First of all, what are carbs?
“Carb” is short for carbohydrates, a type of energy used by the body. Carbohydrates are long chains of molecules stored in different types of foods.
When carbohydrates are eaten, the molecule chains break down into their simplest component: glucose. Glucose is also called “sugar,” or “blood sugar,” as it will move through our blood vessels after we eat in order to be delivered to all of our body’s organs, muscles, and tissue.
Glucose is the primary and preferred source of energy the human body has evolved to live off. It is the most efficient and satisfying energy for the brain and nervous system, as well as skeletal and involuntary muscle (this includes muscles built in strength training, and muscles like your heart and digestive tract.)
Because glucose is in incredibly high demand for these systems, the human body requires approximately 45-65% of its energy to come from carbohydrate sources. Even within that range, Carbohydrate ratios below 55% are typically prescribed by medical professionals only as a therapeutic diet for a serious medical condition. For endurance athletes, ratios can even push above 65%.
So carbs are sugar – isn’t that bad? Aren’t carbs as addictive as drugs?
During digestion, carbs break down to their simplest components, which are sugar molecules. So, yes. They break down into sugar. Sugar is typically a substance that will elicit a positive response from your brain in the form of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Many recreational or controlled substance are found to produce this response. Some medical professionals conclude that sugar is therefore a drug.
The piece of data left out of this argument is that anytime you eat, or have positive social interactions with others, or laugh at something, or have a great workout, the brain rewards us with positive chemicals like dopamine. Sugar has served the evolutionary purpose of getting the brain back online quickly from fatigue or deprivation, so we have evolved to have a positive response to it – particularly if we deprive ourselves of it and then consume it in large quantities.
Sugar can be an incredibly helpful emergency food if we are feeling a sudden onset of light-headedness or fatigue. It’s also a food we typically enjoy and use as celebration and connecting with others. Incorporating it in moderate amounts throughout the week and on special occasions can prevent against deprivation and the inevitable rebound over-consumption.
Do we really need carbs?
The body CAN live without carbohydrates, or on very small amounts (as with a keto diet). But our body hasn’t evolved to survive that way so it’s not very efficient and comes with its drawbacks. Because there is no carbohydrate to fuel the brain and muscle, the body will break down proteins in addition to fat for energy. The protein can be from our muscle, but also systems like the immune system, hormone (endocrine) system, or the muscle of the heart or digestive tract.
Prolonged low-carb diets can lead to headaches, migraines, fatigue, excessive soreness, dizziness with sitting or standing, bowel constipation, and later metabolic complications like rapid weight re-gain or ketoacidosis.
The success of a low-carb diet for weight loss is also largely dependent on a person’s genetics and history with nutrition and dieting, and weight loss is likely to only be maintained while on the low-carb diet.
Aren’t there “good” carbs and “bad” carbs?
There are different types of carbs, and each one serves a different purpose for us nutritionally. Many contain a cornucopia of nutrients, fiber, protein, and antioxidants to benefit from.
Carbohydrates are mainly found in grains, dairy, plant-based proteins, fruits, and vegetables. Depending on the food source, the carbohydrate molecule chain can be longer, which we typically refer to as fiber, they can be medium length, which we call a “complex/healthy carb,” or a short length, which we call a “refined/simple carb.” The length of the carbohydrate chain affects how quickly it is digested, how strongly it will affect our energy and blood sugar levels, and how long we will stay full after eating it.
Fiber typically is a carbohydrate we can’t digest at all, but has plenty of health benefits and usually comes with a dose of vitamins and antioxidants. It pulls cholesterol out of our body through the digestive process, moves into our large intestine, gets fermented by friendly gut bacteria, and will provide the bulk our bowels need to comfortably finish the digestion process. Fiber helps our stomach feel physically full. Choices include vegetables, and fruits, but we can also find fiber in complex carbs, nuts, beans, and seeds.
Medium length, or “complex” carbohydrates are fully broken down, but it typically takes a couple hours, which means this provides the body with consistent energy throughout that time. This keeps our appetite at bay, reduces cravings, and makes meals feel more satisfying. They also tend to be pretty high in protein, B vitamins, and some minerals. Choices include quinoa, whole wheat pasta or bread products, wild or brown rice, rolled or steel cut outs, barley, farro, and sorghum.
Short length, or “refined” carbohydrates are also fully broken down, but because the chains our shorter it is digested quickly. This results in a spike in energy which can be helpful over the short term, such as a workout, a sports event, or a low blood sugar event. Choices include white breads and pastas, baked goods, or sugar beverages.
Typically we still feel hungry shortly after consuming refined carbohydrates by themselves. This can results in eating them in excess. The best way to incorporate them is during a low blood sugar event or sudden onset of fatigue or “crashing:” utilize an appropriate portion size (ex/ crackers, a bar, a slice of toast, a sports drink) to get your brain and energy levels back on line, and use that time to get yourself a full, balanced meal with whole grains, protein, fats, and fiber.
How do I include carbs in a balanced diet?
In general, most people need 1-2 servings of whole grains or carbohydrate per main meal (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) as well as a serving at one or two snacks to keep energy consistent throughout the day. For people with higher training regimes or larger body mass, they may need 3 servings per meal plus a serving at snacks.
Including a serving or two of whole grains at meals will help resolve hunger and keep the brain satisfied, while proteins and fats during the meal will keep your appetite at bay for the several hours afterward. It will also help avoid becoming deprived of carbohydrates and resulting in over-consumption of refined carbs (like sweets, baked goods, chips, and other snacks).
Best of all, including carbs consistently throughout the day will keep energy levels high during workouts and during your workday, keeping your brain functioning at full capacity. Carbs also make sure that the protein you consume will go to muscle building, rather than being burned away for energy.
If you’ve cut carbohydrates and are interested in working them back in, start with the whole grains you are familiar with. Start with a serving at each meal and see how you feel. If energy levels don’t improve or you’re still feeling hungry after meals, at night, or throughout the day, experiment with adding a second serving at meals, and/or a serving at a snack (such as a whole grain energy bar).
This will help you make the most of your workouts and ensure you are at maximum energy levels at the gym, ready to give it your best. The more you’re able to fuel your body for the gym, the better you’re able to build muscle, increase metabolism, burn body fat in the way it’s intended, and see the long-term results you want!