In a world filled with contrasting opinions shouting at us from every corner of the internet, the fitness industry is no exception. Carbohydrate intake has long been scrutinized by doctors, personal trainers, mainstream magazines, and dietitians particularly for their effect on performance and overall health.
On one side of the coin, carbs are viewed as the holy grail of performance and can do no harm. On the other side, carbs are blamed for a wide range of chronic illnesses including obesity, chronic inflammation, certain types of cancer, and diabetes. Recent claims have also surfaced that people looking to lose weight, or perform, well should enter the “war on carbs,” and opt for something like the ketogenic diet, where carbs are kept at or near zero.
When referring to overall health and performance I think you’ll find that the true answer lies somewhere in the middle.
What Are Carbohydrates?
Carbs are one of the three main macronutrients that make up the foods we eat. We eat them in relatively large amounts and use them as an energy source to perform cellular functions to help us stay alive. Carb are classified based on their chemical complexity into three general groups.
Monosaccharides are the most simple. They contain only one sugar group (hence “mono”). Foods high in these simple sugars include honey, cane sugar, and many common candies.
Oligosaccharides are short chains linked together, including disaccharides and trisaccharides. You all might be familiar with Sucrose, also known as table sugar, as well as lactose, the main sugar in milk.
Polysaccharides are typically very long chains bonded together to make up complex carbohydrates such as fiber, cellulose (the main structural fiber of plant cell walls), starches and glycogen (the body’s storage unit for glucose). Most plant based foods contain polysaccharides, including sweet potatoes, white potatoes, rice, peppers, apples, bananas, tomatoes, and a variety of other foods are made up of mostly polysaccharides. These are typically referred to as complex carbohydrates.
A carbohydrate’s complexity will determine how it’s digested, absorbed and used inside of your body. Simple carbs are broken down and digested faster while the more complex the carb, the longer this process takes.
Carbohydrates in the Human body
Did you know Fiber is a carb? Do you know why it’s important to eat it? First, we need to understand that not all carbohydrates are digestible. Both soluble and insoluble fiber are indigestible carbohydrates and because of this they are not absorbed and used for energy. Instead fiber serves other functions such as adding bulk to your poop, providing food to your gut microbiome, and helping carry away excess fatty acids in your intestines. For these reasons it’s vital that we eat enough fiber daily. This can easily done by eating whole food sources of carbs like fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
On the other hand, all digestible carbs are destined for the same fate once we eat them. Every digestible carb is broken down into either glucose, fructose or galactose, all of which are basic monosaccharides (sugars). Most cells of the body prefer to use glucose for energy and glycogen storage, with the exception of liver cells, which prefer to use fructose first before glucose.
Why is this so important? ALL carbohydrates you eat, digest and absorb, whether from a snickers bar or a sweet potato, end up as either fructose or glucose inside your body. The common assumption that sugary foods, like candy and cake, lead to weight gain whereas foods such as sweet potatoes and brown rice are the keys to getting fat loss, doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on because eventually they all end up as the same thing.
But just because our bodies interpret the different cabs as the same thing once they are broken down, and even though it ultimately comes down to total calories, complex carbs are important to use because they are nutrient dense. Complex carbs are where we get a healthy dose of fiber, vitamins, and minerals that we need for healthy bodily functions. For the optimization of health and performance, you can’t go wrong with the 80/20 rule. 80% of carbs coming from whole foods like vegetables, potatoes, whole grains, and legumes, and 20% from more indulgent sources like sweets and desserts.
Well then, how do we actually get fat?
Fat storage occurs when we consume excess calories that are not being used for energy. From a weight gain/weightloss perspective the type of carbs you choose to eat doesn’t matter as much as your total caloric intake. Eat more calories than you need to survive and more than you burn from daily activity and exercise combined over a prolonged period of time: fat deposition.
You might remember that we talked about glycogen at the beginning of this article. If you don’t, no worries! I’m going to explain it now so you understand why it’s important to eat some carbs on a regular basis, especially if you have sport performance or body composition related goals!
Glycogen is how our bodies store glucose (carbs!) to use as energy later. Glycogen is stored in our muscles and liver and acts like a fuel tank that tap into when we’re training hard or running after the dogs at the park. The higher the intensity and duration of the activity, the more glycogen that’s used up and the more it becomes important to replace it. How? By eating carbs!
How many grams of carbs should I eat per day?
Remember this: Each gram of carbohydrate is equal to calories so for every gram you eat your body gets about 4 calories of energy.
Everyone’s diet is going to be unique to them so the amount of carbs you “should” eat is going to be specific to you. Carbohydrate recommendations are typically determined by your goals, activity levels, and how well your body handles carbohydrates.
How well I handle carbs? What do you mean!?
Well, you might be coming from a low carb diet, a very high carb diet, or a balanced diet. You might get gut irritation from certain carb groups or have allergies that would impact your overall carb consumption. So figuring out your starting point is highly dependent on that.
But here are some general guidelines:
People who are considered overweight or relatively inactive tend to respond better to lower carbohydrate diets. Carb intake should generally take up 20-30% of total caloric intake.
For people who regularly exercise and are already fairly lean, a moderate to high carbohydrate intake suits them well in most cases. Somewhere between 30-45% of total daily calories coming from carbs is a good starting point for this type of person and fits well with the traditional American Diet. That’s easy to stick to!
Lean individuals and athletes will likely do well with a higher carbohydrate diet in order to maximize performance and recovery. 40-50% of calories coming from carbs is usually on par with the needs of most strength sports and supports a leaner, more muscular body composition.
I’m a barbell athlete, what should I do?
For the most part, a moderate-to-high carb intake works well with barbell athletes because weight training depletes glycogen. Every person and every athlete will respond differently to carbohydrates so the real answer is: It depends.
Because carb intake is so largely individual, it takes careful monitoring to get the dosage just right. For some, higher intakes cause them to feel bloated, uncomfortable, or “swollen”, which may be a sign of intolerance. For others, lower intakes cause them to feel groggy, experience brain fog, and have poor performance in the gym.
So where do I start?
As we’ve discussed in our previous articles on Fat and Protein, it’s really beneficial to start tracking your food intake in a tracking app like MyFitnessPal. No need to get all crazy and weigh everything to the gram, just start logging and see where you’re at. Once you have a baseline, start experimenting with your carb intake to see what works best for you. Just be sure to stick to your average caloric intake while doing this.
Do that for a week and check back in with us for the next article on Carbs. We had to write two articles because carbs are so complex (you see what I did there ;)?).