TL;DR: Carbs are awesome. Eat them.
They’re delicious, they offer us fuel for our high intensity training sessions, and glucose is the fuel for your brain….all good things!
Let’s get the science out of the way early, so we can talk more about the fun stuff.
What Are Carbs?
Carbohydrates are the sugars, starches and fibers found in fruits, grains, vegetables and milk products. (to name a few)
Carbohydrates provide fuel for the central nervous system and energy for working muscles. They also prevent protein from being used as an energy source and enable fat metabolism. They also provide energy for your brain (a pretty important part of your body) and influence mood, productivity, and memory. (in fact, the RDA for Carbs is based off of what your brain needs, not the rest of your body) They are a fast acting energy source that is part of a healthy diet.
There are two types of Carbs: simple and complex. This title refers to their chemical structure and how quickly the sugars are absorbed and digested.
Simple carbohydrates contain just one or two sugars, such as fructose (found in fruits) and galactose (found in milk products). These single sugars are called monosaccharides. Carbs with two sugars — such as sucrose (table sugar), lactose (from dairy) and maltose (found in beer and some vegetables) — are called disaccharides
Simple carbs are very quickly absorbed and provide a quick burst of energy, often accompanied by a crash (think sugar rush)
Complex carbohydrates (polysaccharides) have three or more sugars. They are often referred to as starchy foods and include beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, potatoes, corn, parsnips, whole-grain breads and cereals.
These carbs take longer to digest and absorb, are often times found in the presence of fiber, which helps control the rise in blood sugar. They tend to provide a more sustained form of energy.
So, that’s Carbs in a nutshell.
How are Carbs useful to me?
Common sense tells us we need fuel to power machines. Coal, hydroelectric, geothermal, and wind help get power to our homes. Our bodies are no different. We need to bring power in from the outside to fuel everything going on inside.
Science tells us that when you are doing high intensity training (HIIT, sprints, strength training, etc) like we do here at S3, your body is almost exclusively utilizing carbohydrates for fuel.
Your different energy systems (ATP, ATP-PC, lactic acid, aerobic) are always running, but just not to the same degree at the same time. There are different systems for different intensities, requiring different fuel sources.
High intensity work requires Carbs. It’s that simple. If you want to run fast, lift heavy, be stronger for longer, your body requires Carbs. (side note: fat is oxidized at rest or doing low intensity work i.e. walking and resting)
How much should I eat?
That’s a great question, and not one that’s easy to answer. Carbohydrate sensitivity varies from person to person for many reasons.
How hard, long, and frequently you train helps determine your needs. Your needs are determined off of your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure, check out my previous blog on protein to get more info on this here: https://stonestrengthsystems.com/basic-nutrition-pt-1-protein/) Using commonly accepted mathematics formulas, we can determine your TDEE very effectively. It is from this number that we derive your Carb goal. As a general statement, most people that train regularly should be eating about 1.5-2g/lb bodyweight each day.
For example: I weigh, at time of publishing, 225lbs. My goal on training days is to eat approx. 400g of carbs (1600 kcal) add that to my 300g of protein (1200 kcal) and my 100g of fat (900 kcal) and you arrive at my TDEE 3700 kcal.
However, these percentages wouldn’t work for my wife even scaled down to represent her bodyweight and training intensity/frequency. She does not process Carbs the same way I do. As she continues to build muscle and strength, her ability to handle larger amounts of Carbs will increase.
This is called Metabolic Capacity, being able to handle more calories and use them. (think sports car vs smart car, performance and fuel use is high on sports car compared to the smart car where performance and fuel use is low)
There are as many thoughts on Carbs as there are people with keyboards and Internet access (I’m no different, but some opinions are better than others and I believe mine is more well educated than the average blogger) but the key is getting the total amount in over the course of the day. Oprah and Bob Greene perpetuated the myth that anything eaten after 6pm turns to fat; science has proven that to be very false.
Ok… 1 More!
I actually like to have clients eat more carbs in the evening (kind of round out your day and fill in the missing macronutrient requirements) because it helps create a more restful sleep and helps us recover much better.
Once you are regularly hitting your total Carb goal, then we can talk about timing your intake to coincide with your training session, but the highest priority is making sure you get enough over the day.
Won’t Carbs Make Me Fat?
This is a great and common question. The first law of thermodynamics comes into play here. If you eat more calories than you expend, you will gain some weight over time. However, weight is not that simple. Weight is merely a numerical expression of your relationship with gravity. If you are providing your body sufficient stimulus to grow and maintain muscle tissue, what you eat will start to be prioritized to building and maintaining that tissue. If you are not providing a reason for your body to use these nutrients, they’ll hold on to them like a bear getting ready to hibernate.
Conversely, if you are not eating enough, your body thinks it is starving, cannot utilize these nutrients to build muscle and alter body composition (survival>being hot, at least to your body maybe not the ego for some of us). You’re forced to hang on to these nutrients because your body doesn’t know when the next dose is coming.
Starting to make sense yet?
Want more science?
De Novo Lipogenesis is the process where carbohydrates are converted to triglycerides and stored for oxidation at a later time. This highly regulated metabolic pathway is not stimulated unless 700-900 grams of carbs are eaten for several days in a row. (perspective: my high days of carbs are about 400g and I train hard af and weigh in at around 220lbs, read: not gonna happen)
In summary, here are the take aways:
-Carbs are awesome, don’t be afraid of them
-Carbs are necessary
-Intake over the day is more important than timing
-If you train hard, you NEED Carbs in your life