carbs

The Six Best Grain-Free Carbohydrate Sources for Lifting Energy

Like grains? So do I, but I don’t eat them because I believe they’re objectively not great for optimal health and just feeling good. I’ve experienced a host of positive changes in my body since I stopped eating them more than a year ago (except for the odd bowl of oats and an occasional helping of white rice). But if you’re lifting heavy and you’re thinking about dropping or heavily limiting grains, where are you gonna get those carbs? I’ll tell you where.

The holy quintet. Clockwise from top: kabocha squash, cassava, sweet potato, white potato, yellow plantain.

The holy sextet. Clockwise from top: kabocha squash, cassava, sweet potato, white potato, yellow plantain. Yam not pictured.

1. Cassava a.k.a. yucca a.k.a. manioc.

With a whopping 38g carbs per 100g serving, cassava is the king of natural, unprocessed, unrefined carb sources. It’s packed full of starches that go to replenishing muscle glycogen, and contains very little sugar. I personally love its dryish texture. Make sure to peel it, cut into large chunks, then boil it until fork tender. Cooking is very important because it contains cyanide-containing compounds that are destroyed in the process. I like to boil mine in salted water, drain and just eat like that, or dip in mayo mixed with sriracha, fresh lime juice, cumin and chili powder.

2. White potato

The classic. A 100g serving contains around 31g carbs, almost 85% of which is starch and the rest of which is fiber and a little sugar. I’m about easy, so I just wash it with soap (organic potatoes are better), pierce with a knife, microwave on high for 3-4 mins and eat out of hand like an apple.

3. Yam (not in photo)

Don’t get it twisted: yams and sweet potatoes are not the same thing; yams contain more starch and virtually no sugar. At 27g carbs per 100g, yams get you those killer carbs you need to replenish after a session of big, heavy compound lifts. Pierce with knife a few times and microwave on high for five minutes or until tender.

4. Plantain

I prefer yellow ones, but they do contain more sugar and less starch than the less ripe green version. Yellows contain around 30g carbs per 100g, about half of which is sugar (I don’t pay much attention to sugar content if the food is whole and completely natural without any refinement. Processed sugar and sugar naturally occurring in whole foods affect me in two totally different ways). They have an earthy-sweet-tart flavor that’s totally unique to them. Plantains must be cooked (unless completely black). The easiest way is to trim the ends off, pierce through the skin a few times with a knife, wrap in a damp paper towel, and microwave on high for three minutes. Once cooked, remove peel. I like to slice into 1/2″ discs, toss with butter and sprinkle with a little salt. It’s my favorite snack right before bed.

5. Sweet potato

The dessert tuber. 100g of sweet potato has around 21g carbs, only around 35% of which is starch, with another 30% as sugar and a decent hit of fiber. While it’s not as effective for glycogen restoration as king cassava or the white potato, it’s great for fat loss, because it makes you full with a relatively light weight to calorie load. Pierce with a knife, microwave on high for five minutes or until tender.

6. Winter squash (butternut and kabocha)

Ok, you’ll have to eat a lot of kabocha to get a lot of carbs, but that’s only because it isn’t a calorie-dense food. Virtually all of the calories it does have come from carbs. It’s about a 50-50 split between starch and sugar, but you can eat an absolute sh*tload of it without breaking 200 calories. It’s another great fat loss option because it’s so filling, nutrient dense, and calorie poor, and lets you get some carbs in. My favorite way to prepare is to cut in half (need large sharp knife and strong arm), gut seeds, peel, cut into ~1-inch cubes, toss in coconut oil, kosher salt and cinnamon and roast at 400 degrees until tender (around 35-40 mins). The texture is soft/ fluffy/ pillowy and the taste is sweet.

Butternut squash is another winner–higher in calories than kabocha and packing three times the carbs with less sugar, it’s a very good non-grain carb option (10g carbs per 100g serving, two of which come from sugar). Same preparation as kabocha.

