Nutrition

Are Carbs the Enemy?

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What do rice, bananas, broccoli, and sweet potatoes all have in common?  While they’re all staples in a healthy eating plan, they’re also sources of carbohydrates. Carbs may be the most misunderstood nutrient in your meal plan, but uncovering some truths about them can help you reach your goals – and feel full and satisfied along the way! 


Belief 1: The best way to lose weight is to eliminate carbs.

Many people view carbs as an enemy in their battle against the scale, but this doesn’t have to be the case. While eliminating carbs from your diet will result in weight loss, it’s a difficult lifestyle to maintain. Not only do carbs provide energy, they help us feel full longer and can help cut out cravings for sugary treats. When consumed properly – taking into account timing around your workout – carbs are a valuable part of any athlete’s nutrition plan.

Building lean muscle mass is the best way to change your body composition, and carbs play an important role in that process. As an added bonus, increasing the amount of muscle you have will help your body become more efficient at processing carbs (so you can eat even more without storing body fat!) and will increase your metabolic rate to help keep you lean – it’s a win-win situation. Be sure to include carbs strategically in your pre- and post-workout nutrition plans to reap these benefits, as explained below.


Fuel up and Replenish

During activity, your body needs proper fuel to get through all the reps, sets, and miles you plan to complete. While all food will supply energy to your body by means of calories, not all sources can be used as efficiently as others during training. Complex carbs form muscle glycogen – which is the long-lasting fuel your body uses during training. By eating a small meal with a balance of complex carbs and protein prior to training, you’ll be providing your body with the perfect recipe for training success.

When you reach for your post-workout protein shake, stop and think about adding a carb source as well. Yes, protein is a vital nutrient to aid in muscle repair and growth, but don’t overlook the importance of carbs. Carbs will spike your insulin levels, which helps push the carbs and other nutrients into the muscle and puts your body into an anabolic state – prime for building muscle!

If weight loss is your goal, building lean muscle will help speed the process. Carbs play a role in both pre- and post-workout nutrition to optimize your muscle growth. By eliminating carbs from your diet, you’ll be doing your body a disservice, making it more difficult to lose weight in the long run.


Belief 2: All carbs are created equal.

Carbs are found in a wide variety of foods ranging from fruits and vegetables to typical grain products. These foods can fall into different categories of carbs, and knowing the differences can help you reach for the best options throughout the day.


Simple Carbohydrates

Simple carbs are composed of one or two sugar molecules and are digested quickly by the body. Examples of simple carbs includes some fruits, dairy products, candy, and highly processed foods such as cakes, muffins, and cookies – items with a noticeably “sweet” flavour. Foods in this category will provide a quick, but short boost of energy and will rapidly spike your insulin. For this reason, reach for simple carbs post-workout to push the protein into your muscles. But be aware – eating large quantities of this type of carb, particularly at the wrong time of day, can lead to weight gain due to the high sugar content and quick digestion leaving you wanting more.


Complex Carbohydrates

On the other hand, complex carbs are longer chains of nutrients, take longer to digest, and are more nutrient-dense in terms of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. For these reasons, complex carbs should be consumed more often than simple carbs. They can be found in whole grains, some fruits such as berries and apples, vegetables (especially your greens), yams, and lentils. These carbs will provide energy for a longer period of time and are great to consume before an intense or endurance-style training session.

Carbs are found in a wide variety of foods, but it doesn’t mean they’re all equal or will impact your body in the same way. By understanding how your body digests different types of carbohydrates, you can better decide how to fit carb sources into your day to optimally fuel your workouts and reach your goals.


Belief 3: The only way to include carbs in my day and avoid weight gain is to eat them in the morning.

There are a few different methods you can experiment with in terms of timing your carb intake. Everyone will process carbs a little differently, so you’ll need to consider your personal fitness goals to find the best way to incorporate carbs into your day.


Timing Carb Intake

Front loading carbs means that you consume your carbs earlier in the day, and slowly taper them off each meal. Your body uses the carbs during the day, so you decrease intake as your activity levels drop in the late afternoon and evening. This gives you the energy and focus you need all day and then pushes your body into fat-burning mode by removing the carb sources before you fast overnight.

Back loading takes the same principle but flips it in reverse. While this method might work for some people, the average person who works a nine to five job may have a difficult time adjusting to this lifestyle. Essentially, you eat very low amounts of carbs all day (around 30g of carbs), and then start replenishing post-workout until you reach your target quantity. Keep in mind, you need to know your macro value for carbs– it’s not just an all-inclusive carb feast! Additionally, if you train in the morning, this approach won’t work for you.

Carb cycling is another approach you can take and is best used when applied with a weekly training program. Cycling generally calls for a few low carb days (three or four days in a row) followed by one high carb day. Timing the higher carb day to fall before training a large muscle group such as legs or back is helpful for energy and muscle growth. The cycling of carbs keeps your metabolism running high and promotes fat loss on low carb days, and then replenishes your glycogen stores for energy on your high carb day.

Again, these are just suggested methods and may not work for you and your goals. Pay attention to when you train, your energy levels throughout the day, and your macronutrient needs overall. Some people can function very well on low carb plans, while other people feel mentally “foggy” or forgetful. The most important thing to consider is that you feel healthy and happy.

If you’re looking to make changes to your body composition in terms of gaining muscle or losing fat, don’t discredit the impact carbs can have. By understanding how to use them properly, they can be a helpful (and tasty!) part of your nutrition plan.


Key References:

Aoi, W., Naito, Y., & Yoshikawa, T. (2006). Exercise and functional foods. Nutrition Journal, 5(15). doi:10.1186/1475-2891-5-15

Figueiredo, V. C. & Cameron-Smith, D. (2013). Is carbohydrate needed to further stimulate muscle protein synthesis / hypertrophy following resistance exercise? Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10(42). doi:10.1186/1550-2783-10-42

Powell, C. (2011). Choose to lose: The 7-day carb cycle solution. New York: Hyperion.

 

Ashleigh is a national level women's physique competitor with a Masters degree in Human Kinetics. She puts her passion for the fitness industry to good use - she's a health promotion specialist, group fitness instructor, competition prep coach, and loves to apply her education through research and writing. In her free time, she can be found training at the gym with her husband, or spending time with her dogs.

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