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Bodyrecomposition Mailbag 5

Another day, another mailbag.

Around Workout Nutrition During Dieting

Question: Should I continue with around workout nutrition while dieting?

Answer: Since summer time is approach and everyone (more or less) is dieting to look good at the pool, this is a question that comes up fairly often.  I’ll be honest that I spent years going around and around with this one in my head before finally coming to some conclusions about it.  These are those conclusions.

The usual rationale for avoiding around workout nutrition while dieting goes something like this: if you consume nutrients (especially carbohydrate) during or after training, you will either impair fat mobilization/burning by increasing insulin levels or impair the hormonal response (growth hormone gets brought up a lot) and slow fat loss.  Some suggest only consuming protein around training for this reason although they all seem to forget that protein (and especially the Branched Chain Amino Acids) raise insulin.

A related idea is of doing training first thing in the morning fasted to take maximum advantage of the increase in blood fatty acids which occur during the overnight fast.  And certainly, for certain types of activity (especially low intensity aerobic activity), there is certain some truth to this.  Of course, those types of activities don’t generally require much in the way of around workout nutrition in the first place.

Certainly this strategy has been used for decades by contest prepping bodybuilders or other athletes who need to lean out.  As I discuss in detail in The Stubborn Fat Solution, for individuals looking to shed the last bit of stubborn fat, there is probably some rationale to this strategy due to the profound impact of insulin on fat mobilization.  Of course, for people who can’t work out first thing in the morning or fasted, there are also ways to get around that (discussed in the book) and still deal with stubborn fat.

But what about higher intensity activities such as weight training or more intense types of metabolic work, should around workout nutrition still be maintained (to at least some degree) while dieting?

The short-answer, in my opinion, is yes to at least one degree or another.

Now, here’s the longer answer.

First let’s look at metabolic work, cardio and interval type work.  For the most part, concerns about impairing fat oxidation during higher intensity activity with the consumption of during workout nutrition don’t seem to be warranted in the first place.

Research clearly shows that the consumption of carbs during moderate and higher intensity aerobic activity doesn’t negatively impact fat oxidation in the first place.  Basically, it’s only low intensity aerobic activity where this is an issue and, as noted above, that type of training doesn’t require much in the way of nutritional support in the first place.

I’d even go further and argue that proper during workout nutrition during higher intensity activities can help with fat loss simply because it tends to improve intensity and performance, allowing people to work harder and/or longer which burns more calories which is far more important in the big scheme of fat loss.

Trying to perform higher intensity training when blood sugar is down often goes badly (there is a lot of individual variability in this).  From a fat loss standpoint, I consider being able to train effectively far more important than any small benefits from a hormonal or other perspective.

Of course, I’d make the same argument for weight training (with the exception of activities done specifically to deplete muscle glycogen); the ability to maintain training intensity in the weight room (which is the key to maintaining muscle mass) is far more important in the big scheme of things than any small hormonal effect or what have you.  As well, weight training doesn’t generally use fat for fuel to any great degree in the first place.  Worrying about ‘impairing fat burning’ during weight training sessions is missing the point.

It’s also worth noting that much of the concern over post-workout nutrition under these conditions may be equally misplaced.  It’s usually feared that consuming carbs after a workout will impair any post-workout fat burn (I’d note that any effect from this is very small in the first place).

However, research shows that following high-intensity (aerobic) activity, the body continues to use fat for fuel even when carbs are consumed immediately after workout; under those conditions the carbs go to refill glycogen stores but the body continues to use fat for energy production.

And given that proper post-workout nutrition is one of the key aspects to improving overall recovery (always at a premium when folks are dieting), I think that the benefits of maintaining at least some around workout nutrition outweigh any slight negatives in the case.

Finally, there is also the often forgotten fact that most of the ‘fat burning’ that happens during a diet doesn’t occur during training (especially weight training) in the first place.  Rather, it’s what happens the other 23 hours of the day that will have the biggest impact on overall fat loss.  And that’s mostly related to diet.

Don’t get me wrong, exercise clearly contributes to fat loss through a variety of mechanisms but, again, it’s less the hour you spent training and what happens in the other 23 hours of the day that will maximally affect fat loss.

