Just like the 1970’s and 80’s demonized fat for a generation to come, I fear that we are currently doing the same thing to carbohydrates.
More and more often I hear people offering up colloquialisms like, “there is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate.”
Which makes me fear for our future from a nutrition standpoint, when will we learn from our mistakes?
No good has ever come as a result of demonizing anything, in fact, demonization of foods is probably a major contributor to modern problems like eating disorders and cognitive dietary restraint.
Glucose is what runs your body; Your brain at 2% of your mass consumes 20% of your energy, all of it in the form of glucose.
When you don’t have sufficient glucose your body must inefficiently produce it from fats and proteins.
That explains the foggy head most people experience when they try out an extremely low carbohydrate diet and the generally low energy levels until they have adapted to using ketones more efficiently as a fuel.
Side Note: Before the low-carb advocates lose their minds. You can effectively offset the typical side effects of low carbohydrate diets by cycling it with moderate carb consumption diet or the form of recovery meals, and refeed days. However, just because you ‘can’ eat a certain way, doesn’t mean you should.
So ya carbohydrates might not be ‘essential’ in the same way that we have essential amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and essential fatty acids (the building blocks of fats), but your body still needs to produce glucose as a fuel somehow for many bodily functions (especially brain function, but also digestion and muscle function) whether that’s through carbohydrate consumption (the most efficient) or protein or fat consumption, it doesn’t really matter, your body will find a way to manufacture glucose.
In that way glucose (a carbohydrate and your main fuel source) is actually essential to the body.
Just not in the nutritional sense many people misconstrue.
Essential in this nutritional context, just means that we can’t actually physiologically manufacture those amino acids or fatty acids ourselves within the body, or in some cases at least we can’t do it well as ingestion would assist.
It’s important to note that this doesn’t stop us from ingesting or even necessarily needing non-essential protein or non-essential fatty acids in our diets to some degree too.
You can’t just eat essential nutrients.
It doesn’t mean that the other things we ingest aren’t important or needed.
It doesn’t mean we don’t get nutritional benefit from carbohydrates, or that we don’t get nutritional benefit from saturated fats or mono-unsaturated fats — both global types of fatty acids that are not considered ‘essential’ to our diets.
In the case of the human body, glucose and glycogen is actually so important that our bodies can literally convert amino acids and fatty acids into them when it needs to.
Warning: This post has a lot to discuss, so it’s going to be on the long-side, but I sincerely hope it will be more than worth it.
What’s a Carbohydrate?
The reader’s digest version; Is that there are 2 main types of carbohydrates (similar to the 2 main types of fat: unsaturated: saturated): Simple and Complex.
This is immediately where many people get confused.
Typically we just call them sugars.
Glucose falls into this category as a monosaccharide, and if you combine it with fructose you get table sugar or a disaccharide.
Still with me?
Sugars tend to digest quickly, while also generally spiking insulin and blood sugar levels higher than their complex cousins, but glucose is actually the preferred fuel source for your body in most cases — which may explain why so many of us crave simple forms of it evolutionarily speaking and why the taste sensation of ‘sweet’ is distinct on our tongues.
That’s also why food companies pack it into foods, sugar is not particularly satiating and encourages us to eat more food overall as a result
We are quite literally biologically geared to consume carbohydrates as a fuel source, which is what can make their over-consumption the real issue — over-consume anything, even the coveted protein and you can gain fat mass as the body stores excess absorbed energy for later use; It’s just generally harder to over-eat protein, which is why it’s typically coveted, while it’s quite easy to overeat sugars.
Glucose is what your brain runs off of (seems kind of essential right?) and although it floats around in your bloodstream and can be found in a lot of various tissues, when you need more you generally have to break it down from the mammalian complex carbohydrate storage format called glycogen.
Starches are the storage format of carbohydrates in plants and generally the types of carbohydrates we get from all the whole plant-based foods we should be consuming.
‘Fiber’ falls into the polysaccharide department too, but is unique in that it is not absorbed by the body. Though one type of fiber does ferment and break down into short-chain fatty acids in the stomach, the calorie element that provide is negligible.
