The big carbs debate... and I want a six-pack too...

Ok everyone. I know this diet question is going to get advice mainly from those clued up on the sports side of nutrition rather than general nutrition. In general, I want to be very healthy with my diet (very keen on superfoods, antioxidants, low sat fats, lots of omega-3, fibre etc) to increase my general health, as well as enhancing my training, and my physique. I think it's hard to do all 3 of those at once... but I may be wrong.

I know a lot of runners just eat what they want, but this is where I want to do things different and get my nutrition spot on so I have an advantage. 

I'm 17, been running since April 2011, been cycling every day to school and back for 2.5 years (50 miles a week) but otherwise I've been pretty inactive until I started running. I could run a 37 minute 10k this March.

Currently I'm recovering from shin splints which I've had since April. I should be starting rehab next week. Until now I've not done much, I've cycled on and off and for the past 8 weeks I've had a short gym membership so have been doing lots of swimming and weights/core work/strength stuff whilst not running. Saying that I'm still pretty unfit. 

Before my injury, I ate whatever I wanted, but had lots of carbs from bread, Soreen malt loaf and pasta especially. Since not running I ate the same but I've realised how bad it was in terms of not enough veg, superfoods and too much sat fats/sugar.

For the past 2 weeks, I've cut out simple carbs (white bread, pasta and rice) and had a little bit of brown rice. I'm having a big bowl of porridge every day though. I've eaten a lot more fruit and veg than before, and focused on protein and veg for main meals. Mainly tuna, prawns, chicken and smoked mackerel. I've cut down processed foods and had more fresh foods. I've also started having more nuts and seeds. I stopped having my usual cakes, cookies and refined sugars, and drinking only water or fruit juice. I have also tried fasting a few times, earlier on in the Summer. I'm supplementing Calcium/Magnesium and multi-vitamins. 

I've been swimming with this diet and I've been feeling great but this week I've started feeling really tired. I'm not sure whether it's the lack of carbs or lack of sleep. I've been absolutely shattered. Today I gave in and had pasta, 3 slices of bread and a protein shake with high-carb and feel better.

You may wonder why I'm doing this- well, my nutritionist friend says that by cutting out carbs my body will become better at burning fat and more efficient at burning carbs when it does have them. Also, I want a 'six-pack', I've been doing loads of abs work and want to see the results. My body fat is currently about 13% and I believe I need about 10% for them to show. From what I've read, a strong core doesn't necessarily mean a 'six-pack' but I know lots of runners with one. 

So by cutting out carbs, I am lowering my body fat and keeping my muscles lean. Is this correct? I also want to keep myself light whilst I'm not training so I come back fast, so I want to keep my weight down too. I've been told cutting carbs is the way to do this. 

I understand when I'm hard running again I'll need to increase my fuel, but is it possible to fuel myself to eat well, get all my recommended amounts of fibre etc, to run well whilst ALSO keeping my body fat low and beating my rivals?

Sorry to confuse you...


  • Why are you fasting? What benefit do you think you're going to get from it? From a performance point of view, it's a fairly absurd thing to do - if you expect your body to train, or indeed just generally function, the you need to provide it with appropriate fuel.

    My view on this - and there are people who disagree, but I think I'm in a reasonable position to know what I'm talking about (I'm a dietitian, specialised in sports nutrition) - is that carbs are an essential part of the diet for an athlete. They're typically low fat, nutritious (containing various micronutrients) and they are the preferred fuel source for activity. Obviously the nutritional content will vary, but choosing wholegrains, etc. is a perfectly healthy addition to the diet. And simple carbs also have their place, especially for an athlete. I would never recommend that someone cut out carbs, just to choose wisely and eat them in appropriate portions and in a timely manner.

    Cutting out carbs does not guarantee fat loss. The way to lose fat is to have an energy deficit, to have appropriate carb and protein intake and to be physically active (including resistance work) to promote the maintenance of lean muscle mass.

    I don't think it's hard to do all three things you talk about - a general healthy diet is the best thing you can do for health, training and physique. All three require physical activity as well as diet of course, but the two go together very nicely. Eat a good mix of protein, carbs and healthy fats. It's a lot more simple than people think it is!

