You have been dieting on a low to moderate carb diet for days on end and are dragging, depleted, and energy levels are at an all-time low. Anyone who’s tried any type of diet is all too familiar with this feeling during a dieting phase. But what is that upon the horizon? Ah, yes, it is your high-carb day. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Before we get ahead of ourselves though let’s make sure we know how to optimize this day to ensure we can fight off all catabolic processes in place and save our hard-earned muscle throughout the diet.
Our primary goal on our high-carb day is to store glycogen. Glycogen is the storage of water inside the intracellular space or muscle cell. What we want to avoid is storage in the subcutaneous spaces or the area between the muscle and the skin. This is a sure way to blur your conditioning and make you feel as though your high-carb day only took you a step backwards. There are several things we need in play to ensure that we get maximal storage of our carbohydrates in the muscle. These are water, carbohydrates, sodium, and potassium.
First let’s begin with Sodium, when sodium enters a cell it pulls water along with it allowing the cell to swell. Without enough sodium you run the risk that glucose (carbs) won’t be stored properly. Let’s use a simple example of driving a car to explain this process, the sodium would be our driver, the one getting the car (our glucose) to the destination (inside the muscle cell). Second is Potassium, Potassium is an electrolyte that plays a key role in the regulation of water inside the cell. Sodium and Potassium work together to maintain homeostasis of the cell via the sodium-potassium pump. Potassium is the primary instigator of exchange across cell membranes for Sodium and Potassium. We can look to Potassium as our highway patrol, they are the ones making sure we don’t end up driving too fast resulting in an accident. Last but not least we need enough good old H2O. Water plays a critical role in glucose synthesis and is essentially our gas for the car. Without all four of these things in place we are not going to arrive at our destination or our end goal.
So, what type of carbohydrates do we want to consume on our high-carb days? There will be varying theories on this subject, as science has shown benefits from both low and high GI carbohydrates for glycogen storage in athletes. Each and every diet coach will probably have a slightly varying method when it comes to this area. My thoughts on type of carbohydrate used in relation to timing are as follows.
At meal one upon waking we want a mixture of both fast and slow digesting carbohydrates; we want to take advantage of our insulin sensitivity and get an immediate insulin spike while also providing our body with some long-term energy. The immediate insulin spike will begin the glycogen loading process while also increasing metabolic rate. A good example would perhaps be some low-fat cereal and rice. In my pre-workout meal, I would use the same type of mixture for quick storage and energy during my workout. In my post-workout meal, I would use primarily all fast-digesting carbohydrates for immediate repair and re-storage of glycogen that has been lost. For the remainder of my three meals I would stick to primarily slower digesting forms. These cause less of an insulin spike which is good for two reasons, more stable glucose levels for sustainable energy, and less chance of the source being stored as adipose tissue or fat. Primary sources would be white rice, Ezekiel bread, and oatmeal.
I always prefer to use whole foods when possible, especially on a high-day. I feel that it keeps me much “fuller”. This is because whole food provides more essential minerals for the body like the ones we went over earlier, sodium and potassium. This is going to cause the sodium-potassium pump to work at a greater degree and allow more storage of water inside the muscle cell. This is great for training days as that “fullness”will provide for a better pump via increased ATP production in the muscle cell. I also feel whole food increases metabolic rate to a greater degree than a liquid meal. I believe this is due to the amount of work that goes into digestion and partitioning of whole food sources by the body during an extremely sensitive dieting state.
Another important tip is to try to keep all fats as low as possible on a high carb/re-feed day. Fats have shown to disrupt or slow down the storage of glucose inside the muscle cell. Along with that, fats will also be more readily stored as adipose tissue during times of high insulin release. This is never an optimal situation for anyone trying to burn fat or build muscle. I hope with this information you too can optimize your high-carb/re-feed days and leave yourself feeling successful.