In the fitness community, carbs are frowned upon in one discussion and praised in the next. Of course, all of these contradictory opinions can’t all be completely right, but they each have some merit after all. So what are carbs? And how do we fit them into our diet, while still fitting into our jeans?
Carbohydrate is the technical term for all sugars, including both single-molecule simple sugars (like fructose), double-molecule sugars (like sucrose aka table sugar) and those strung together to form complex carbs like starch and fiber.
Carbs provide about four calories of energy per gram (except for fiber, which is essentially calorie-free), and are the body’s preferred fuel source for high-intensity activities. While carbs are important for optimal performance and recovery and are the preferred food of the central nervous system, they are not actually essential nutrients. Translation: You won’t run into serious health risks if you don’t get a certain amount over time, unlike proteins and fats.
Carbs are most commonly found in sweet and starchy plant-derived foods, including all fruits and veggies, grains, and processed products (think desserts, fruit juices, breads, etc.). Every source of carbohydrate falls somewhere on the Glycemic Index, which is a scale of how fast the carbs from that food enter the bloodstream. High GI foods, like Gatorade and white bread, enter the bloodstream quickly, whereas lower GI foods, such as most fruits and whole grains, enter the blood at a slower and steadier pace. In carb consumption, timing is important, and it can depend on the type of carbs consumed.
To be clear, carbs are by themselves neither good nor bad. However, eating certain types of carbs at certain times and in certain amounts can lead to some undesirable consequences. When high GI carbs are consumed in high amounts, they cause an increase in the secretion of the hormone insulin, which can trigger fat gain.
And when you find yourself reaching for that fourth or fifth cookie, it’s not just your willpower that’s to blame. Consuming high quantities of high GI carbs doesn’t always deliver the “I’m full” response the body needs to control appetite. Chronic consumption of high GI foods may even resemble addiction. Removing them rapidly from a diet can trigger the same intensity of cravings. Long-term over-consumption of high GI carbs can lead to insulin resistance, a condition that can increase the likelihood of cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes.
But that doesn’t mean we need to banish life’s simple pleasures forever.
While carbs (especially high GI ones) come with their costs, they certainly have their benefits, besides being delicious. Some carbs, especially those found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, are packed into nutrient-dense foods that also provide loads of health-enhancing fiber. And then there are the effects of carbs on exercise and sport performance and adaptation.
Whether you’re a marathon runner or a CrossFitter, carbohydrates are considered the go-to fuel source for high-intensity sport competition and training. If your goal is to have the best workouts, practice sessions and games, carbs are your best friend. They provide fuel for the central nervous system, which helps with mental energy for long and tough workouts. Even more profoundly for the fitness buff is that carbs can prevent muscle loss during training, and help stimulate muscle growth and fat loss if consumed during and especially after training.
To keep carbs on your good side, consider this:
Timing: Most of your daily carbs should be eaten around your workout window. A good place to start is by eating 15 percent of your daily carbs in the meal before training, 15 percent during training (though probably not necessary if you’re doing a four-minute Tabata), 30 percent in the meal after training, and 20 percent in the meal after that. That leaves you with 20 percent of your daily carb intake to have at other times of the day.
Quantity: Since we have established timing, quantity per meal really depends on the quantity of carbs eaten per day. This depends highly on the amount of total exercise you do per day, but can range between one and three grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight, with two grams being a good start for most people.
Types: Carbs consumed during and right after workouts should be of a higher GI variety (as they grow muscle and help recovery more than low GI carbs at these times). However, the further out you are from your workout, the more the focus should be on lower-GI carbs. This way, you get the benefit of high GI carbs and low GI carbs precisely when both are best used.
An important point to remember is that in large part, carb consumption is determined per day, so that on days you train hard, you’ll be consuming much more carbohydrates than on days you train light or don’t train. This is the basis for most approaches to carb cycling.
The bottom line: Carbohydrates are neither good nor bad just by themselves. The key is choosing them wisely, and timing them properly. Used in the right way, carbs can completely enhance your fitness level and physique. No longer are carbs the enemy!