  • Hi Blackdonkey,

    It sounds like you want to be a decent runner, but have a ripped physique with a 6 pack too. I came to running after a background in weight training/bodybuilding/martial arts and boxing training, so have had a bash at quite a few disciplines notorious for building the type of physique you seem to be after.

    The problem is........cutting carbs and increasing protein whilst doing a sensible weight lifting program will result in you reducing body fat and having that ripped Bruce Lee like physique. The problem is, its not going to help your running one bit! You can say goodbye to that 37 min 10K!! When I was watching my diet for cosmetic reasons I felt terrible, lacking in energy and miserable!

    A decent athlete who relies on performance rather than cosmetic aesthetics needs their carbs. The further problem is bodybuilders and boxers who effectively 'make weight' or get to a competition body fat % by reducing carbs and fluids tend not to be as ripped as that the whole year round. Boxers are notorious for gaining weight between training camps, and due to the calorie/carb counting....when they do start eating normally, the body piles the weight on in the form of body fat as an anti starvation measure.

    My advice to you would be (when the shin splints are over!) to build up to a high level of weekly running mileage, mixing a good degree of aerobic (long distance, lower heart rate) training and anaerobic training (higher intenisty, higher heart rate, faster speeds). In addition to that I'd throw one or two weekly weights sessions in the gym to include core/abdominal work and if you have time some cross training (I like whacking a heavy bag or a speed ball).

    Recovery from these sessions will include at least 1 rest day a week and a good, sensible diet full of a mixture of foods. I tend to eat what I want, but don't advocate eating too much junk food or huge deserts.

    You're 17 so, you should find it fairly quick to get the sort of results you are after.

  • Thanks both of you. Firstly, I was fasting to reduce my body fat and also because of the health benefits of fasting and allowing autophagy to take place. I wouldn't do it when I was running or training.

    Jamie- good to speak to someone with experience in both disciplines! Just what I wanted! To me, being a good runner is more important than my ripped physique. I see a lot of runners though who are just very skinny and toned rather than with an actual visibile six-pack- I guess that's where the ab work comes in? 

    As for being healthy, from what I've gathered that comes in with the general runners diet. I will keep on having carbs. However at the moment whilst I'm not training hard should I cut down my carbs and fat intake? If I'm still doing ab work and building muscle will I still need it? 

    Also, in terms of losing weight and keeping myself light for when I return to running, should this be another reason to cut carbs? I am definitely going to cut my sat fats and sugar intake anyway for general health purposes. And when I am training, I imagine that will lower my body fat and make my abs visible too right?

    Thanks for any extra advice!

  • IMO, I've felt absolutely shattered just by cutting out bread and pasta for one week!

  • You'll only convert carbs to fat if you eat excess carbs to what you require.

    How are you measuring body fat?

    The electronic scales will only show relative fat loss or gain. The initial %age reading they give is not that accurate.

    I found losing weight is easy if you run long and slow. 18milers is where it's at but not great with shin splins image
  • Is body fat pretty much what determines whether muscles show, like in a six pack?

    And also, if I eat excess sugar, like fruits, will this too end up as fat?

    Tim, a calculator online which involved calculating my weight, neck, height, hip measurements.




  • Hi again Blackdonkey,

    It all depends on what you want from your fitness and physique at any given time. You're right, most distance runners wouldn't have what you'd call a six pack, they tend to be very slim and toned when in shape. Obviously world class pro distance runners will have excellent core development and very low body fat, so their abdominal muscles can often be visible.

    If you really are wanting that six pack whilst running, simply bash up your weekly mileage over the weeks and incorporate perhaps two tough abdominal workouts a week. Your six pack will show up soon enough as your body fat drops and your abdominal muscles build (but you must get those abdominal exercises right, technique is key! I'd read up on them or seek help from a trainer at your local gym).

    But don't mess too much with your diet, it'll screw up your running. No carbs = no energy, lowering salt intake can be very detrimental to an athlete who is training hard and sweating alot of useful salts out. By all means reduce consumption of processed meat, confectionary and fizzy drinks, but you'll crave them more than ever.