Basically the more complex the carbohydrate chemical structure, the harder it is to digest and thus it does not impact blood sugar and certain hormones with the same ‘spiking-effect‘ as more simple carbohydrates generally do.
Thus why ‘complex’ carbohydrates get all the love and rightly so for the majority of the time, and for most people, these are the forms of carbohydrates your body should be mostly consuming.
Hold on though, we’re not done yet with your chemistry lesson yet…
You also have the slightly more complex than mono or disaccharides, but generally less complex than polysaccharides; The oligosaccharides; Which typically involve long-ish chains of monosaccharides three to nine chains long — polysaccharides are generally considered longer than that.
All you really need to know is that they fall somewhere in the middle and that there are a few different types of carbohydrates, you can’t just lump them all together.
And let’s be honest you didn’t really sign up for a chemistry lesson when you started reading this did you?
If you’re interested in learning more about the chemical properties of these carbohydrates click through to some of the links.
What are Carbs Good For?
Well the interesting thing about carbohydrates is that although everybody should generally minimize their simple carbohydrate consumption (things like caloric sweeteners, table sugar, molasses, honey, fruit juice, soda pop, baked sweets, candy bars, etc…etc…), there are other carbohydrates that may hold significant benefit to your health, waistline and athletic performance.
For instance oligosaccharides like inulin are associated with improved gut health and improved gut health can actually improve your digestion, improved digestion alters how your body absorbs nutrients and utilizes them, increasing markers of health.
It might literally change how your body uptakes energy from the food you eat, affecting the ‘energy-in‘ side of the fitness equation too.
Beta-Glucan, is a polysaccharide found in significant quantity in grains like oats, barley, rye and wheat (and also other foods like fungi/mushrooms and algae/seaweeds) that in research appears to positively improve cholesterol, enhance immune function, reduce inflammation and may positively affect arthritic conditions.
Fiber is perhaps one of the most well researched and health boosting carbohydrate nutrients we’re aware of, and most people quite simply put, don’t get enough!
The minimum recommendation is 25 grams of fiber per day, which you should be able to hit rather easily if you consume the recommended daily intakes of vegetables (a source of the plant-based carbohydrate: starch), but I’d venture to guess that most males would be better off closer to 35-45 grams a day, which means you may need to bolster your intake somewhere.
So although your body doesn’t actually break fiber down and use it for energy (readily – it is a small byproduct), fiber is still important to consume for health reasons.
It just happens to be found in the most abundance — outside of raspberries and blackberries that is, which pack about 8 g and 6.3 g per cup respectively — in the starchier, more carbohydrate-rich foods, like legumes/beans, and grains like barley, buckwheat, and oats that are under a lot of fire these days from ‘low-carb-dieting’ advocates.
This isn’t to say that some vegetables like broccoli, artichoke, or leafy greens like spinach and kale, are not reasonably high in fiber too, while still relatively low in carbohydrates.
Nor am I saying that low carb eating is necessarily ‘bad’ either, it just might not be for everyone (i.e. it typically works best for sedentary people who do not engage in much physical activity).
It might be important to note that vegetables as a proportion of energy displacement are still generally much higher in carbohydrates than any other macronutrient though too. i.e. as a percentage of energy, carbohydrates contribute the most energy overall in most vegetables. Coincidence? Maybe…
Truthfully, I generally have a fairly low carbohydrate consumption on days I don’t train but I’ve also been training for so long my body is probably well adapted to carbohydrate consumption for when I might eat carbohydrates on non-training days. [More on this in a bit…]
If you exercise, and whether you want to lose weight or gain weight you should probably be simultaneously integrating exercise with dietary changes and carbohydrates provide a significant amount of the fuel used for ‘burning’ fat and building muscle as part of the exercise equation.
Generally losing weight on a diet with a heavy energy restriction will work, but you’re also much more likely to rebound up to a heavier weight in the future and may find yourself struggling with energy the rest of your day.
Things that require your energetic attention like family, work, etc… you don’t exactly want to be Hangry right?
