Carbs are probably THE most hated on food group, and they have been for decades. But do you really need to avoid them? Are carbs really that bad for you? And what foods are carbs?
Or can you includes lots of them, without having to worry about weight gain? What if a high carb diet is the key that will unlock your true potential in the gym?
One question I ask my new online fat loss clients during their assessment is what they have tried in the past. Whether they went full Keto or simply avoided sugar, the answer usually includes some form of ‘cutting carbs’.
In this article we’ll objectively go into what carbohydrate does to the body, and how you can include them in your diet while achieving the goals you desire.
The principles of nutrition are relatively simple, and learning how to apply them is crucial for your journey. As usual, we’re going to keep it real in this article.
I’m here to provide you with the information you need to make the right decisions. So you can reach your goals, without being distracted by all the BS on social media. So, let’s dive right into it.
If you currently think carbs are pure evil, because that’s what you’ve been told over and over again, I don’t blame you.
But I kinda need you to throw that thought out the window.
Lemme tell you why..
The Benefits of Carbohydrate
There are different types of carbohydrates, ranging from simple sugars to complex carbs. But no matter the type, they’re all broken down into glucose, sugar.
Your body can then use that sugar – which is your body’s preferred fuel source – for direct energy, store some in your liver and most in muscle tissue as glycogen (a storage form) for later use, or store it as body fat.
However, in most cases carbs are just used for energy or stored as glycogen, while fats tend to get stored as body fat instead.
Remember that at the end of the day, it’s energy balance that will dictate what your weight does. Too much of anything can put you in a calorie surplus.
Carbohydrate fuels high intensity movement and supports recovery. It’s protein sparing – meaning it’ll keep your body from using protein for fuel – and has a thermic effect of 5-10%. It’s important for thyroid function (converting T4 into metabolically active T3), testosterone, ovulation in women, and it can help you manage cortisol (a stress hormone), which indirectly can even improve your sleep.
All of the abovementioned can be negatively affected by consuming too little carbohydrate.
So, what’s up with all this anti-carb/keto stuff?
While protein and fats are essential, the body can survive without carbohydrate.
Keto zealots will often bring this up, while neglecting the unsustainability of the diet, the negative hormonal effects it can have (because of insufficient carbohydrate) and the risk of micronutrient deficiencies (which in turn lead to many negative health implications).
Then there’s the fact that most of the weight lost is actually due to the depletion of glycogen (which holds on to about 3g of water per gram), having less food mass in your stomach and water weight. This leads to the illusion of quick fat loss, as you’ll see a drastic drop in weight in no-time.
Now, you can imagine what happens when you start eating carbs again, that water weight just comes back on. Although it’s not body fat – most of that water is actually stored in a good place, your muscles – you now know why it’s so common to hear “Keto really worked for me, I lost a lot of weight, but then I gained it all back”.
Now, this article is not meant to bash on Keto. In the contrary, there’s definitely a time and place for a ketogenic diet when it’s needed and applied the right way.
I’m simply mentioning the things most won’t tell you, which is why many people end up spinning their wheels.
Anyway! Let’s end this quick keto-intermezzo on a positive note. The ketogenic diet can be beneficial for people with certain medical conditions such as epilepsy, for which the ketogenic diet was initially invented back in the 1920s.
Carbohydrate is non-essential, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. It just means your body does a great job of keeping you alive. It manages to switch over to its backup system (producing ketones) as you bottom out your main fuel tank.
What Foods Are Carbs?
Most people do better on a higher carb diet, for performance, energy, body composition and overall health reasons. Carbohydrate is so beneficial, that even keto endurance athletes fuel up with carbs the day prior to a competition.
But you can overdo it. If you constantly live in a caloric surplus and push it too far, you can cause digestive upset, insulin resistance and risk developing type II diabetes.
How much you need really depends on your activity level and the type of training you participate in.
Because this is going to be different for everyone, it’s hard to give you a hard guideline to follow based on g/kg.