    If you aren't pushing hard with your running, I still wouldn't mess about with your carb levels, its just a short term fix for reducing body fat. Its not like its summer and you'll be showing off your six pack to the ladies for many months. You'll probably just find that you get moody and won't be arsed doing your abdominal workouts......and when you do start eating normally again, the weight and body fat will come on quicker! You'll just be left telling your friends 'I had a six pack when I was 17, I haven't now though'image

    I'd set a definite goal and go for it......

  • Yes, sugar is carbohydrate.

    Have a read up of GI. Not all carbs are the same. Sugar is digested very quickly and large amounts get into the bloodstream quickly. The pancreas produces insulin which regulates the sugar level and converts the unused sugar to fat. There is a school of thought that this is why diabetes is linked to obesity. Carbohydrates that are more complex and take longer to digest and release sugar slowly are better as you have more chance of using the lower levels of sugar before it gets laid down as fat.

    Think you have to have ridiculously low body fat to show your abs. Something like less than 5%. Not recommended for an athlete, you'll have to stop and eat every 2 hours.

    It's winter you're going to be wearing lots of jumpers, especially if your body fat is low.
  • Yep, the amount of body fat determines whether 6 pack shows. I seem to remember it being something like 12% for women and 8% for men? But that doesn't mean that the person is healthy ... just look at photos of Iggy Pop! You can see all his abdominals and it's not because he's an amazing physical specimen.

  • CC82CC82 ✭✭✭

    The last time I had anything resembling a 6 pack was when I was about 15 (15 years ago) - I did some work experience at a local gym and got an all round fitness test whilst there.  I had 6% body fat apparently.  My 6 pack wasn't that impressive even with body fat percentage as low as that!

    Back then I did sports about 6 or 7 days a week (P.E., football, a bit of running sometimes) and worked a fairly physical part-time job.  No concentrated abs work though, which is probably why it was only a faint 6 pack.

  • Hi Calum, thats why you need to do some serious abdominal work too. A six pack benefits from decent abdominal development. The effect is a combination of building the muscle and losing the fat.

  • I'd echo the advice of those saying that you really need to make sure you eat a good balanced diet.

    I hope you're really aware that there can be real dangers associated with teenagers, or anybody for that matter (boys or girls) getting fixated with diet.  So whatever you decide to do, just keep that in mind.

  • Thanks everyone. Yeah from what I've heard it's about 10% body fat for abs to show- at the moment I can sort of see them but only after I've done my workouts- after a few hours things loosen off and I'm flat chested again. My body fat is about 13%.

    How do you think I should keep myself light? I know that being too heavy will slow me down and I'm definitely heavier than I used to be, I want to be light for when I start rehab again. When I was running I didn't care about body fat, ate whatever and had a lot of sugary cakes and treats and ate bread like a bird. But now I've been unable to train is when I've taken a better interest in nutrition for enhancing performance and figure. 

    Today I gave up and had a cupcake and a big chocolate cookie from the bakery. You'll say 'now and again' is ok but I had a hot chocolate and cake last night too! 

    I started eating bread again yesterday and my energy and concentration came straight back. So it's pretty clear that with or without running I can't completely stop bread/pasta/rice. Jamie that sounds like a good action plan and one I will follow. But my concerns are more for now whilst I'm not training- so should I reduce carbs or mainly have low-GI carbs? I'm going to swap to wholegrains for everything and try and reduce refined sugars/sat fats in treats etc. But even with lots of complex carbs last week I was getting tired (sweet potatoes, beans, nuts, veg)- why is this?

  • Also, Jamie I can't increase my mileage anymore than 35 miles a week as I'm only 17 although I imagine it will still lower by body fat a lot because I'll make sure I'm having more low-GI foods, not eating them at the wrong times (evenings?) and cutting down sugary stuff/bad fats.

  • Blackdonkey.   This is not a simple question - there is no one answer tha suits everyone.


    The basis of a healthy diet (IMHO)is lots and lots of veg, some fruit, healthy fats and then the right amounts of carbs and protein to suit your body and your sport.


    Just how much carbs/protein/fat will be perfect for you is the tricky bit.  You are young so will have a fast metabolism and essentially be able to get away with murder on the diet front so I really don't think you should be overly worried about the hot chocolate cookies etc that you ate yesterday - you ate it, I hope you enjoyed it, move on....