Hungry + Angry = Hangry
It’s been my experience that severe energy restriction for weight loss purposes does not work well long-term, you may get a quick result but you risk nutrition deficiency during the process and a quick fat gain rebound immediately upon stopping an extreme diet.
It might be a motivating way to get started but a much more gradual approach of exercise combined with a slight overall energy restriction seems more optimal in the long run. That is, if you’re serious about maintaining your new fantastic bod for years to come.
When it comes to athletic, muscle mass gain and workout performance, they just might be the ergogenic aid too; outside of other performance enhancing drugs anyway…
Here are some of the positive benefits of having carbohydrates in your diet:
- Increased cognitive functioning (and energy levels)
- Better sleep
- Better workout/training performance
- Improved workout/training recovery
- Improved Immune System Support
- Improved Gut Flora (and consequently ‘digestion’)
- Improved Gastrointestinal Emptying (yep, I’m talking about bowel movements…)
- Access to certain vitamins, minerals, fiber that can contribute to the maintenance of overall health (namely avoiding malnutrition or nutrient deficiency)
- In some cases improved health markers (like better cholesterol and triglyceride profiles)
- Can increase satiability and fullness feeling (mostly from the fiber and protein found in more ‘whole’ sources, sources void of fiber are easily over consumed)
People also tend to forget that many carbohydrate sources (hello: Vegetables?) are fantastic delivery tools for vitamins and minerals (though not the only ones…).
If you’re carb phobic these days, this section is for you; Here is generally the thing about ‘dieting.’
Restricting energy intake, particularly by a lot, can have some negative attributes on health and metabolism in the long run.
It’s been shown that severe restriction can reduce metabolic rate, disrupts thyroid hormones, affects the nervous system, reproductive systems and can generally mess with your hormones.
Sooner or later, if what you’re doing isn’t working, you may find yourself at a physical standstill, and at this point change and manipulation of a diet is often the most viable option.
Changing your diet is what produces results, so it stands to reason that if you’re not seeing the results you want to see, you probably need to change something.
This could mean switching to a low carbohydrate diet if you’re on a high carbohydrate diet, or it could mean switching to a moderate carbohydrate diet if you’re on a high fat, low carbohydrate diet.
Changing your normal routine, is what leads to adaptation.
If for no other reason than it will give you some context on what change you made that is leading to a desired outcome.
You want some energy restriction, in combination with some exercise, but hammer it for too hard for too long and most people eventually see a negative downturn.
We call this the point of diminishing returns, or the point in which more change/effort doesn’t lead to more desirable results.
At which point your new low carb diet, probably stops working eventually, and again, another change is needed for continued progress…
Sometimes it takes years, sometimes it’s months and other reach that point in a matter of weeks. I’ve had many clients deal with it over the years in many different ways with many different approaches to eating.
People can over do diet manipulation just as much as they can under-do it.
This is often where carbohydrate re-feeding and manipulation can play a really important role in body composition and body transformation practices.
The trick is learning the necessary restriction and adjusting as your body changes; You may need to do this on a daily, weekly, monthly or bi-monthly basis.
For instance, after a hard week of training I might after a week or two, find myself on a certain day of the week with an insatiable appetite — presumably because I was under feeding myself relative to my output for a period of time.
For someone with a generally moderate appetite it feels unusual, but rather than fight it I usually add a good chunk of rice or some other starchy and filling carbohydrate to more meals than I might otherwise on this day.
This is often referred to as ‘re-feeding’ or a period of time when your body is telling you that it needs more energy than you’ve been giving it, and carbohydrates might be the easiest source of that energy to replenish glycogen stores — which are used heavily during intense exercise, especially intense energy system work.
In other words this is most likely my body telling me it needs more energy intake. It has worked rather successfully for me over the last 10 years, my body composition and weight have not actually changed much.
This is often referred to a mindful eating (something I should post about sometime soon).
Keep in mind that this works for me, I have (near-as-I-can-tell) good hunger cues, something that gaining fat/adipose tissue can disrupt (leptin being the biggest reason).
