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What to Do When Trying to Gain Muscle and Carbs are Making You Fat

  Jun 14th, 2013

When Carbs Make You FatConventional wisdom tells us that if we want to build more muscle we need to eat more carbs.


It also tells us that we have to eat 6 meals every day to get and stay lean. I’ve already debunked that myth with authority, so there’s no need to continue pouring salt into that gaping wound.


These two prevailing philosophies aren’t exactly on par in terms of their deceptive prowess. Frequent eating enhancing the metabolism and accelerating fat loss is an outright lie.


Carbs, on the other hand, are indisputably anabolic and absolutely induce a muscle gaining response. The error with this advice doesn’t lie in the principle. The error appears when this advice is applied dogmatically as the only way to build muscle.


Many years ago, I experimented with a program that did wonders for leaning out my physique. After getting lean it was time to start filling out my frame with awesomeness (also known as muscle mass).


The strategy this program instructed me to use was based on conventional wisdom. It prescribed a starting allowance of carbs and complete proteins and gave instructions on how to slowly ramp up my daily carb and protein allowance whenever I stopped gaining mass on a weekly basis.


This process worked well for building the first 5lbs of muscle, or so. After that it seemed like I put on at least one pound of fat for every pound of muscle I gained. After putting on another 10lbs I would smooth out, lose my definition, and then have to lean down before starting the process over again.


I went through several of these cycles, increasing my nutrition more slowly each time with the hopes of staying relatively lean. But, each time I would smooth out before putting on a satisfactory amount of muscle mass and I’d be forced to focus on leaning out again in order to keep my definition.


The problem: My body’s capacity for carb-utilization just wasn’t able to improve at the rate I was making my adjustments – even as small as they were.


Lean individuals have excellent insulin sensitivity. Some have it better than others. But, relatively speaking, your body’s ability to utilize carbs for gaining muscle – while minimizing fat gains – is increasingly proficient the leaner you are.


This is why I always recommend getting lean and ripped before focusing on bulking up. It just makes the whole process more efficient, because you’re going to build muscle faster and put on much less fat for every pound of muscle gained when bulking in a lean state than you would while being much more insulin resistant and carrying around 20% body fat.


Back to my carb-utilization woes…

So things would start out all hunky dory (yeah, I can’t believe I just said “hunky dory” either). I’d pack on a little muscle mass with no discernible changes in body fat. Woo hoo!


Then, after my gains would stop, I’d bump up my carb and protein intake each by 25 grams per day (a 200 calorie increase). This is a very modest increase, totaling a measly 1,400 additional calories over the course of a full week.


Still, after 2 or 3 iterations of increasing my nutrition my six pack would begin to disappear. Nnnnnoooooooooo!


I’ve been at this long enough to know that when maintaining a caloric excess small fat accumulations are inevitable – even when the excess in calories is slight. It just comes with the territory.


The fact that I was gaining fat wasn’t surprising. I expected it. What surprised me was the rate at which I would gain fat.


I would start out at 180lbs with 10% body fat (162lbs of lean mass) and be up to 200lbs with 15% body fat (170lbs of lean mass) in 3 months’ time.


Sure, building 8lbs of muscle is nothing to complain about. But adding 12lbs of fat in the process is simply unacceptable!


My approach for adding nutrition was about as sound as it could be. I mean what was I going to do…Start the process over again and only increase my carbs and proteins by 10g per day?


It was time for a change…

Albert Einstein once said that insanity could be defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Einstein was kind of a smart guy, so lest I run the risk of being fit for a straight jacket and contained to a room with 4 rubber walls, I figured I’d see if there was a different approach that would yield more desirable results.


I started searching and asking other personal trainers if they had dealt with this issue before, either personally or with some of their clients.


It turns out I’m not the only poor son-of-a-gun who has a problem tolerating carbohydrates.


While my insulin sensitivity was certainly more efficient while lean, after adding 75g of daily carbs to the mix my body wasn’t efficient enough with secreting insulin to keep up. In other words, I had surpassed the limits of my personal capacity for utilizing carbs.


Since my body was unable to keep up, instead of insulin doing its job and forcing the glucose in my blood to be stored in my muscle and liver tissues, my blood sugar would remain elevated for prolonged periods of time and that sugar would ultimately find a home in my fat cells.


When growth stops you have to get some additional nutrition from somewhere. And since I couldn’t get it from carbs, this left proteins and fats as my control variables.


I was already consuming a sufficient amount of complete proteins, so fats would have to be my weapon of choice. By the way, eating too much protein can lead to gluconeogenesis (it’s not often that I get to impress people with 7 syllable words, so I try to throw this one out there whenever I can 🙂 )


Gluconeogenesis describes the process of glucose being generated from a non-carbohydrate source (like proteins). What this means is that if your diet contains too much protein it will actually raise your blood sugar and affect your body in a manner that is similar to carbohydrates.


If you’re eating at least one gram of protein for every pound of mass on your body, your protein intake is sufficient. This is actually more than most people really need, but it’s better to err on the side of caution when working on getting jacked.


Making The Switch from Carbs to Fats

I scaled back my carb allowance and replaced those calories with healthy fats. Any fats I ingest beyond what’s naturally contained in my complete protein sources typically come from avocados, olive oil or coconut oil.


If you use olive oil, it is best if you drizzle it over your food after it’s cooked, because olive oil turns carcinogenic when heated. Coconut oil is a much better cooking option as it’s composed of a high percentage of medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs) that make it more stable when heated.


When Carbs Make You Fat - Coconut OilI may write an article on the myriad of unique health benefits coconut oil provides in the future.


In the mean time, if you want the ultimate authoritative resource on coconut oil, Bruce Fife wrote the book on this stuff – literally. If you decide to read his book, The Coconut Oil Miracle, I promise you’ll be amazed at his findings.


A word of caution… When increasing your nutrition using fats as your caloric controller you can’t increase them as quickly as carbs because they are not calorically equivalent.


Fats contain 9 calories per gram, while carbs only have 4. To give you some perspective here, a measly 30 grams of fat will add 270 calories to the register. While fats will not impact your insulin levels to the degree that carbs do, they aren’t glucose-neutral and they will still cause you to gain body fat.


And, regardless of where the calories are coming from, if your calories above maintenance becomes too excessive you’re going to get fat.


If you’re like me, and find that increasing carbs works great for packing on a few pounds of lean muscle mass before they start making you gain fat, here are your marching orders: Once your fat gains start taking hold, it’s time to keep your carbs steady. After that point, whenever a nutritional increase is in order you’ll want it to come from fats – preferably, healthy fats.


Sorry, but this is not the excuse you’ve been looking for to go knock back a super-sized fry from Micky D’s.


Not exceeding your body’s carb-utilization capacity will keep you leaner for longer as you add more awesomeness to your body.



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