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Getting Ripped: “The Opposite of Common Sense” Series, Part III — Eat Plenty of Carbs

The trend of vilifying carbs is hotter than the dot com boom and shows no signs of letting up. Yeah, and it’s totally wrong. Energy balance is the only thing that matters. You will lose weight if you burn more calories than you consume. That’s it. It’s the first law of thermodynamics. But notice, I said “weight” not “fat”. “Weight” could mean any combination of muscle and fat. I explained in part II of this series that the key factor involved in regulating the type of weight you lose (i.e. muscle vs. fat) is heavy resistance training in addition to an energy deficit. Technically, you could eat only Saltine crackers and still lose weight, and specifically fat.

Having a large proportion of your calories come from carbohydrates is really important while cutting because we know that it’s super important to keep lifting heavy and with a lot of effort during a cut. But remember, you’re going to be in an energy deficit, meaning that your capacity to move the weight will be diminished. The problem with cutting carbs while cutting is that your muscles will quickly become depleted of their favorite and most accessible fuel source, glycogen. If you reduce carbs, you reduce muscle glycogen and your capacity to move the weights right along with it. When lifting, if your body is depleted of glycogen, energy will come from fat. But fat and glycogen metabolism each occur through two mutually exclusive pathways. The bottom line is that the fat pathway doesn’t provide anywhere near the immediate energy that muscle glycogen pathway does. You will be at a real disadvantage if you rely on fat metabolism for the acute energy requirements of a set of heavy squats.

But what about the people who say carbs are different that the other two macronutrients (fat and protein) because they just somehow make you fat? There’s been a classic argument going on between Jillian Michaels (of Biggest Loser) and Gary Taubes (an anti-carb researcher); Jillian says carbs are just like any other food and losing fat is about energy balance, while Gary basically says carbs are the enemy. Check out this YouTube vid for some clips of the argument. The way I see it is that they’re talking right through one another and they’re both right. If you you eat lots of carbs, but accurately monitor your calories in and out and eat below your maintenance calories AND lift heavy, you will lose fat. I’ve done it many times while eating ice cream, cereal, fruit, potatoes, oatmeal and rice. So clearly this would indicate that Gary Taubes is wrong and Jillian Michaels is right, right? Yes and no. Taubes’ entire argument against carbs is based on the mechanism of autoregulation, whereby the body sends the appropriate satiety signals to the brain at the appropriate time. In essence, it’s the body’s natural “stop eating” signal. With a diet comprised of the right foods, this autoregulation mechanism works well, and people won’t become fat. I agree completely. Taubes says that when carbs–particularly foods made with refined cereal grains–are introduced into the diet, the autoregulation mechanism breaks because these foods create disproportionate insulin responses, which drives blood sugar through the floor and creates more hunger that is out of line with real energy requirements. That false hunger breeds more eating and potentially fat gain. I agree with all of this. I can feel this… like what happens to my body when I eat rice, which makes me hungry. I know this, but I like rice and I eat it with other stuff to buffer those effects and I also know what “false hunger” feels like and when to ignore it.

The point is that if you if you understand your body, if you understand how different foods work, if you calculate calories and maintain an energy balance, you can eat whatever food you want and override the autoregulatory inhibition that some carbs cause (although from the micronutrient standpoint, it’s not a good idea to eat refined foods). With the right carbs in your diet, you’ll have to do less overriding and more letting your body guide you.

Ripped Recipe: Stupidly Fast and Easy Low Carb Zoodle Zoop

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Why, after recently extolling the virtues of eating lots of carbs while dropping fat (and lifting very heavy) would I post a low-carb recipe? Although I eat lots of carbs, I try to do it as close to bedtime as possible. After my daily 20-hour fast, I’m extremely sensitive to insulin. The first carb-rich food I eat puts me in a near stupor for up to 30 minutes. That’s why I like to come off my daily fast with lower carb foods and ramp up carbs closer to bed.

Ingredients
1 large zucchini
1 cup of low-sodium boxed soup (I used Pacific Organic creamy tomato and red pepper soup @ 110 cal/ cup)
Whatever seasonings you like.

