond butter and/or a raw egg or two are an easy way to get that in a shake, or you can sub whole milk for the almond milk). Likewise for your meals: add an avocado to your salads, sub homemade aioli for the salsa, sauté those meats and veggies in butter or oil rather than broiling (or add butter as you mentioned), etc. All the little "low-fat" cooking tricks we've been taught are a bad idea if you're eating low-carb.

I would also suggest tracking your calories/nutrients. Part of the allure of low-carb is how hard it makes it to eat too many calories, but the flip-side of that is how easy it is to end up with too few calories to support your exercise goals. Tracking will give you a better idea of where/when you need to boost your intake. Also, snacking on things like cherries can wreck your desired fat/protein/carb ratio pretty easily, and tracking will allow you to spot that as it happens. Get a kitchen scale and figure out exactly what you're eating each day, then log it (sites like FitDay make it easy to keep track.)
posted by vorfeed at 9:23 AM on August 13, 2012 [8 favorites]

It's your SSRI.

Tweaking your diet and exercise won't help.


(About 6 years ago, I went from 120lbs to 150/160lbs within 3 months, when taking an SSRI. My metabolism has been wrecked ever since. If you google around, you will find that uncontrollable weight gain is not exactly an unusual side effect of that medication.)
posted by jbenben at 9:24 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are you tracking your body fat % at all? If you had a body fat scale, or your trainer/gym had one of those nifty hand held gadgets, you'd be able to get a better idea of whether your weight gain was muscle or fat. Of course

Nthing that you need some amount of carbs before a workout, if you're currently bonking from no carbs. Maybe a half a banana (or a whole one) right after you wake up before you head over?

This is very non-paleo, but 8oz of chocolate milk (bonus points if it's not skim) is also apparently a good workout prep/recovery drink because of the carbs and proteins.
posted by sparklemotion at 9:24 AM on August 13, 2012

First, as others have said you seem to not be getting enough fuel. Not enough fats (coconut milk, avocado, grassfed butter should be staples -- nut butters less so if you are concerned about omega-6s). I would add some more carbs post-workout, in the form of sweet potatoes, yams, carrots, beets. Fruit is not such a great source of significant carbs because of the fructose (sugar, plus it preferentially replenishes liver glycogen not muscle glycogen). Also, as you've noticed, some people experience weight gain with even small amounts of fruit, so you need to monitor that for yourself.

Also (unless I missed it) you don't say how long you've been doing this. Some lack of energy is very common in the first 2-3 weeks of low-carb ("low carb flu"). If you are still in this period, I would encourage you to stick with it and maybe dial back the exercise temporarily.
posted by Bebo at 9:33 AM on August 13, 2012

Fat, fat, fat. You get your energy from low carb diets from fat, so don't be scared of it. If you're mainly looking to lose weight while increasing strength, stick with low carb but remember that this is a high fat, moderate protein diet - not the reverse. Fats make you feel fuller for longer periods of time, so if you're nervous about slathering on the grass-fed butter, remember that it will help you remain disciplined and focused.

And sadly, you may have a system that does not react well to sugars, even fruits. Fructose makes me gain weight like crazy, even worse than when I eat ice cream. Even paleo people must admit that fruit was a treat that our ancestors stumbled upon every now and again in hot seasons, and many ancient people in cooler climes would go for months without eating a single piece of fruit.

You can experiment with adding nutrient-dense carbs after your workouts, such as sweet potatoes, but those foods make me really sleepy. If you're carb sensitive like me (carbs both make me pudgy, tired and scatterbrained) then I'd try adding more fats first to see how you feel.
posted by zoomorphic at 9:59 AM on August 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am also paleo, and have also have been working with a trainer for the past few months.

If I don't eat shortly before my workouts, I tend to peter out and get wobbly about a half hour in, just as you describe. You say that you have a protein shake for breakfast, and that your workouts occur in the morning. Are you drinking your shake before, or after your workout? My strategy is to make my protein shake prior to my workout, and to drink half of it before I hit the gym. Days that I do this vs. days that I don't, I notice a marked change in my energy and stamina. Around the time that I started the 1/2 shake experiment, I also upped my healthy fat intake - avocados, almonds, olive oil, grass fed butter, coconut oil - these are all healthy fats. Find ways to add them to your existing diet.

I agree with others above that you MUST increase your fat intake if you are cutting carbs, and also with the fact that you DO NOT NEED CARBS to have energy.

As to your increase in pants size, I would also attribute this to your workouts, and building leg/glute muscles. This happened to me too. It's a good thing though! Lean muscle burns many more calories at rest then fat ever will. I would count this as a positive sign that your workouts are doing something.

