This is probably the post you have been waiting for. If you haven’t done so already, check back on my posts on protein and fats, the two other important macronutrients making up your meals. In these prior posts, I discuss how and why they are important parts of the puzzle. While all of their reputations have been dragged through the mud, carbohydrates seem to be the most confusing part. The internet is flooded by zero-carb images of skinny bliss while bodybuilding divas chow down on poptarts and donuts, still maintaining a lean and strong physique. What the heck is a girl to do?
It’s important to know two things. For one, carbohydrates are an excellent energy source for our bodies to operate at optimal rates. Number two, our country eats way more carbohydrates than they need. Like, WAY more. If you have been struggling with losing body fat, your first reaction may have been to “cut out the carbs”. That can work right away and generally doesn’t last long; especially when you find out that even FRUIT is considered a carb! If you have ever tried to stay completely away from carbohydrates, you probably found that you were not only miserable, cranky and tired, but your cravings skyrocketed. Can you lose WEIGHT if you stop eating carbs. Sure can. However, there’s a good chance you are simply losing WEIGHT because you are eating LESS FOOD, not because carbohydrates are missing from your diet. So why suffer through the misery of zero carbs when they have a proper place in your life?
To start, carbohydrates aren’t just pasta or bread. They are organic molecules that can either be identified as simple or complex. Again, to spare you the extra science, take a read here if you’d like to dive deeper. When we eat carbohydrates, our body automatically digests them as simple sugars before they get absorbed into the body. This means a few things. For one, it is the first source of energy for your body’s cells. It also means that while we like to say “good carbs” and “bad carbs”, you need to understand that it’s more than being “well behaved” or not-so-much at a dinner party. Your body will simply digest healthier carbohydrates at a slower rate than, let’s say, jellybeans. Some people’s bodies digest carbs differently based on insulin tolerance. For the sanity of this article, I’m going to assume you simply want carbs in your life, but are on a mission for a more ideal body composition and you’re wondering their role in your life. Fair enough?
As with our discussion of fats, uber-processed carbohydrates like the packaged goods you store away for years that don’t lose taste, are not the ideal carb source for anyone. Think; whole-grains, fruits, starchy veggies and unprocessed or minimally processed items. Because carbs are an energy source for you, working out is a great way to put them to work. If you have a desk job and live a relatively sedentary life, maybe go on the occasional stroll, you really don’t need a great deal of carbohydrates. Unfortunately, we see the highest rates of obesity in the sedentary population and they are including significantly more carbs than they need. That’s where we’ve unfortunately associated carbs with being overweight. Because exercise effort is only as good as it’s fuel, carbohydrates can help regulate your metabolism. (yay!) Without that fuel, testosterone levels will drop while cortisol levels go up = muscle loss and fat increase. Imagine that? By NOT eating carbohydrates as an avid exerciser, you could actually be slowly losing valuable muscle and holding onto or increasing your fat. Does that mean all carbs on deck?
Ladies, our hormones are especially effected by decreased carbohydrates because of the diminishing energy associated with the deficiency. Our body fat definitely needs to sit a bit higher than men’s in order to keep our systems and cycles in check, but we can use them appropriately in order to head towards our ideal body composition.
Concentrate on more protein rather than less carbohydrates. That is, if you aren’t currently overeating carbohydrates 🙂 How do you know? Well, the truth is we all operate very differently. I’ve know some clients that do really well on a moderately high carbohydrate, lower fat plan while other are the opposite. But, one thing stays the same. They keep their intake of protein appropriate. If your goals aren’t extreme, why are you making dietary changes that are extreme?
Here are a few important take-away points:
- 130 grams per day is advised to be appropriate for active individuals, but that will absolutely vary. Most of my clients (including myself) prefer to operate happily and efficiently on less than that with regular strength and cardio-based activities. They don’t feel deprived and they don’t lose energy with 50-100 grams per day instead. Again – this is completely individual. (50 g is pretty low and not as fun)
- Because carbohydrates are incredible energy sources, they are useful before, during and after your higher effort workouts. There is a huge difference in the effort put into a barre class and the effort put into a powerlifting session. I’m not saying that either is more valuable than the other, but you may not need as many carbohydrates to get you through an hour of barre in comparison to a 30-60 minute powerlifting session.
- If you are only doing cardio one day (spinning, running a few miles, kickboxing class), you can keep your carbs a little lower and fat higher. If you are lifting weights with great effort for at least 45 minutes, you’ll need your carbs. In fact, I throw a little dextrose in my BCAAs during my workout for that straight-to-work carb experience when I’ve got weights in my hands.
- Carbohydrates are everywhere. This doesn’t mean you need to avoid everything, you just need to be aware. Yes, carrots are from the earth but they are a carb source. Yes, colored peppers are FANTASTIC veggies, but they are a carb source. Yes, chickpeas have a nice amount of protein, but they are a carb source.
- Carbs are not the devil. Way too many carbs than your body needs might just contribute to your inability to lose body fat or increase muscle definition.
I don’t mean to dampen your spirit when I say that fruits are carbs. That’s not a bad thing! I just often hear of breakfasts consisting of a bowl of oatmeal (often much bigger than needed) with some fruit, granola and agave. Sure. Sounds delish. But that right there might be much farther away from ideal than you’d like. 1 cup of cooked oatmeal is 54 grams of carbs, 1/2 banana sliced up in there is about 14 grams, 1 tablespoon of agave is 16 grams and 1/4 cup of granola mixed in is another 16 grams. That’s around 100 grams of carbohydrates before you’ve even started your day. Where’s the protein? Try this instead. 2-3 egg whites with 1/2 cup of cooked oatmeal and a handful of blueberries.
This post is meant for some more awareness and individual’s tolerance varies. Food and nutrition should not take over your life. If you want to know where you can make improvements for your own body composition, your diet is the best place to start. We generally find it easier to work out more rather than eat well. Doritos and strawberries are both sources of carbohydrates. You just get to have a heck of a lot more berries for a serving than Doritos. You simply need to decide what their value is in your life.