Carbs…Now that’s a scary word for most people! There have been decades of misinformation and fear mongering perpetuating through diets and fads that have made carbs out to be some sneaky monster that will pack pounds of fat on your midsection after one pint of ice cream. Obviously this isn’t true, but the successes of low/no carb diets in terms of weight loss such as the Atkins, Keto, and Weight Watchers diets have caused society to approach dietary carbs with apprehension and trepidation. Now most of this can be explained by a lack of general knowledge and understanding, so lets go over a few things to try to dispel some of these myths:
"There have been decades of misinformation and fear mongering perpetuating through diets and fads.."
What are Carbs?
Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients that are consumed in a typical diet along with protein and fat. Every carb you eat is “worth” 4 calories. This is actually the same amount of calories as protein. In other words, 200 grams of carbs is 800 calories, and likewise, 200 grams of protein is 800 calories. So why are carbs seen as bad yet protein is considered crucial to a diet even when they are energetically equal? We will touch on this later.
All kinds of foods provide carbohydrates in different forms such as starches (veggies, beans, oats, etc), sugars (fruits, milk, candies), and fibers (indigestible part of plant foods). Each of these types acts differently in your body and is digested differently. Starches are generally going to be a large part of most American diets as well they should be. These are mostly low GI (glycemic index) carbs which mean they do not drastically raise your blood sugar thus do not overly stress your pancreas and insulin response.
On the flip side, sugars are the opposite. Mostly comprised of high GI sources, they will spike your blood sugar and cause your body to release lots of insulin. The abuse of this cause-effect system is actually what leads to Type-2 diabetes when the body becomes dulled to insulin in the blood. And fiber is vastly different than both starches and sugars in that most of it is actually not digested by the body but is crucial to normal intestinal functions. An additional benefit of fiber is that most sources are very filling while being low in calories which make fibrous foods ideal for those looking to portion control and diet.
Why are carbs important in your diet?
Unlike the other macronutrients, protein and fat, carbs are not actually necessary for your body to function properly. A protein and fat deficient diet will result in a multitude of problems ranging from impaired hormone production to atrophy of muscles. However, our body has physiological processes which can synthesize glucose from non-carbohydrate sources which allows everything to function normally even without having to eat brown rice with every meal.
So why should we eat carbs at all?
Well we can think of carbs as the body’s fuel source. As just mentioned, the body CAN compensate for a low intake of carbs, but that does not mean that these systems are the most efficient for performance. When we eat that big bowl of Cheerios, the carbs that are digested can either be used immediately or can be stored as glycogen for use later. This provides a steady flow of energy to aid in powering you through tough workouts. Carbs provide the most readily usable fuel for the body!
When should we eat carbs?
There is no “right” time to eat carbs, but there is research and anecdotal evidence to suggest that there are benefits to strategically placing your carbs meals at certain periods throughout your day.
The most crucial window of time that carbs should be eaten is around your workout. The pre, intra (during), and post workout meals should all include carbs for varying reasons. Preworkout will fuel your workout, intraworkout will allow you to keep training hard without hitting a wall, and postworkout will aid in recovery from strenuous exercise. I like to have a low GI carbohydrate source preworkout such as brown rice or whole wheat pasta to allow for a steady release of glucose into the blood once digested rather than a quick influx that would be seen with something like fruit. Intraworkout would ideally be something quickly digestible and light on the stomach.
Shakes or Gatorade usually work well in this regard. When it comes to what to eat postworkout, there is a lot of conflicting ideas about how to go about it. Some prefer to stick with a low GI source while others aim to take advantage of the body’s affinity to “suck up” nutrients at this time by eating things like ice cream and candy. Now I’m not saying it is wrong or doesn’t work, but I don’t think that using a postworkout meal as an excuse to eat crappy is the best approach. I prefer to stick with a nice plate of sweet potatoes about 45-60 minutes after I finish my workout.
Beyond the times surrounding your training, carbohydrate timing becomes less important and more dependent on when you prefer to eat them and how they make you feel. For example, I like to “backload” my carbs when I can meaning I eat more later in the day and less in the mornings. I find that this keeps my brain clear and sharp and allows me to sleep better after a nice carb meal at night. But not everyone works like me and no two peoples’ bodies will work the same way. It is important to listen to what your body is telling you when you eat carbs and structure your diet accordingly.
So this is a pretty quick overview of a few aspects of carbohydrates that every person who is serious about their diet and training should know. The Internet provides a ton of more in depth information about pretty much anything you could ever want to know regarding carbs, but make sure you do your research through trusted sources. In addition, The Spot Athletics coaches are all extremely knowledgeable and we are always willing to answer any questions about diet and nutrition you may have (be careful though because I’ll never stop talking). Hopefully, this blog can help to dispel some myths and fears about carbs that some may have as well as educate those who have been in the dark.
P.S. Eat carbs because they taste good!