Preparation
Spiralize the zucchini. [Never heard of spiralizing? It’s what a spiralizer does. Never heard of a spiralizer? See photo below.
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I highly recommend you buy one if you’re interested in diving deeper into the wide world of making spaghetti out of any semi-hard vegetable (like zucchini (actually a fruit, but whatever), carrot, sweet potato, etc.)]. Sautee resulting “zoodles” for a couple of minutes in dry pan with a little salt to draw out some water. Add cup of soup. Cover and simmer until desired level of tenderness is reached (like five mins). Season with whatever you want. I added some garlic powder, curry powder and cayenne to this batch. Eat. A big bowl of this weighs in at a wimpy 130-150 calories and is pretty filling.

High Fat, Low Sugar is Best, and Why Pinkberry Isn’t Healthy

15g sugar, 14g fat per 1/2 cup serving. An excellent dessert option.

15g sugar, 14g fat per 1/2 cup serving. An excellent dessert option.

It’s no secret that I’m not afraid of fat. Actually, I’ll qualify that. Trans-fat, yes, afraid. Fried foods, yes, afraid. Oils (except for non-heated extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil and coconut oil), yes, afraid. Naturally occurring saturated fat? Not afraid of it at all. Although I don’t consume them in enormous quantities, organic eggs, butter, milk, cream, cheese, lard and tallow are staples in my diet, and I make sure that around half to two-thirds of the fat I consume is naturally saturated. This works out to 60-80g of saturated fat per day, which is way higher than our government’s recommendation. Clearly, I take the government’s idea of what we should be eating with a grain of salt… or a gram of lard. There are many reasons why I believe saturated fat is not only healthy to consume, but necessary. My opinions have been shaped by a good deal of my own research. I won’t preach about it here any more than I already have, but you should feel free to do some Googling if interested.

Anyway, I do believe that simple sugars (especially fructose) are unnatural (and counterproductive at best, damaging at worst) in concentrations any higher than they might occur in fruit. That aside, I’m an ice cream freak, a condition at odds with my beliefs about sugar since ice cream contains, ummmmmmmm, sugar. What to do?

Read the label

Brilliant idea, right? If you take the time to compare the labels of different ice cream brands and flavors within brands, you’ll see that the sugar content varies massively between them. Calories tell almost none of the story. The difference in sugar content between one flavor in a brand and another can be double, but the calories might still read the same if the one with more sugar has less fat than the one with less sugar. This is very common with flavors that contain lots of mix ins, as well as with frozen yogurts, which are typically marketed as a healthier alternative to ice cream. This can be potentially misleading because they tend to (or at least can) contain more sugar.

Pinkberry–A wolf in sheep’s yogurt

Take this example: I recently found myself in a Pinkberry (frozen yogurt seller) when on a short vacation in California. In my opinion, Pinkberry attempts to market its products as healthy, although they don’t say it outright. Maybe that’s just me reading into it, but I think when most people think of Pinkberry, they think of a food product that’s not bad for them, and with all the hype around the probiotics their products contain, maybe even good for them (there are plenty of better ways to get a dose of probiotics). Anyway, of course I had to download the PDF containing complete nutrition for Pinkberry’s entire line of flavors (it’s literally 44 pages). I discovered that the majority of its offerings contain inexplicably large quantities of sugar. I calculated that across 35 flavors the average sugar content per 100g (or 1/2 cup) is around 22g, yet there’s no fat in most flavors. Without a good dose of fat to buffer that sugar, most of Pinkberry’s products are efficient insulin bombs (although there is the notable exception of Pinkberry’s plain Greek yogurt with only 6g sugar). That’s without any toppings, nearly all of which are unabashed sugar missiles. One serving of, say, the chocolate chip cookie dough topping is 12 grams and contains 5g of sugar. “Ok, 5g isn’t terrible”, you say, but do you have any idea how tiny 12 grams of cookie dough is? That’s less than 1/2 of one ounce. You almost can’t see it when it’s in the cup! Drop a couple of ounces of those on and you can VERY easily hit 60g of sugar in your final product, if not more.