That might not be the best strategy for you as a result; Just eating when you’re hungry can be terrible advice if you’re hunger cues are all messed up.
However, there are other viable energy control options, like:
- Use a caloric restriction over a short period of time and permit a refeed (AKA ‘free meal’) meal once maybe twice a week.
- Use a caloric restriction over a longer period of time (week or three) and permit a refeeding window of a day or two
- Use a caloric restriction over a longer period of time(several weeks up to 2-3 months maybe) and permit a full diet break for a week or two to let your body recoup/catch-up
Some people like to refer to these kinds of meals or days as ‘cheat’ meals or days but I personally hate that term; It has negative mental context and people will that attitude have a tendency to overdo it on processed foods, sugars and refined fats on cheat days.
Something about the terminology ‘cheat day’ that lets people think they can just eat whatever they want, in whatever quantity they want on a day like that, when really you want to relax a little on your diet that day but not go too too crazy.
Really it’s about restoring a little balance and that usually means by increasing carb intake back up to more normal (or slightly above normal) intakes.
Note: If you’re using a ‘cheat day’ and not seeing any results, you may want to reconsider your strategy; You’re probably overdoing your refeed.
I like the terminology of a re-feed or ‘free’ better, because it gives the indication that you are restocking the pantry with energy via generally more carbohydrate consumption (though also perhaps total consumption).
I’d rather word it, re-feed day, or a dietary allowance day, or something to that effect.
I’d also prefer for people to skip the planned cheat day approach altogether, because life usually demands some flexibility. Let’s say you want to go out with some friends randomly, but you’ve already used up your free meal or re-feed day, you basically are stuck saying no.
Being flexibly minded when it comes to eating is an important skill in my mind for that very reason; At least in the long-term.
For most people I’d stick with a general recommendation to tweak your diet and adjust carbohydrate consumption on an activity basis. This is a really basic form of carbohydrate manipulation.
Essentially you eat the same thing every day but non-training days are typically lower in carbohydrates (i.e. veggies are pretty much your main source of carbohydrates). Then on on days you train you have 1-2 servings of a fairly starchy but complex carbohydrates post-workout. If that’s not enough to see progress, then we may try more intense variations but it’s a good starting point for a lot of people.
Easy to follow; Tends to be effective at maintaining the energy levels of people who are generally in a caloric deficit on non-training days. Also leaves enough of a caloric deficit over a longer period of time that they still see fat loss results.
It’s important to note that when I say ‘Negative Energy Balance’ the body does not moderate energy solely on a day by day basis, more than likely energy balance is moderated over the course of several days to a week.
For example, on non-training days eat mostly healthy fats, lean protein and vegetables.
On training days though, introduce a serving of higher carbohydrate sweet potato, brown rice, quinoa, higher sugar whole fruits, whole wheat bread or other calorically dense, starchy foods from grains, root vegetables, legumes or a combination there of.
In other words, give yourself some breathing room post workout — I like this food to come within a 2-3 hours window at most but this depends on lifestyle too.
Of course that’s the most simplistic version, there are a lot of ways one can manipulate this to good outcomes both for fat loss and even muscle mass gain.
My main point is that carbohydrates may be one of the easiest macronutrients to cycle. Protein being a relative constant, only fat and carbohydrates are really manipulated by most diets. Carbohydrates are probably the easier of the two to manipulate from there.
If the above strategy leaves you feeling lethargic still or without energy during workouts, then you may be in too great an energy deficit and consider adding at first 1 serving of a starchy carb to additional meals, even on non-training days.
i.e. Have a serving of rice with dinner, lunch or breakfast on top of the 1-2 you’ll have post-training. Adjust as needed.
Give it a few weeks for the adjustment however and be monitoring your progress.
If 1 serving isn’t enough (as it might not be in heavily muscled dudes, or those with high metabolisms), try 2 and monitor the effects, maybe even 3 or more…
You might want to consider a coach to help you tweak this over time, but the point I want to drive home is that carbs are and have mostly always been, the most heavily modified macronutrient for weight loss and weight gain.
