Carbs. Loved by runners and power lifters, and nothing but a fond memory for the bodybuilding competitor. This macronutrient has been widely accepted as a staple of the western diet for decades, recently sworn off entirely by the Keto mafia, leaving the general population wondering…are carbs good or bad? What is a carb? What is made of? What does it do? Are they healthy? Are they necessary?
As I have stated before it is not my intention to endorse one type of diet over another OR to encourage one food source over another. That is a decision to be made between you and your doctor. Today let’s focus on the basics so you can make informed decisions on what to eat to fuel your goals.
WHAT ARE CARBOHYDRATES? Carbohydrates are an arrangement of Hydrogen, Oxygen and Carbon. If you pay close enough attention its even in the name. carb-oh-hydrate. With some exceptions, every carbohydrate we ingest will be broken down into a simpler form of a sugar called glucose (still a carbohydrate). From there your body will take action as with what to do with it. If needed for immediate energy it will be oxidized to produce a more raw fuel source called ATP. If there is excess intake of carbohydrates it will be either stored in the liver or muscle as glycogen, or stored as fat (both acting as a sort of fuel holding cell to be released when needed). Carbs may also be broken down to build other structures, and some forms that our body is not able to break down (such as cellulose) will pass through the digestive system until they are excreted.
HOW EFFECTIVE are carbs as an ENERGY SOURCE? Carbohydrates hold approximately 4 kcal/g. While that is less than half the energy potential from an equivalent quantity of fat (being at 9 kcal/g) it is much more readily digestible and has the ability to increase blood sugar almost instantly. The more simple the carbohydrate the more quickly it is digested and the more it has the potential to spike blood sugar. These sugars include glucose, sucrose, fructose, maltose, and lactose. Common sources of these simple sugars would include fruit, milk products, refined table sugars, and syrups. Complex carbohydrates are more slowly digested, have a less dramatic effect on blood sugar, and will provide a more sustained release of energy for longer durations. Examples of complex carbohydrates include starches (like amylose) found in potatoes, rice, and beans, and there are also sources (like pectin) found in fruits. Note that many natural products, like fruit, contain both simple and complex carbohydrates. For the most part, a balanced diet will be the most beneficial, leaning towards a diet higher in complex carbohydrates. This will allow for a more controlled insulin response, a decreased inflammatory response, and more sustained energy throughout your day.
MYTH 1. CARBS MAKE YOU FAT: Carbs have the potential to increase body fat just like any other food source. Low carb diets are often effective weight loss measures in the short term, but please understand that it has little to with the carbohydrate as the food source and rather the calorie restriction as whole. You could eat 300g of carbs daily and lose weight or you could go carb free and gain weight. Focus more on a caloric deficit to lose weight while maintaining an intake of vital nutrients. Do not waste your calories on simple sugars without additional nutrients. I’ll be coming out with a BLOG later on how to calculate your daily caloric needs, so keep an eye out for that (COMMENT below if this is a topic you’d be interested in reading about).
MYTH 2: I ONLY NEED CARBS IF IM WORKING OUT: There are many potential benefits to having carbs away from exercise sessions, or even on a rest day. First, as briefly mentioned in my last BLOG on protein (go read it!!), a small amount of carbs with a protein meal may improve recovery time, increase muscle protein synthesis and overall muscular potential. Second, glucose is a primary source of fuel for the brain, and maintaining healthy blood sugar levels is key to maintaining mental clarity. Third, if carbohydrates are a significant portion of your daily calories, simply eliminating them will create a caloric deficit. You will likely see noticeable weight loss from this, but like I said before that it is due to the caloric deficit NOT the removal of the carbohydrates themselves. On low-carb diets, the weight loss achieved is often short lived for several reasons. For one, with low-carb you may find yourself low on energy and not making the same strength gains as you would otherwise. Two, you may find yourself gaining back the weight you lost as highly restrictive diets often lead to binges, and then out of guilt we circulate back to another highly restrictive diet. The weight comes on and off and on and off. STOP this vicious cycle. The healthiest way to keep that weight off, achieve peak athletic performance, and ENJOY optimal health is by taking a less radical more SUSTAINABLE approach. LOVE your body. Give it a balanced diet with Variety, Color, and Nutrient Dense Foods. Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re satisfied, taste your meals, have fun during your workouts, and ultimately make peace with food. Make PEACE with CARBS. It’s a fuel source, not rat poison.
I’m sure at this point you’re saying to yourself, “well that’s great Karissa, but WHAT FOODS should I be eating for carbs, and HOW MUCH?” The answer depends largely on your activity level. Unlike fats and proteins where there is a more general range that is optimal for the body, your daily carbohydrate needs could range from less than 50g to more than 500g based upon activity level, sex, age, weight and body composition. As well as special considerations such as metabolic pathologies like diabetes. As a rule, you ought to first establish your daily fat values and your daily protein needs and THEN calculate your carbohydrate quantities based upon the remaining caloric needs. Along with a write up on calculating your daily caloric needs, I will be coming out with a follow up BLOG about breaking down those daily caloric needs into your individual macros. (Again, comment below if this is of interest).
It’s important to start realizing that the state your body is currently in is relatively under your control. The body is an incredible machine, and if you know how it operates, then manipulating it is simpler than previously perceived. And your goals aren’t so out of reach after all. Thank you for reading, I appreciate you. My next BLOG will be on FAT! This topic is super misunderstood so don’t miss it!
COMMENT below any questions you have on fat, I’d love to answer them next week!