Is Butter a Carb?

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Is Butter a Carb?

A Mean Girls Guide to Must Have Nutrition

Technically, no. Butter is not a carb. But while watching Mean Girls the other day (yes I know every line), I was reminded that it may be funny to watch Regina George inexplicably gain weight, but all too often this is a reality for a lot of females out there. “I work out five times a week, but I’m not getting stronger or losing weight.” “I eat so clean, but I can’t seem to lose weight and I feel deprived and miserable etc. etc.” So what’s the solution? Eating less and working out more? Wrong-o! (yes I watched the Grinch the other day too).

Let’s talk carbohydrates. Heavy topic, right? As females, we’ve been led to believe that carbs are the ultimate enemy when it comes to losing weight (and keeping it off). Pretty much every diet/study/article out there centers on how many carbs you should or should not be eating. Atkins, the original high fat, low carb diet, has morphed into the Ketogenic Diet, Paleo Diet, HCLF (high carb low fat), etc. Drop your carbs, increase your fat intake, and → boom. Your body now runs on fat instead of carbs, you start losing weight and life is good.

Except now it’s the holidays and suddenly you’re surrounded by all kinds of sweet, sugary, delicious carbs and you feel like losing your f*cking mind. While at the family holiday party you find yourself wondering “Are those cookies paleo?” while trying to engage in small talk with Trent, your cousin twice removed from your mom’s side (or is it Brent? Is that even a name?), wishing you weren’t drinking a vodka tonic (diet tonic please) instead of a beer.

Let’s take a quick detour to discuss the “Ketogenic Diet” (KD). No, paleo and keto are not the same thing, but they both center on restricting carbohydrate intake. A KD attempts to mimic starvation by aggressively restricting carbohydrate intake (<20 grams/day), making up for the lost calories by increasing fat intake (protein intake stays the same), creating a state of ketosis. Ketosis is your body’s defense mechanism against starvation, where the body utilizes ketone bodies broken down from fat stores as its primary fuel source instead of glucose. This is a last resort for your body. Your brain cannot be fueled by fat directly, so having to rely on fat for fuel is extremely inefficient. Fat stores have to be broken down into ketone bodies before they can cross the Blood Brain Barrier (BBB).

Similarly, the Paleo Diet removes grains, beans, soy, dairy, and refined sugar from your diet, essentially all forms of carbohydrates. And no, Trent, fruits and vegetables are NOT sustainable carb sources, dammit. Ultimately, the outcome is the same. When you don’t consume the appropriate amount of carbohydrates for your activity level, your body is forced to rely on ketone bodies. If your body is so focused on mobilizing and breaking down fat in order to fuel your brain (aka all of your bodily functions required to survive), it certainly isn’t going to be concerned that you’re not losing body fat or PRing your front squat!

So maybe this all makes sense. But here you are, Trent blocking your way to the cookie tray, telling you how he’s lost 15 lbs on some diet that consists entirely of coconut oil and peanut butter (as he’s inhaling chips, literally you did not know someone could eat and talk at this speed before). He got the idea from one of those magazines, you know, with a bodybuilder on the cover, and it’s supported by SCIENCE. You eat more fat to burn more fat, dontcha know? So now he can eat all the chips he wants because his body doesn’t even process carbs anymore. On one hand, you know this is bullshit. On the other hand...Trent is looking really buff (omg stop he is your cousin! You think).

Back up. How is it that something this heavily researched and supposedly backed by science can become a frustrating “I want to pull my hair out (and eat a donut)” nightmare?  In terms of low carb being a successful weight loss strategy, studies that support this notion often rely on data collected from either obese or male subjects, or both. The problem with this is twofold. One, obese subjects react very differently to diet interventions than lean subjects. Two, men and women have dramatically different hormone profiles, making it impossible to draw conclusions for females based on studies conducted on males.

To address the first point, studies show that when undergoing total starvation, obese subjects actually utilize protein metabolism to a lesser extent than their lean counterparts. That means lean individuals lose a higher degree of lean mass when caloric intake is restricted. Lean mass aka muscle, is what you want more of. It’s metabolically active, which means your body will burn more calories at rest on a daily basis. If you already have a relatively favorable body composition (ratio of fat mass to lean mass) and engage in regular, intelligently programmed exercise, forcing your body into a steep calorie deficit, particularly one that restricts carbohydrates, actually decreases your body’s chances of losing the infamous “last ten pounds”.