There’s another frozen yogurt company out there called Red Mango that offers true “frozen yogurt” that really tastes like yogurt (tart) and has much less sugar than what we normally think of as frozen yogurt. I have to admit that I’m not fond of the flavor of this “real” frozen yogurt (I prefer to eat regular non-frozen yogurt), but I think that their products (or at least many of them based on what I can see on their website) are actually healthy.

Eat Ice Cream (or at least something with more fat and less sugar)

So in light of my opinions about natural fat (like the fat in a quality ice cream) and sugar, you can understand why I prefer not to eat frozen yogurt unless it contains less fat and less sugar than its ice cream counterpart, which is rare indeed. When I buy ice cream, I look for something with 13-15g of sugar per 1/2 cup serving and anywhere from 10-16g fat. I’m wary of ice creams with lower fat. Some companies create lower fat ice creams mechanically by churning air into their products (which then have to be called frozen desserts because they contain too much air to be legally deemed ice cream). Others add fillers, stabilizers and thickeners like carrageenan, mono and diglycerides, various gums, starches and who knows what else. I’m fine with extra air, but not with fillers. The frozen dessert in the image at the top of this post is awesome for several reasons. First, its base is coconut cream, which is exceptionally nutritious. Second, it contains 15g of sugar per 1/2 cup serving, which is acceptable to me. Third, it has 14 grams of fat, which is very satiating and helps moderate the insulin rush. Fourth, there’s scotch in it, and boy, you can taste it.

How I Got Ripped Eating Fat… and Carbs (a calorie is AND isn’t a calorie).

Despite what some experts say, all my experience strongly points to the fact that losing fat boils down to energy balance i.e. calories in, calories out. There’s lots of internet discussion to the contrary about how carbs make you fat and how fat makes you skinny, but I completely disagree (I disagree mightily with guys like Gary Taubes); I don’t think any macronutrient is good or bad. I do strongly believe, and have through experience come to understand that certain types of carbohydrates stimulate some combination of physiological and psychological response that creates a desire to eat more of them, but it isn’t the calories in carbs themselves that are creating fatness.

Let’s say I want to eat a doughnut. Let’s also say it’s 400 calories, about all of which comes from flour and sugar. Should I be full? Definitely, because by the time I’m done eating one of my 400 calorie salads with meat and other stuff in it, I’m normally stuffed to my uvula. So then yes, this doughnut will fill me because it’s 400 calories, the same as the salad.

Obviously, this isn’t true (at least not for me); the salad is more filling because it’s bigger and contains a good macronutrient mix and fiber and all that good stuff. Accordingly, it doesn’t stimulate the severe insulin response that the sugar and flour in the doughnut does. Buuuut, they both contain the same energy. The real issue is that if I have the doughnut, I know I’ll have to white-knuckle the ensuing insulin-blood sugar roller coaster. It’ll make me want to eat more, but if I can hang on and not cave into doing that (pounding another doughnut), I’ll have consumed the same number of calories as I would have had I eaten the salad.

I think this pretty clearly illustrates how a calorie both is and isn’t a calorie. Energy wise, a gram of sugar and a gram of protein are the same. Similarly 36 calories from a few tablespoons of oats is the same as the 36 calories in 1/3 tablespoon of lard because each of those 36 calories requires the same amount of energy to be burned. But chemically, the foods (and molecules) with which those calories are associated can elicit wildly different hormonal responses and chemical reactions in the brain. This is directly connected with how we feel after we eat a certain food, like if it makes us feel full or slow or hungry or energetic or some combination of those.

Insulin response curves.

Since my diet is part of my lifestyle, and I’m not into white-knuckling my lifestyle, I’m definitely not into white-knuckling my diet, which is why I typically prefer not to eat sweets and things from boxes and bags (unless they’re carrots). I know how I react to calories from the wrong sources. Although I have great will power, I do my best to never have to exercise it.