Carbohydrates have become a popular topic for discussion in the fitness industry as everyone seemingly has a different opinion about this macronutrient.
Some will say that if you want to maintain optimal health and body weight, you should avoid carbs entirely. Then there are others who have voiced that a very low carb diet is the route to go. And then there is the group who believes carbs should be consumed in higher quantities especially when performing intense physical activities – a must for optimal workouts.
So, who’s right?
Before I give you the answer, let’s clear up some of this confusion by giving you a basic overview of this significantly talked about nutrient.
What Role Do Carbohydrates Play?
First let’s talk about what carbs do. For most of the population, carbohydrates are the primary source of energy for the human body. They help keep your body going throughout the day. Whether you are showering, walking to work or sitting there reading this article, you are being fuelled, at least in part, by carbohydrates.
Then we have those who have been utilising a low carb diet. And if they have been resorting to this diet long enough, their bodies will have adapted and begun using fat as the main fuel source. Nevertheless, in almost all cases, studies have shown that even for individuals who have implemented a low-carb diet for an extensive period. Is that our body will still rely on carbohydrates for various needs including physical activities and particularly supplying energy to our brains, regardless of whether or not you have limited your carbohydrate intake or not. And if you do not meet this certain amount, then the body will instinctively resort to breaking down proteins and turning them into glucose, an aspect I am sure most athletes would not prefer.
But for those who are engaging in very intense exercise such as strength training and implementing a traditional diet. Carbs should be the primary nutrient to eat to cater for any physical activities. In doing so, you can expect to replenish your muscle glycogen and promote an environment that induces an optimal physical output. In addition, carbohydrates also provide ample of nutrients to your body. Many sources will provide a healthy dose of B-vitamins, which further help to energise your muscles and also assist in the breakdown of food.
Some carbohydrate sources, particularly whole foods provide you with dietary fibre which helps keep your bowels moving along appropriately, eliminating waste from your system. While other carbohydrates, namely fresh fruits and vegetables, also provide a high dose of antioxidants which combat free radical damage that leads to oxidation and may potentially result in an increased risk of cancer as well. Additionally, these fibrous carbs which are further clarified below, provide a number of essential vitamins and minerals that are required for obtaining optimal health and to ensure all your organs function as they should.
A Primer On the Types of Carbs
Now that you know what carbs do, what types should you be focusing on?
The first type of carbohydrate is the complex carb. This variation of carbohydrate is slow to break down (hence their name “complex”) and will also provide a higher dose of carbs, making them energy dense. Complex carbohydrates generally have a low GI (glycemic index) value, meaning they don’t spike your blood glucose levels much at all leading to a low release of insulin; or better known as the hormone responsible for accumulating fat. Therefore, this factor is critical for not only preventing fat gain but also for preventing diseases such as diabetes.
Those who consume whole grain types of carbohydrates will have better control over the appetite due to their slower digesting nature. Keep in mind that glycemic load (GL), which refers to not only the pure GI rating but also the amount of carbohydrates consumed and its effects on blood glucose levels, also factors in. For example, if you eat a very large dose of even low GI carbohydrates, you can still increase blood glucose levels similar to a high GI source simply due to the sheer volume of glucose you have consumed which the glycemic load measurement takes into account.
Examples of these carbs include:
- Brown rice
The next type of carbohydrate is the simple carb or better known as sugar, which, as you might have guessed, is simpler in structure. This means it will break down faster, spiking blood glucose levels more significantly. As they do this, your pancreas releases insulin which then moves into the blood to take up that glucose and move it to storage. This in turn leads to weight gain, and, if this occurs too frequently, eventually your cells become resistance to insulin, causing the infamous disease diabetes to develop.
But the main aspect we cannot ignore is that simple carbs are processed most of the time. Meaning, they have gone through an extensive amount of machinery that strips them of their nutritional value and instead substituted with synthetic vitamin and minerals which promotes a longer shelf life. So not only are simple carbohydrates likely to lead to weight gain, but they provide very few micronutrients to fuel the body as well.
Sadly, this is the type of carbohydrate most people gravitate towards, which is why obesity rates are as higher than they have ever been.
Examples of this type of carb include:
- Processed sugary cereal
- White flour based baked goods
- Potato chips
- …basically anything that comes from a packaged box.
If you want to maintain optimal health, it is best that you stay away from these at all costs or at least consume in moderation.
Finally, the last type of carbohydrate is the fibrous carb. These consists of all your leafy vegetables which are perfectly safe to incorporate into any diet plan you are on or are about to embark. They are low in calories, low in total carbs, high in fibre and high in nutrients. Think of them as Mother Nature’s perfect food. Just be sure that you are not frequently cooking them with high-caloric sauces or condiments, or else you are at risk of shedding away the goodness they bring.
Now you might wonder, what about fruits? Fruits are a mix between a fibrous carb and a simple carb. On one hand, they boast a high dose of fiber and nutrients. But on the other, they do contain a natural fruit sugar called fructose. Although fructose may be categorised under the umbrella of sugar, don’t let this factor scare you away. Yes, fructose does contribute to the release of insulin. Nevertheless, we can never forget the abundance of micronutrients and fibre they bring. For this reason, it’s perfectly safe to be incorporating fruits in your daily diet. Just like many things, as long as you don’t go overboard and eat them in moderation, then they will bring little to no harm towards your well-being.
The last point, I will add about fruits, particularly aimed at those athletes who are wondering where does fruit come in when we are talking about building muscle. Is that our muscles can not break down fructose, instead it is the liver’s role to do so. For this reason, fructose is far from an ideal source to be used to replenish muscle glycogen. Our liver, on average, can only hold 100 grams of carbohydrates that include both glucose and fructose. A tiny amount when you consider how easy it is to eat this much within two or three meals. Therefore, if you eat fruits when your liver glycogen is already full which is very likely if you haven’t performed physical activity prior to the meal, fructose has no other choice than to become stored as fat for later use. For a more in-depth insight into fruit and muscle building, have a look at this article.
How Much Should You Consume?
So all of this said, how many carbs should you consume? There’s no right or wrong answer here, but rather, you must look at your unique situation. For someone working out five days a week and on their feet all day and choosing the traditional eating style (which includes carbs). They would require far more carbs than someone who works at an office job and doesn’t exercise at all. On a minimum level, aim to get at least around 100 grams per day, which is the amount your brain requires to function optimally. Go lower than this, and you may find yourself feeling slightly foggy minded – the condition, where one is not able to stay focused and concentrate.
The maximum amount? Well, considering that everyone has a different body type, a unique physical activity and not to mention their goal – there subsequently is no perfect recommendation. With that said, the Institute Of Medicine has suggested that it is ideal that an average adult should consume 45 to 65 percent of their total calories from carbohydrates.
So there you have a primer on dietary carbohydrates. If you choose wisely, they are not a nutrient to be feared.