High Carb vs. Low Carb 101: For The Every Gym “Joe/Jane”

What you need to know:

  • Carbs are good. Most macros, you just have to be smart about them based on your goals
  • Restricting your carb intake TOO much can lead to some serious losses such as: increased cortisol, output, decreased testosterone, impaired mood and cognitive function, muscle catabolism, suppressed immune function.
  • Carbs are essentially in the driver seat for hormone function. If the hormones are out of wack- take  a look at your diet first, then follow up to get your levels checked.
  • High Carb vs. Low Carb diets are simple plans based off your level of activity (i.e. high level athletes don’t usually perform well on low carb diets).

The high carb vs. low carb debate have been around for decades. No doubt, carbs have a special place in all of our hearts (and stomachs). They are there for us when we’ve had a shitty day. Or when we’ve had a killer leg workout. Or when we need the energy to nail that important presentation at work. They come in all forms: beer, pastries, pasta, fruit, veggies, ice cream…they’re everywhere! You can see the dilemma that we face. So how do we escape the world of carbs to for a better quality of life??

We don’t. And we shouldn’t.

Carbs aren’t to be avoided. Not long-term anyways. But rather they’re to be managed. Carbohydrates are so important on so many levels. Hell, carbs even help overcome cancer:

From Science Daily:

“The research advances our understanding of how important carbohydrates are to the function of cells. Although most of us think of glucose (blood sugar) as the only important sugar in biology, there is an entire area of research known as glycobiology that seeks to understand the function of complex carbohydrate structures in cells. Carbohydrate structures cover the surface of cells, and affect how cells interact with each other and with pathogens.”
“The carbohydrates on the cell surface determine how it interacts with other cells, which makes them important in cancer and other diseases. So, if we can design compounds that change these structures in a defined way, we can affect those interactions,” Cairo explained. “Finding new enzyme targets is essential to that process, and our work shows that we can selectively target this neuraminidase enzyme.”

So, carbs DO help fight cancer. Sweet!!! 😉

But what about the unwanted weight gain/fat gain? The average weight gain each year under the age of 25 is anywhere from .5 to 1.5lbs. Between 25 and 44  jumps 3.4 percent in men and 5.2 percent in women. This information has been out for quite some time now. How to carbs play a role in all of this?

The findings on carbs having a direct effect on body weight control have proved to be inconsistent. However, we do know that sugar-sweetened beverages are associated with weight gain, but that’s for another article.

We’ve seen how High Carb/Low Carb diets can be beneficial to athletes, but there seems to be some disconnect for the ever day “9 to 5” folks. When used in conjunction with your training sessions/events/daily activities, carbohydrates can be a very powerful asset. Let’s dive into the high carb diet.

The High Carb Diet

For several years now, the average gym member/client that I have talked to all have common goals of becoming stronger, feeling better, and looking better naked. I would even go on to say everyone on the planet have something in common with at least one of these goals. And nutrition planning has everything to do with it.

Having a high carb diet can be a very powerful tool in achieving these goals. Carbs are known to be in “the driver seat” for hormone control. They also get a bad rap being held responsible for (unwarranted) weight gain. On higher carb days you’ll feel bloated and unable to get all the necessary foods into your system. This is the problem that most people see with their diets.

When done right, a higher carbohydrate intake can increase thyroid output and control hunger (Douyon 2002; Friedl 2000; de Rosa 1983). Carbohydrate intake can also help one take advantage of certain anabolic hormones, namely insulin. Insulin regulates amino acid and glucose intake entry into the muscle cells. If insulin is seldom elevated, dieters will not reap its anabolic benefits. This is why eating proteins with carbs together are way more effective when they’re eaten separately.

How to use the High Carb Diet
Here, are the meats and sweet potatoes of how you can use the High Carb diet to your advantage. Since carbs have such an advantage in providing energy, it is important that you have all that energy at the right time. Think about your body as a bank. Its pay day and carbs are the cash you want to deposit. Sure it’s great to have all that dough (mmmm dough), but what good is it if you aren’t able to invest it and make it into something? That’s what it’s like to have a high carb diet and sit around to not use it. It just sits.