Basically, at least if you’re talking about moderate to high-intensity types of training, I think the benefits of around workout nutrition far outweigh any of the negatives.  During workout nutrition can help to maintain training intensity and proper post-workout nutrition improves recovery.  I think those benefits far outweigh any small or nonexistent negatives that might occur.

Basically, rather than cut carbs/protein from around hard training sessions, I’d rather see those cuts (especially carbohdyrates) coming from other meals of the day.  Some dieters will actually take this to the extreme of only consuming carbohydrates around training and eating no starchy carbs the rest of the day.

This is essentially the Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD) that I discussed in my first book The Ketogenic Diet and it can provide any benefits of a full-blown low-carbohydrate diet while still allowing trainees to maintain training intensity and recovery from high-intensity worouts.

However, that may not be desired or required for all dieters.  Some people do poorly on low-carbohdyrate diets and will need to consume some carbs at other meals of the day in addition to any around training nutrition.  This means that, in most cases, the amount of around workout nutrition consumed may have to be scaled back somewhat.

Someone consuming a lot of calories around training may leave themselves with almost nothing to eat the rest of the day on a diet and scaling the values back may be necessary. I can’t give recommendations beyond that since a lot will depend on how much is being consumed around training in the first place.

A trainee consuming a very large amount of carbs and protein post-workout (e.g. 100 grams carbs/40 grams protein) might cut that in half while dieting; someone consuming a small amount in the first place (e.g. 20-30 grams of each) might not cut back anything at all.

Of course, I also think that training volume (especially in the weight room) should be reduced while dieting in the first place which means less requirement for around workout nutrition in the first place.  But talking about weight training on a diet is another topic for another day.

But I don’t think that around workout nutrition should be eliminated while dieting completely, especially for moderate to high-intensity training sessions.  The benefits from being able to maintain training intensity and recovery far outweigh any small benefits from the hormonal response or what have you (especially given that most fat loss happens outside of the gym anyhow).

Carbohydrate Intake and Depression

Question: I’m a 45 year old female. I currently weigh 221lbs. I’ve lost 30lbs in the last three months. My protein intake is roughly 120 to 130 grams per day.  I’m limiting my carb intake to 180 to 200 grams a day. I suffer from life long depression and I find that when I limit by carb intake I slowly slide into a depressed state after two or three months (it’s happening to me now). My sleep is disturbed, I develop anxiety I’m bitchy as hell and I’m dragging ass.  Is there a correlation between carb intake and production of neurotransmitters? If so, how can I eliminate the effect lower levels of carbs is having on me? Any information is greatly appreciated.

Answer: Dieting in general tends to lower serotonin in the brain and this can cause depression in susceptible people.  Interestingly, this effect seems to be more likely to occur in women than men (women being more susceptible to depression in general).  In my experience, low carbohydrate/higher proteins diets tend to be even worse in this regards for reasons I’ll explain now.

First and foremost, nutrient intake per se affects the production of neurotransmitters with the effects being both direct and indirect.

In a very direct way, specific amino acids are the precursors for specific neurotransmitters in the brain.  Tryptophan is a precursor for serotonin in the brain and the amino acid tyrosine (as well as phenylalanine which converts into tyrosine in the body) is the precursor for dopamine (and subsequently adrenaline/noradrenaline).

As an extreme example of this, researchers will sometimes use something called acute tryptophan depletion (accomplished by providing an amino acid solution containing all of the amino acids except tryptophan) to drastically lower brain levels of serotonin.  This is used to test various things but, among other things, it tends to cause acute depression in those who are susceptible.   However, this is a pretty extreme type of intervention, decreasing blood tryptophan levels massively (by about 80%); in dieting, tryptophan levels only drop by about 10%.

As usual, it gets more complicated.  The different amino acids have different transporters in the body and some amino acids use the same transporter; this means that different amino acid can compete for transport.

Specifically relevant to this topic is the fact that both the branched chain amino acids (BCAAS), tyrosine and phenylalanine and tryptophan all use a transporter called the Large Neutral Amino Acid (LNAA) transporter.  Again, this means that they compete for transport, meaning that levels of the different amino acids can affect the transport of the other. Which means that the relative amounts of the different amino acids will impact on how much is getting into a specific tissue in the body; in this case the brain.