On the second point, men and women are opposites when it comes to hormones, which are ultimately what dictate your ability to lose weight. When Trent drops his carbs and increase his fat, “carb starvation” tricks his bodies into preparing for hard times ahead, aka a possible famine and maybe war. Testosterone levels skyrocket, fat stores mobilize, and he starts losing body fat. When females try the same thing, the response is the opposite. Stress levels go up, causing an increase in cortisol. Our bodies start preparing for a possible pregnancy by storing body fat, just in case there is a shortage of resources down the road. Super fun, right? And this doesn’t even account for any other lifestyle factors that could be affecting stress levels, such as work, family, sleep, etc. If you’re working out and not eating enough carbs, you’re automatically putting your body on high alert. So maybe Trent is losing weight eating only coconut oil and peanut butter, but you have to take a step back and remind yourself that Trent is a DUDE, so pretty much anything he’s saying or doing doesn’t actually apply to you.

So what the hell do you do now?

EAT. Fat loss requires that you work with your body instead of against it. When you eat the proper amount of food, you’re letting your body know there is an abundance of resources available to feed you and a possible pregnancy (even if you don’t plan on getting pregnant anytime soon). When your body knows there are plenty of resources to go around, it won’t freak out and go into fat storing mode.

All of this information brings us back to carbs. As mentioned above, carbs are the body’s main fuel source. Our brain alone uses 20-30% of our Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR), and its main fuel source is glucose (not ketones!), which is most readily available from carbohydrates. How many carbs your body needs directly correlates to your activity level and body composition, and it’s probably a larger amount than you think.

Activity Level Target (g/lb/day)
Light (low intensity or skill based training) 1.4 - 2.3
Moderate (~1 hour/day) 2.3 - 3.2
High (1-3 hours/day) 2.7 - 4.5
Very High (> 4-5 hours/day) 3.6 - 5.5

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t some carb free-for-all. The type of carbohydrates you consume have a direct impact on your blood sugar. Blood sugar levels are what cause your insulin to spike and signal your body to shuttle glucose around to fuel various bodily functions. When there’s more glucose available for use than your body needs it’s stored as fat for later use. Carbohydrates are ranked by their Glycemic Index (GI) according to how they affect blood sugar levels. Carbohydrates with a low GI value are more slowly digested, absorbed and metabolized, causing a lower and slower rise in blood glucose and insulin levels. So things like plain yogurt, rice, and oatmeal are better options than bagels, doughnuts, and french fries, at least on a regular basis. Click through the linked text above for a GI Index List of Foods, or simply Google Search “Glycemic Index Food List.”

This might make it sound like carbohydrates are as bad as you’ve always been told. However, active individuals need more carbohydrates than their sedentary counterparts. Remember, carbohydrates = fuel. Again, active individuals need more fuel on a regular basis. Glucose needs to be available to not only fuel the brain and all bodily functions, but also all extra activity i.e. weightlifting, circuit training, spin class, running, rowing, etc. Workouts require energy in two different ways: (1) energy for the workout itself and (2) energy to rebuild and repair muscle after the workout is over. When you don’t properly fuel your body, it won’t function or perform optimally. Think of it as not having enough gas in your car. You wouldn’t expect your car to run on empty, so why would you expect your body to? Yes, I know, bodies and cars are pretty different. Bodies will always find a way to function, even under the most unlikely conditions. However, without enough fuel, the body will start to shut down processes not deemed necessary for survival, and, unlike men, building muscle and losing body fat is not deemed necessary for females.

You don’t want to “trick” your body into functioning under suboptimal conditions, and the truth is, you really can’t. Your body might run off a diet that’s mostly fat, but it won’t like it in the long run. Continuing with the car analogy, it’s like trying to run your gas car on diesel. The car will only continue to run until it’s used up the remaining gas in the fuel lines. Once it hits diesel - boom. The car won’t go any farther. So sure, while trying a low carb diet or meal plan looks promising and might even lead to short term success, eventually you’re going to combust. You’ll look worse, feel worse, and perform worse.

Recap

  • Your body can absolutely run on a diet that is mainly fat, but it doesn’t like to

  • Scientific studies generally utilize obese, male subjects, making it difficult if not impossible to draw conclusions for lean, active females

  • Because of hormones (yay!) female bodies like to store fat, particularly under stressful conditions i.e. working out too hard and not eating enough

  • Don’t be afraid to eat! Active individuals, especially females, need to fuel their bodies with performance in mind

  • Eating enough food (and the right kinds) will actually lead to long term success → losing body fat and gaining muscle

If there is one thing to take away from all of this, push Trent out of the way and eat that mother f*cking cookie without wondering if it’s “paleo” or not.

Cheers,

JB