They’re potent when used properly, glad you’re still with me at this point.
Incorporating Them Into the Diet
Contrary to the current popular opinion, that carbohydrates are the existing cause of obesity in North America, you can actually become overweight eating any of the macronutrients in excess (even protein), so long as your intake exceeds your requirements.
Let me remind you for the upteenth time, you eat food, not carbs, not protein and not fat.
Everything generally has a little bit of each in it, it just so happens that certain foods have more of certain macronutrients than others so we tend to label them as good or bad.
Instead, it’s important to think of food as existing on more of a spectrum of choice, or a continuum.
Worse Food <———Neutral Food———> Better Food
Ya white bread, cookies, muffins, etc… may not be great sources of carbohydrates on the one end of the spectrum but maybe whole wheat bread is relatively neutral, and couscous or bulgar would be better choices for health generally when it comes to utilizing an ingredient like wheat.
Generally you want to displace foods on the worse side of spectrum for foods on the better side of the spectrum, but don’t get too anal about it, or you’ll drive yourself bonkers.
How you use the spectrum really depends on your objectives.
I think part of the reason carbohydrates have more recently been demonized is that it can be easier to over consume certain types of carbohydrates (it’s also easy to over-consume fat) and under eat other better types (like protein and fiber rich beans/legumes).
Simple sugars digest very easily, with very little energy required to digest and they are not particularly satiating so you can eat them in greater quantity and more frequently with ease.
More complex sources are actually very satiating (filling); Foods like steel cut oats, beans, buckwheat, and quinoa, so they are harder to overeat and provide the greatest nutrition benefits as a result.
A good rule of thumb is the more processed it is, the less you want to eat of it overall.
For weight loss and weight maintenance for some people, most people seem to do generally better by restricting carbohydrates to the most whole options they can and only on days that they exercise moderately to vigorously.
If you have a smaller somatotype you might also generally have a better overall tolerance to carbohydrate consumption and therefore do better on more — the topic of another nutrition discussion.
If you have a larger somatotype (AKA body structure) you might find that really minimizing carbohydrate consumption to a few select options serves you better.
Generally the larger your structure the more benefit you’ll appear to receive from a lower carbohydrate diet, at least in my experience. Keep in mind that somatotype is just a generalization, it’s kind of bullshit really. What it really appears to tell us on the surface is that a person is more or less insulin-resistant or insulin sensitive. There isn’t a ton of science behind that either, there are exceptions to the rule.
If I’m overly concerned I get people to take blood tests but for the most part it seems to hold up that larger or thicker body structures tend to be more insulin-resistant, making carbs less effective in their diet anyway. And vice versa…
For more active populations, like athletic performance, particularly endurance training, you might actually benefit from an even greater carb intake from starchier foods than most other people.
An increased consumption of carbohydrates might also be a strategy for people looking to gain some muscle mass —rice and oats have been popular with bodybuilders for decades for this reason.
Without getting into the nitty gritty of every use case for carbohydrates, just know that there is a carbohydrate manipulation strategy to suit your objectives and some strategies will be counterintuitive for certain objectives too.
Meaning if you want to lose weight, adding more calories (as they might be needed to gain weight or improve performance) from carbohydrates would probably be a bad idea.
No matter what your nutritional objective are, when you do eat carbohydrates, really focus on consuming the highest quality, whole sources you can afford/find/tolerate and augment from there.
For Weight Loss:
Try the strategy from the previous section.
Cut back on starchy carbohydrates like rice or bread and especially sugars, almost entirely.
Then reintroduce them 1 serving at a time.
If you’re sedentary and don’t plan on adding exercise to the equation (a poor decision if you ask me, but to each their own…) use highly satiating low glycemic complex carbohydrates like beans, fruit or root veggies and whole grains.
If you’re training, cycle between more carbohydrates on days you train and less (even next to none) on days you don’t.
Monitor progress and scale up as you monitor the effects.
If you’re getting the result you want, keep doing what you’re doing.
If you’re lethargic and are having a lot of trouble maintaining your energy levels, add a serving and monitor how you feel.
