Does Exercising on Low Carbs Burn Muscle?

Does Exercising on Low Carbs Burn Muscle?

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A light snack of carbohydrates and protein provides muscle-friendly fuel for exercise.

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Resistance training and a low-carb, high-protein diet seem like a logical plan for building a muscular body that has a low percentage of body fat. However, complete nutrition -- including carbohydrates -- is vital for muscle-building since you'll run the risk of burning muscle tissue for fuel without carbs. It's also important that you pay attention to the form of carbs you're eating as well as how you time your carbohydrate intake in connection with your workouts.

The Role Carbs Play

Your body looks for glucose -- blood sugar -- first to fuel it during a workout. When you eat or drink carbohydrates, they actually turn into glucose, providing ready fuel for exercise. If there's no glucose available in the blood, your body will look for it in your liver and muscle tissue next. The problem is that, with a low-carb diet, there may not be much of a glucose store in those tissues. In that case, your system will be prompted to convert the protein from muscle tissue into glucose to get through your workout, essentially burning muscle and hindering your muscle-gain goal.

Timing is Everything

To adequately fuel your body and avoid muscle loss, it's essential that you eat carbs before a workout. However, you want to time your pre-workout snack so that your body has time to break the carbohydrates down into usable glucose. At the same time, you don't want to eat carbs so far in advance of exercising that the glucose doesn't get used right away, as excess blood sugar can get stored in fat cells and defeat your workout's purpose. Dr. Natalie Digate Muth, a senior fitness consultant for the American Council on Exercise, recommends consuming a light snack of carbs with some protein about 30 to 60 minutes before your workout. "Light" only needs to be around 250 calories, with 200 of those calories accounting for the carbs, according to Susan Kleiner and Maggie Greenwood-Robinson in an excerpt from their book "Power Eating."

Mind Your Carb Types

Yes, carbs are good -- even necessary -- to maintain muscle mass. The type of carbs is what counts just as much as how many carb calories you eat. Harvard Health says that processed carbohydrates, including white rice and white bread, are "bad" carbs. These processed carbs are considered to be the culprits that send your body into a cycle of blood sugar and insulin spikes that can cause more hunger, eating and weight gain. Get your carbs from healthy sources such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Focus on One Goal

If you have two goals in mind -- both burning fat and gaining muscle -- you can actually accomplish them both more effectively if you focus on the muscle-building goal. Building muscle mass can increase your metabolism, which will help keep the fat off. Although you won't want to go low-carb, you will want to go low-cal. For losing weight without sacrificing muscle, the University of Illinois Springfield recommends a general guideline of a minimum of 1,200 calories a day for women and 1,400 calories for men, making sure that the daily calorie allotment includes 130 grams of carbs.


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