Have you ever considered high intensity interval training cardio? It's a much better fat burner than moderate intensity cardio and could help increase your endurance threshold by pushing you to the upper limit several times over during a workout.
posted by Gonestarfishing at 10:34 AM on August 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I second jbenben. Quite a few SSRIs can cause weight gain or weight retention. The same neurotransmitters involved in keeping us happy/depressed have a lot to do with how the body uses fat and signifies hunger or satiety. Your diet sounds fine, if bland, to me.
posted by caveatz at 10:38 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ditto what others have said about getting enough fat. I tried paleo and seemed never to get it right, back into a loop of other foods and high carb diets. I finally read about ketogenic diets, and the role of fat in a fat-burning metabolism. I think I've successfully translated my diet to this style. Try reading this site where an MD talks about all these issues and is a workout beast IMHO. Very interesting and relevant to what you are trying to do.
posted by diode at 12:03 PM on August 13, 2012

Sweet potatoes are my go-to post-workout replenishing starch. Tasty and delicious! If I don't eat after working out in the AM, I get super crabby and tired.

I went from 184 to 127 in a year by following a paleo diet. I didn't add exercise to my life until I'd already hit my target weight. I haven't actually lost any more weight (which is fine) but I definitely see muscle definition where there wasn't any before.
posted by vespabelle at 1:59 PM on August 13, 2012

I eat a low-carb diet and work out with a trainer. It's taken me a while to get to the point where I can work out without eating before I go to the gym. Now I'm fine with it, and rarely have anything other than coffee before I work out, but I used to get pretty shaky. My muscles do not need carbs to work.

So one answer is to try to wait it out. I also eat a whole lot more fat than you do, so I agree with all the people saying to up your fat intake. That's what has made low carb feasible for me.
posted by gingerbeer at 2:01 PM on August 13, 2012

Depending on how long you've been on the ssri, it probably isn't that much of a factor. As many people have said above, it is most likely to be a lack of fat. Too much protein all at once will act like sugar (more than about 30 grams in a meal), causing blood sugar spikes. Especially in your morning protein shake.Whey protein metabolizes fast! I have something similar but I usually don't add fruit and do add about a quarter cup of cream. You could add some nut butter or coconut oil to yours. Fiber would be good too. If you think it might be the carb barrier you're hitting, try having a bit of starch before working out. Fruit is incredibly tempting, but keep it for special desserts. Fructose is terrible for weight loss.

The thing to remember is that low carb/paleo diets are moderate protein, HIGH fat diets. I know how hard it is to counter all of the low fat programming, but I've also tried every diet style there is, failed the first time at low carb because I didn't eat enough fat, and have now been low carb for over a year. I'm 36, on psych meds and birth control pills, the most sedentary person you'll ever meet, and I've still lost 40 pounds (from 220 to 180). And my blood pressure has dropped from scary to normal.

Also, part of the problem might be not enough sodium and potassium. Because of the difference in water processing, low carbers need more of both. And you're losing even more when you exercise. Might help to have a cup of not low sodium broth or add a bit of sea salt to your water (and lemon or lime juice can help make that more palatable).
posted by monopas at 4:30 PM on August 13, 2012

- the short answer is you need more fat, and you need to either do low-carb all the way or not at all. The body can only burn fat, glucose, or protein as fuel. I know it feels bonkers at first but eat more fat.
- a few berries are okay, since they'll have a little fiber in them, but it should be a dessert item.
- do not eat oatmeal for breakfast! Ugh, that's pure starch = glucose = sugar.
- you need some knowledge if you're going to do this right, or you're just going to end up frustrated - read this book.

Stick to a low-carb diet and you'll have more energy, think clearer, and lose weight. (The science behind this statement is in the book.) Best of luck!
posted by blahtsk at 10:35 PM on August 13, 2012

Seconding all the advice about adding tubers into your diet. We've been eating tubers for a long time - pretty much every traditional culture with edible tubers nearby eats them.

If you have any ethnic markets near you, they probably have some kickass tubers you've never even heard of. Cocoyams, batatas, satsumas, yuca root, and so on. Sweet potatoes make me gassy, so I prefer the hipster tubers in general.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 10:17 AM on August 14, 2012

The other reason to try tubers rather than just more fatty foods (which are fine!) is that carbs are critical to gaining muscle. This is in my experience, as well as in the experience of most knowledgeable people I've read.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 10:20 AM on August 14, 2012

pure starch = glucose = sugar

This is sort of trivially true, but oatmeal (assuming we're talking about the whole grain) is not going to have the same effect on your blood sugar as the equivalent amount of Coke in moles of glucose or whatever. The rate at which the glucose is released matters a lot.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:06 AM on August 15, 2012

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