    One suggestion I would make is that you focus on real food - i.e fresh non-processed stuff.  If you have to eat something out of a packet - try and go for the fewest ingredients possible and if you can't pronounce it - don't eat it.


    A quote from one of my nutrition books 'There is no such thing as bad food - just bad timing'    

    If you want to eat sugary stuff - eat it after a training session when your body can use the simple sugars for some good purpose (i.e. refuelling).  If you find yourself munchng through rubbish the day after a session because you are so hungry and seem to have no will power - that's because you didn't refuel properly after the previous days workout. If you can time dinner so that it's just after a run that's great.


    One way to reduce starchy carbs and make the most of them is to focus on eating them  after your training sessions and then go lighter on the starchy carbs at other times.


    All I am really doing here is spouting stuff that folks I trust have told me - you need to find your own nutrition guru.  I would hightly recommend you check out (he is a bit of a body builder type but really and truly he knows his stuff)  website is a bit rubbish but give it a chance.  -  also there is a brilliant book by anita bean called something along the lines of 'the complete guide to sports nutrition' that is good at explaining the basics.


    If you restrict your carbs and train hard - you will be hungry and feel awful after a while but you can get away with a cleaner and leaner diet if you target carbs after your workouts.

    Read this:


  • How much sleep are you getting? When I was 17 I was sleeping about 10hours a night. Playing 90mins rugby twice a week, running 3 miles, playing squash, rugby training, cycling everywhere, going down the pub Friday and Saturday, walking 20+ miles on the Sunday. Eating like a horse. I don't think your weight will have a great impact at your age and fitness. I would eat more and train hard.
  • Not as much as I should- about 7-8 hours most. When I was running it was even less. My lifestyle and business doesn't really give me chance to sleep as much as I need to , I'm obsessive about getting things done on time and getting lots crammed into a short time. I know I would feel better and benefit from more but unfortunately I can't get it. Sounds like you were doing a lot more than me at 17 though. 

  • Hi again Blackdonkey,

    I can't advise well on diet simply because I've never had any down time in my training. I was a primary school inter school 100m sprinter and broad jumper. Then as a teenager I went into Kung Foo. Then at 16/17 Boxing, then weight training/bodybuilding. I've always ran recreationally but only took up competitive running in my 30s last year. So, I've never had a time when I've only eaten to watch my figure.

    Training, whether it be running, weight lifting, boxing or whatever has allowed far at least, to eat what I want, but I simply don't overindulge too often. I've never been a calorie counter or avid ingredients label reader....though I did try to exceed 1 gram of protein daily for each kilo of body weight when weight training. The time when I did cut out carbs was just plain stupid, it did nothing for my moods or my athletic performance. So I'd advise you to simply eat a balanced diet that errs on the side of healthy......the rest, including the six pack will simply fall into place with enough specific training.

    At 17 you can expect to feel down and tired from time to time whatever you eat, I did. You are probably still growing and your body will be going through alot of change between now and 21. As a rule 17 year olds don't get as much sleep as they need either.....again, I didn't.


  • Ok thanks pal. I can quite happily eat a balanced diet as long as I resist snacking... 

    I will try and increase my sleep too, although I hate being lazy. 

    Like today, I had walnuts, a nut bar for lunch, salmon fillets with my kedgeree (rice) for tea, and I've snacked on mackerel salad as well as some Cheese. Mixing it up a bit. 

    My mum returns from her holiday tomorrow so the healthy eating disappears... she doesn't understand nutrition....

    A general rule- if I eat sugars, like fruit, or carbs, like bread or veg, in the evening as a snack- if this likely just to end up as fat?

  • Probably not at your age. Sounds more like you need to educate your mum a bit more. Sleeping is not lazy. Lying in bed when you are awake is lazy. Going to bed late and being woken by the alarm is not enough sleep. Any swimming in your training?
  • Seriously - read the link I posted - it answers your question on eating after 6..

  • TimR- there was, for 7 weeks, I had a short gym membership which has now run out... I was doing it 4-5 times a week, hard intervals or 1 mile swims.

    GymAddict I read it- thanks. 

    So, hopefully without conflicting what I've already been told- if I want to reduce body fat, is it advisable to not eat anything in the vicinity of a run? How long do I have after eating something for it to burn off rather than being transferred to fat?

Sign In or Register to comment.