Though knowing that calories are king and that you do need to cover your protein (about 2.2g/kg) and fat (about 0.7-0.9g/kg minimum) requirements, you can fill in the rest with carbohydrate.
You can personalize your carb-fat ratio based on activity and personal preference, though in most cases it’s probably a good idea to keep fats relatively low so you can fit plenty of carbohydrate.
Carbs are often demonized, but are an important part of a healthy diet. Though all carbs aren’t created equal, there’s a wide variety of carbs ranging from complex carbs to single sugars. Complex carbs take longer to break down and absorb, while simple sugars can almost immediately be used for energy. Neither is inherently good or bad, but instead useful for different scenarios. Different carb sources also come with different additional nutrients and differ in nutrient density.
- Starchy carbs such as rice and potatoes provide you with plenty of fuel (glucose) and will also keep you full.
- Non-starchy carbs (vegetables) like zucchini and spinach provide you with tons of vitamins, minerals, phyto (plant) nutrients, fiber and water. Because these vegetables are mainly fiber and water, they’re not really used as fuel.
- Fruits provide you with different micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.), and are higher in sugar (fructose, your liver’s preferred sugar for energy and storage). Fruits are a nice source of energy and are easily broken down.
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate, though because of its (plant) structure, it isn’t properly broken down. However fiber is still super important. It keeps things moving throughout your GI tract, feeds your gut microbiome and helps regulate hormones, blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
With fiber it’s all about finding that sweet spot, because both too little and too much of it can cause digestive upset.
Most people need about 20-25g per day, but it mostly depends on your total caloric intake. That’s not to say you can’t go any higher than that, many people still do great at 30-40g.
It’s very personal and again, it mostly depends on overall intake.
You probably do not need a fiber supplement. It is easy to get your fiber in when you eat your fruits, veggies and whole grains.
Little sidenote: make sure to also drink enough water. Both fiber and water play a key role in digestion, so if at any stage you notice digestive issues, those will be the two first things to look at, followed by stress and sleep.
Insulin and Glucagon
Carbohydrate mostly gets a bad rep because consuming it causes a rise in the hormone insulin (which also happens when you eat protein by the way). You’ll often read things like “insulin makes you gain fat”, which isn’t really the case.
At the end of the day, it’s still energy balance that will dictate weight gain, maintenance or loss. Insulin doesn’t exist outside of energy balance.
Now unless you are what is called ‘insulin resistant’ and/or are (pre-) diabetic, there is no need for you to worry about insulin.
When your body breaks down carbohydrate into sugar (glucose) and releases that sugar into the bloodstream, your blood sugar levels rise.
When blood sugar levels are too high, insulin – a storage hormone – can bring those levels down by storing sugar and other nutrients into your cells.
Though sugar can be stored as body fat, it’s usually used for energy or stored into your muscles and liver as glycogen.
Remember, mostly fat gets stored as body fat.
Insulin’s opponent, glucagon, does the exact opposite. When your blood sugar levels drop too low – which can happen during training and/or when you don’t eat enough carbohydrate – glucagon mobilizes energy and brings those levels back up.
Insulin and glucagon are in charge of regulating your blood sugar levels together, you need both to survive.
Insulin has another benefit, which you might not yet know about: it blunts cortisol.
Cortisol (a stress hormone) isn’t inherently bad either, but chronically high levels can negatively impact your overall health.
Eating carbohydrate can indirectly help you lower cortisol levels, and bring you back in a parasympathetic – also called ‘rest/digest’ – state. This can be beneficial for sleep and recovery.
Are Carbs Really That Bad For You?
You can include plenty of carbs in your diet without having to worry about a thing. Control energy balance, whether that means counting calories/macros or not.
Then make sure you cover your protein intake and then personalize your carb/fat ratio.
If you exercise, your body requires more carbohydrate, if you’re more sedentary you don’t need as much but don’t feel like you have to avoid them. You don’t have to.
The vast majority of our online fat loss clients consume a high(er) carb diet. It keeps them full, they feel great, perform well and sleep better.