Adjust your intake based on feeling good, and getting the result you want.
If you’re not getting the result you want, you’ve probably got too much energy in coming from somewhere and it might be carbohydrates (but it could be fat if you’re on a very low carb diet already).
For Muscle Mass Gain:
If you have difficulty here, you could just start by adding 1 serving to every meal (providing you’re getting enough veggies, protein and healthy fats already in your diet) and an additional serving to each meal on training days.
Effectively, this is still a carb cycling strategy that seems to be effective at minimizing fat mass additions that often come along with eating for muscle mass.
i.e. you’re eating twice as many carbs on days you train, than days you’re not, while still ingesting more energy overall than your weight loss counterparts.
However, many people who struggle gaining muscle mass with any kind of effectiveness, may also just need to increase total energy intake from protein and fat in addition to carbohydrates.
They generally struggle just to get enough energy down the hatch, so this is where some liquid calories and perhaps more processed carbohydrates could potentially be useful.
Ultimately you can start the same as above and scale up your carbohydrate consumption until your measuring tells you that you’re on to something.
This is where carbohydrates really shine.
If you’re an athlete or are aspiring to become one, carbs are your primary fuel source for training.
Generally your energy output is so high, you need more carbohydrates in your diet and you may even need simple sugars if you’re training for longer than 90 minutes at a time.
Of course, you need to monitor body composition too, just because you’re an athlete won’t give you permission to just eat whatever you want all the time, but it gives you more room than most.
Generally you’ll need carbohydrates with every meal and more after training.
If you’re male, consider 2 servings with each meal, if you’re female try 1 at first and scale appropriately.
Particularly you’ll want something protein and carbohydrate dense, 2-3 hours before training and within 2-3 hours of training.
Low carbohydrate diets are often that bane of performance, I’d generally recommend that you avoid them if you plan to perform optimally for physical performance.
Make sure that most of your carbohydrate consumption in a typical day comes from vegetables (ideally 5+ servings averaged out daily, closer to 8+ for large males if you can manage) as a starting point.
This might include the generally more starchy root vegetables options as well. These tend to be richer in carbohydrates, depending on tolerance and your own tweaks over time.
Whole fruit is an excellent choice for people who may need high quality carbohydrates with high fiber content (particularly berries) but a serving here might (like root vegetables) generally be considered a little smaller because they are more energy dense.
Like the bean example above, a serving of fruit or root vegetables is probably closer to 1 cupped handful.A serving of veggies is generally about the size of your fist, and the more calorically dense it is, the smaller the serving size gets.
i.e. 1 medium sized potato or apple is a serving, not one the size of your fist.
Contrary to the typical MyPlate or Food Pyramid or Food Guide recommendations, I do generally think that most people consume too many grain products and don’t understand what 1 serving constitutes.
It’s smaller than you think…
Two pieces of bread is two servings, not one, it’s actually very easy to hit the 9 or so recommended servings Health Canada currently recommends but I’d argue that recommendation should be lower, closer to 2-5 for most people or supplanted by legume consumption or better starchy carbohydrate option like the root vegetables or fruit mentioned above.
The problem with grain products is that they are easy to over-consume when not in their whole form (breads, muffins, etc…), and government agencies typically give people the impression that one serving of whole wheat bread is the same as a serving of bulgar, it isn’t.
A serving of bulgar and other ‘whole’ grain sources is roughly one large scooped handful (1/4-1/3 of a cup) raw generally as you see above.
For grains and some legumes, this ends up being a bigger cupped hand when cooked due to additional water content:
For comparison sake:
What the difference looks like:
Generally speaking, I generally think many people would benefit from eating more beans/legumes more frequently instead of grains or in combination with grains.
Rice and beans is a classic pairing in food culture for a reason. Rice + Beans = Complete Protein too…
At the end of the day just be mindful of the source of your carbohydrate consumption and leave a comment if you have a question about details.
I tried to cover a lot in this post, and for that I apologize, thanks for staying with me and I hope you got a lot out of this post.