For the fitness enthusiast, adding high quality carbs to the plate offers undeniable benefits.  These gems are a powerhouse of easily absorbed energy, driving hard working muscles and ultimately powering the body through an activity-packed day.  Still, many athletes are turning towards lower carb approaches to fuel their weight and wellness goals and as such are running into a wall when trying to crank through their workouts.

Enter the question I received while presenting at the recent IDEA World Fitness virtual conference.  With the topic centering around FAQs posed to fitness professionals, the following question arose; how can one follow a low carb diet yet still find the high-octane fuel reserves needed to power through high intensity workouts?  An attendee explained that in general, she felt at her best self while following a 40/30/30 plan.  However, she always felt like she was running on empty and found it difficult to finish a workout with any amount of reserves.  This feeling of lethargy made her question her macro mix even though holistically, she felt like this approach was moving her towards better health and wellness.

It’s not uncommon for athletes acclimated to a lifetime of carb loading to struggle with the transition to fewer carbs; the human body grows accustomed to endogenous glucose being available at all times.  So, when reducing intake from a typical 50% or more of total calories to 40% (as in 40/30/30), it is understandable that this 10% difference – or more- is noticeable.  Still, the benefits of reducing carbohydrate intake are compelling, typically related to replacement of high-calorie, nutrient poor carbohydrates and sugars with more nutrient dense choices.  After all, rarely does excessive carbohydrate (and calorie intakes) come from too many bowls of farro.  Instead, high sugar culprits (the average sugar intake in America is more than 2x the recommended limit) are to blame for too few essential micronutrients, too many empty calories and the health consequences that follow.  In fact, survey data from What We Eat in America depicts plates piled with sugar as concurrently high in total calories yet lacking in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.  Along with driving better choices, a macronutrient based plan like 40/30/30 forces (compels?) individuals to track or at least map out their day’s plates and necessitates making purposeful and nutrient dense choices.  This plan is also higher in protein than the average diet and since this macronutrient is the most thermogenic and satiating, a more generous intake of protein resonates with individuals in search of weight management.

But how to manage the hunger and fatigue with a reduction in carbohydrate?  First, assess total energy intake and if deemed significantly insufficient, the macronutrient mix is likely not to blame.  While a slight energy deficit may be warranted for clients seeking weight loss, a significant deficit can be dangerous; leading to nutrient deficiencies, illness, injury, and a complete inability to workout, thereby leaving fitness gains on the table.  If calories are deemed adequate, then it’s time to consider nutrient timing.  Nutrient timing is essentially the art of fueling the body for the task at hand.  This routine can allow for purposeful feeding of carbs pre-workout, and replenishing and recovering with carbohydrate and protein, respectively, post workout to allow for health and fitness gains without compromising overall nutrition plan.

When following a 40/30/30 plan – which I often prefer as both athlete and nutrition expert given the science in support of this approach’s health benefits, sustainability, and food choices- the goal is to arrive at this macronutrient intake by day’s end.  If fatigue is setting in prior to or during a workout, an increased intake of carbs are likely needed pre-workout.  Depending on total daily needs, an intake of 0.5g of carb per pound of body weight consumed in the hour prior to the sweat session should be a good place to start.  Within 60mins post workout, refeeding of carbohydrates effectively restocks spent glycogen stores, while an intake of 15-30grams of protein stops further muscle breakdown and begins the repair process.  In fact, we designed our ZonePerfect Macros bar with a mix that can get your recovery started on the right foot.    Ultimately, because carbohydrate allotment may be unevenly distributed around the workout, the remainder of the day will likely include more substantial intakes of protein and fats as opposed to carbs.

After considering the value of nutrient timing, it’s clear that many macronutrient mixes, when planned right, can support fitness, health, and wellness goals.  And remember, if you have a question, you can always reach out to us and pose a question at our Ask the Nutritionist portal.  We can’t wait to hear what’s on your mind!