Carbs make you fat. Carbs fuel your performance.
Carbs will kill you.
Don't eat carbs.
Don't eat carbs before noon.
Don't eat carbs after 6pm.
People say a lot of shit about carbohydrates.
I would be willing to bet that if you polled enough fitness professionals it would be considered the most controversial macronutrient there is.
I'd have to be one of them because often carbohydrates are at the center of a lot of discussions I have with my clients about their nutrition.
The amount of misinformation and bad advice that is given about carbs is staggering and worst of all it's continually perpetuated by people in places of influence.
It's crazy how confusing it is and I can completely sympathize with people who are uttering confused about what to put on their plate that won't increase their waistline.
It's no surprise either considering that 50 years ago the best dieting advice was high carb/low-fat because to many people were dying of cardiac related events and now the most popular diet advice is eliminate carbs and eat high fat. In fact the pendulum has swung so far the other way that carbohydrates have been essentially demonized and forever labeled a "bad" or "unclean" food.
The problem is most of this information that is being fed to people is at best flat-out wrong and unsupported by evidence and at worst misleading and biased.
Carbs can and in my opinion should be a part of a healthy diet. The only caveat to that being we need to be sure we are eating the right carbs in the right amounts at the appropriate times.
However considering that entire books have been written about this topic, the biochemistry underlying carbohydrate metabolism is rather complex, and I have no idea who you are physically and how you train I am not going to start making blanket recommendations about how carbs fit into your diet. Instead what I want to share with you is how I approach eating carbs based on my understanding of how the human body works, how it responds to carb intake, and my body and it's response to both training and varying levels of carbohydrate intake.
When it comes to this discussion I like to use the analogy of a car and fuel because it's easier to understand. But be aware that I fully understand that food is more than fuel to a lot of people and I am cool with that. Food is also about culture and community. It can be something that brings people together and celebrates life events, but in terms of understanding how I think about what carbs to eat and when to eat them this analogy works best.
Engines can be designed to run on a number of fuels.
Our body is similar in it was designed to be able to operate using a number of fuels to power it's self.
And while it's true that your body can use protein to meet its energy demands the fact of the matter is that in a well fed healthy person this accounts for a small amount of the fuel your body uses unless of course you're in a starvation scenario for an extended period of time, which in that case your problems go way beyond what carbs to eat and when.
For this reason I tend to think of fat and carbohydrates as the body's primary and preferred sources of fuel.
Although these two macronutrients are metabolized in the body in different ways and result in different amounts of chemical energy produced they both still produce the end result of generated ATP which the body uses to supply its self with energy.
Carbohydrates and fat are eaten in the diet and are stored in the body. Carbohydrates are stored in the body's muscles and liver as glycogen which is essentially long chains of glucose molecules hooked together while fat is stored all over the body in specialized adipocytes (fat cells). These stored forms of fat and carbohydrates are used along with those eaten in the diet to meet our body's energy needs.
Side Note: Most humans store on average of about 500 grams of glycogen in the muscles and 100 grams in the liver. This is in comparison to the pounds and pounds of fat we can store on our body. The question a lot of people then might ask is why we store more fat than we do carbohydrates. The answer is because for every molecule of glucose we store we must also hold two additional molecules of water. This 1 to 2 ration as you can see could become a problem quickly when we get into larger and larger amounts. It's a costly endeavor when space is a limited resource.
However the while the body does produce energy through the breakdown of carbohydrates and fats on a constant basis the percentage that the breakdown of each contributes to overall energy production in the body is influenced by the body's current activity and it's level of intensity.
Simply put the more intense an activity the more carbohydrates the body uses to fuel its energy needs while the less intense the activity is the more the body uses fat to produce the needed energy. High intensity activity would be something like sprinting or lifting heavy stuff while lower intensity activity would be something like taking a walk with the dogs, sitting in front of a computer at work, or lounging around the house all day.
The reason for this being that under circumstances when the body has to carry out high intensity tasks it requires that energy be generated quickly and this is a demand that carbohydrates and carbohydrate metabolism meets really well. Carbohydrates can be quickly converted to energy faster and with greater ease than fat can be converted to energy.
However it's important to understand that the body has a limited to supply of stored carbohydrates both in the liver and muscles as well as that which is circulating in the blood.
Once these stores have been depleted the body turns back to fat to meet its energy demands until the body's carbohydrate stores can be repleted. At this point performance of any activity that requires a high level of intensity will likely be somewhat impaired as your body won't be able to meet the energy demands being placed on it quickly enough.
Sticking with the analogy we started with this is why I think of eating in terms of fueling my activity. Meaning that I intake higher amounts of carbohydrates after performing higher intensity activity. This theoretically will allow me to replenish my body's stores of carbohydrates and reduce any impairment in performance in any future high intensity activity. While on days when most of my activity is on the lower intensity side I eat less carbohydrates.
This allows me to make sure that I am providing my body with the proper fuel for the given activities on any given day.
The question then might be well what carbs then are you eating Stevan on your higher intensity activity days and what are you eating on your lower intensity activity days instead of the carbs.
While you could make the answer to this question extremely complex I prefer to keep things simple and that is how I approach my own nutritional choices. That being said on my higher intensity activity days I typically eat most of my carbohydrate intake after I train and I typically eat most of them from starchy carbohydrates like bread, rice, and pasta. On my lower intensity activity days I eat my carbohydrates throughout the day and most of my carbohydrates come from non-starchy sources like vegetables and fruit.
I don't really worry that much about how many grams of carbohydrates I eat daily, but if I were to estimate I would guess that on a high intensity activity day I probably eat between 250 grams to 300 grams of carbohydrates while on a lower intensity day I eat between 100 grams and 150 grams of carbohydrates. I will make mention here that on days where I have extremely little physical activity (which is rare I promise, well except when they release new episodes of House of Cards) I am vigilante about how many starchy carbohydrates I eat. This is because I am a bit more to the endomorph end of the body type spectrum meaning I tend to naturally carry more body fat than other people and excess calories can add up quickly on my waistline.
I guess you could say that my position on carbs is not to eliminate them, but limit them to when your body actually really needs and will use them.
Some people might call this approach carb cycling, carb backloading, or whatever else is the current trending buzzword, but I call it just common sense straight forward eating that is based on fueling performance and function.
I hope this doesn't confuse you anymore than you already might be. I hope it gives you a clear view of how I approach eating carbohydrates and possibly gives you a new way to start thinking about them. And again let me say that my point here was not to tell the complete and entire story of carbohydrates, carbohydrates metabolism, and the body's response to exercise because frankly all those topics are to large for a single blog post. Instead my purpose was to clearly outline how and why I approach carbohydrate intake the way I do personally and perhaps why you might want to try doing the same too.
If you have any questions about this please feel free to comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would be happy to talk with you more about this! Biochemistry is my shit! This rabbit hole goes as deep as you want to go and I am happy to go there with you!
Happy moving and heavy lifting!
Practical, Purposeful, Effective Training