Carbs are indeed powerful, but with great power comes great responsibility (right spiderman?).
great responsibility

So, for the regular gym-goers out there, listen up: cycling your high carbs around your workouts are going to be the most effective for you. This means when you’re about to kick some serious ass in your next training sessh, hit the carbs baby!!
elf carbs
If you’re training in the AM, the high carbs will be in the evening before. Why? When you’re sleeping, your resting metabolism is working hard. Which means you’ll be able to store those carbs in the form of glycogen. Glycogen is stored mostly in the muscles that use it (some stored in the liver as well), and is the dominant contributor of energy to hard workouts. If glycogen

levels are low, hard workouts become increasingly difficult to complete, and almost impossible to complete with a consistently high level of performance. Then when you wake up? Awwwww shyyyyyt, it’s time to get after it!! For your evening training session- the carb load would be done during the day. As an added benefit, you’ll be super productive at work and way more focused with all that energy.


The Low Carb Diet
Much like the high carb diet, the Low Carb Diet can be used strategically for weight loss and fat loss. Since we know that carbs are actually a good thing now, it’s safe to say that Low Carb diets aren’t all that and a bag of fat free chips. One thing that’s true about LCD: Carb reduction costs us. It doesn’t really matter if you have a sedentary job or you’re up and going all day long. There are some level of carbohydrates needed to function at our best long term.


Utilizing a LCD will definitely be a good way to lose weight. No doubt about it. But for most of us, keeping carbs too low for too long can have disastrous consequences. Especially for those of us who workout.

If you’re sedentary, your carb needs are lower. So you might be able to get away with more restriction.

But if you like to exercise regularly and enthusiastically, restricting your carb intake too drastically can lead to:

  • decreased thyroid output
  • increased cortisol output
  • decreased testosterone
  • impaired mood and cognitive function
  • muscle catabolism
  • suppressed immune function.

As we mentioned before, carbs play a huge role in hormone control. This is especially important for women. Yet because low-carb diets can significantly disrupt hormone production, women with too-low carb intakes — especially active women — can face:

  • a stopped or irregular menstrual cycle;
  • lowered fertility;
  • hypoglycemia and blood sugar swings;
  • more body fat (especially around the middle);
  • loss of bone density;
  • anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues;
  • chronic inflammation and worse chronic pain;
  • chronic fatigue and disrupted sleep; and
  • a host of other chronic problems…

Don’t get me wrong. Some people have gone on to lose lots of weight using a ketogenic or very low carb diet, and keep it off, while seemingly maintaining some sort of health in the process. Ripped, lean, and feeling awesome.

But the balance is there are also people who’ve tread similar waters and crashed hard.

Long term Low Carb Dieting isn’t ideal for many reasons. Its initial results for one are very misleading and don’t focus on the bigger picture. When you start on a diet/program for the first time you’ll get that “Low Carb Honeymoon” (catecholamine honeymoon article) where they feel all great, and nice, and full of energy.

At first, on a low carb diet, you go through a transition period of what I call “feeling like ass”. It will last a few days, but then you’ll catch second wind and break through that wall. You feel buzzed, excited, and full of energy.”

Weight loss ensues, as the glycogen burns up, and water flushes out of your system. Losing up to 10 pounds in the first week is not unheard of. It’s the ultimate tool for creating a quick positive feedback loop (carbs hold water, when you rid of carbs you don’t retain as much water).

The good news is you feel great. You’re energetic, and you might see things within your body improve. He also talks about allergies, aches and pains clearing up. Why don’t I stop there? Seriously!?

But the problem lies within the period following this honeymoon phase.

Because you can’t rely on stress hormones forever. Adrenaline are reserved for stressful situations, not for daily living. Over time, you’ll get burned out.

And then all of the sudden, a steady decline in energy and eventually…

cameron meme

One might notice their cravings for food, mostly carb-heavy foods. Shyt is gonna get real when you have to rely on willpower to restrict carbohydrates.


So where do we go from here? How much is enough?

There’s more than one way to go about it, but I like the simple approach. If you’re training from start to finish costs 350-400 cals, you’ll want to consume that much in surplus prior to your training (referring to the carb cycling earlier). This way you’ll have the right amount to absolutely annihilate your training sessh. So, your training day nutrition plan from a calorie standpoint will look like this:
2,000 daily cal intake
+ 400 cal surplus
= 2,400 cals for the day
– 400 cal workout
=2,000 total cals


Generally dipping below 120 k/cals of carbs for anyone on a regular basis isn’t sustainable.

This is a great way at looking at how to utilize calories for performance. But what kind should you use for optimal performance? Let me make it easy for you. Check out this carb chart from Precision Nutrition:

Carb Chart