If there is a large amount of tryptophan relative to the other LNAA, there will be greater serotonin production in the brain; if there is less tryptophan relative to the other LNAA, there will be less tryptophan transport into the brain and impaired serotonin production.

This brings us to one potential problem with higher protein intakes per se: most dietary proteins contain a lot more LNAA than they do tryptophan.  One exception is a derivative of whey called alpha-lactalbumin which has the highest tryptophan content of any dietary protein; recent studies have found that consumption of this protein can increase the ratio of tryptophan to the LNAA in the bloodstream, increasing brain serotonin synthesis.  For comparison, while most dietary proteins may ony contain about 2 grams of tryptophan per 100 grams, alpha-lactalbumin contains nearly 5 grams of tryptophan per 100 grams.

As well, there is an interaction with the carbohydrate intake of the diet.  Diets very high in carbohydrates and low in protein are known to raise plasma tryptophan and serotonin levels (which is probably why such diets make some people sleepy and dopey).  It’s worth mentioning that unless dietary protein is taken to exceedingly low levels (below 5% of total calories), the real-world impact of high-carbohydrates and low-protein isn’t that massive in terms of its effect on serotonin levels in the brain.

However this may explain why some people who are prone to depression tend to crave low-protein/high-carbohydrate foods at certain times (stress, seasonal affective disorder), they are trying to self-medicate themselves and improve serotonin levels.

In any case, let me explain why carbohydrates can impact on all of this since this will help clear up why lowering carbohydrates can cause problems.

The reason is this, the uptake of some of the LNAA (especially the branched chain amino acids) are insulin sensitive; for example, when insulin levels go up, blood levels of the BCAA go down.  This shifts the tryptophan:LNAA ratio towards tryptophan such that more gets transported into the brain, potentially increasing serotonin production.

The corollary to that is that when carbohydrates are reduced (and high quality dietary protein is increased), there is the potential for serotonin levels to be reduced. Between the increased intake of LNAA from most high-quality proteins, decreased clearance of them due to reduced insulin levels and the overall effect of dieting in general on plasma tryptophan levels, this all adds up to problems for people at risk for depression.

Which is a long way of answering your question with a resounding yes.

Both dieting in general and low carbohydrate/higher protein diets in specific can cause issues with depression in susceptible people.  I do find it a bit surprising that what I consider fairly moderate intakes of both protein and carbohydrates are causing you to experience this but some of it may depend on the depths of depression you experienced (e.g. your genetic susceptibility).

It may also explain why it takes a good 2-3 months for your symptoms to show up, a very low carbohydrate (e.g. 100 grams per day or less) and/or higher protein diet would probably cause things to go south that much faster.

Ok, so that’s what’s going on, what are the solutions?  I wouldn’t tend to generally recommend lowering dietary protein and increasing carbohydrates (higher protein diets having a number of benefits in terms of weight and fat loss) but, depending on the specifics of your situation (e.g. training, etc.) that might be one option.

Assuming it isn’t, here are some things to consider:

1. Add the protein I mentioned above, alpha-lactalbumin to your daily protein intake.  High in tryptophan, it will help support serotonin synthesis.  Consuming some near bedtime might help with sleep, taking it at other times throughout the day may help with overall mood.  In this context, I’d note that having a relatively higher carb/lower protein meal at dinner time may help with some of the sleep issues.

2. Consider supplementing with 5-hydroxytryptophan.  5-HTP is another precursor to serotonin in the brain that many have used to deal with depression and sleep problems. Doses seem to vary significantly but 50-100 mg taken up to three times daily may be worth considering to keep serotonin levels from falling while dieting.

3. Given that your symptoms only show up after 2-3 months of dieting, I’d strongly suggest taking a full diet break (discussed in detail in A Guide to Flexible Dieting) between periods of active dieting.  Basically, perhaps every 2 months, take 2 weeks to raise calories and carbohydrates to restore brain serotonin levels back to normal. Then you can enter another phase of active dieting, stopping before the depression really sets in to take another full diet break.  I think you get the idea.

I hope that helps and good luck.


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