One of the most hotly-debated subjects in nutrition is what amount and types of carbs and fats we should eat. Some advocate minimizing fat intake, whereas others advocate minimizing carb intake. The fact of the matter is, different approaches work for different people.
I’d love to just give you a list of foods and tell you exactly how much to eat. However, you and I both know that this isn’t realistic, and such “one size fits all” approaches like this don’t work.
What we’re going to do in this post is provide you an understanding of what role carbs play when it comes to how we look, feel, and perform, and then cover some strategies you can start using immediately to dial in your own carb intake.
We’ll talk about fats in our next post.
How we’re going to attack this thing
To adequately prepare you to find what works best for you, we’re going to answer the following questions:
- What are carbs?
- Why do I need carbs?
- Where do I get carbs?
- What happens when I eat carbs?
- How do I optimize my carb intake?
- Pair your carbs with protein and veggies
- Focus your carbs around intense physical activity
- Prioritize carbs from minimally processed plant sources
- What carbs should I eat?
- How many carbs should I eat?
- Should I try a low carb diet?
What are carbs?
Carbs are chains of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen called saccharides. Simple carbs are single saccharide molecules (monosaccharides) – like glucose and fructose – and double saccharide molecules (disaccharides) – like sucrose and lactose. Simple carbs are often referred to simple as “sugar”. Complex carbs are longer chains of saccharides like starch, fiber, and glycogen.
Why do I need carbs?
Our bodies see carbs primarily as a source of energy. The primary carbohydrate that we use for energy is the simple sugar glucose. We’re able to metabolize other simple sugars, but they must be converted to glucose or fatty acids. We’ll touch this point a bit more later.
It should also be understood that not everything that we do runs on glucose. Beyond a baseline requirement for our brains and red blood cells, only high-intensity activities really require significant amounts of glucose. This is because glucose is typically metabolized into ATP (our cells’ energy currency) quicker than fat. Most of what we do, though – walking around, sitting, standing, etc. – can get along just fine with fat because those activities don’t require ATP at such a high rate.
Where do I get carbs?
Our bodies get glucose from three primary sources:
- Food, which must be broken down to its constituent simple sugars.
- Glycogen, a form of stored glucose in our livers and muscles. Our livers release can their stores to the bloodstream for other organs to use, but only the muscles can access their own glycogen.
- Gluconeogenesis, a process by which our bodies convert protein and fat to glucose. This typically occurs when our glycogen stores are depleted and we don’t have enough glucose on hand to meet immediate needs.
What happens when I eat carbs?
When we foods that contain carbs, they’re first be broken down into simple sugars and sent to the liver. At the liver, they’re first used to replenish the liver’s glycogen stores, and then sent to the blood stream for the rest of our bodies to use. Only the liver can process fructose, so once liver glycogen stores are topped off, most of the rest is converted to triglycerides (fatty acids) and released to the blood stream.
Our bodies try to maintain a strict level of blood glucose. When blood glucose rises, we release hormones (including insulin) that signal to our cells that energy is available, and signal to our brains that we’re satisfied. When blood glucose drops, we release hormones (including glucagon) that signal to our liver to release more into the bloodstream, and signal to our brains that we’re hungry.
Meals that elicit quick releases of glucose to the bloodstream are more likely to lead to energy swings, activate our brains’ reward centers, and elicit cravings – often specifically for more carbs. When this process continually repeats itself, we can set the stage for chronically elevated blood sugar, insulin resistance, and obesity.
Meals that elicit minimal fluctuations in blood glucose, however, are more likely to accommodate steady energy levels and more “accurate” appetite signals. We experience less of that “hangry” feeling, and our hunger signals more accurately reflect the amount of fuel available to our cells.
How do I optimize my carb intake?
Our main goal here will be to ensure that our food choices accommodate steady blood sugar levels while still adequately fueling our training. Since food isn’t JUST a source of energy, we’re also going to look to maximize the nutrient-density.
Here are the three strategies we’re going to use:
- Pair our carbs with protein and veggies
- Focus our carbs around intense physical activity
- Prioritize carbs from minimally processed whole-food sources
Pair your carbs with protein and veggies
Ensuring that our carbs come along with plenty of protein and fiber helps delay gastric emptying (how quickly our stomachs empty) and slow the conversion of those carbs to blood glucose.
This is why the first two eating habits we covered were eating plenty protein and high-fiber veggies. We want to set a foundation of plenty of satiating foods that encourage appetite and satiety signals that more accurately reflect our actual needs.
Adding protein and veggies to our meals, though, is not the only way to accommodate steady blood sugar levels. We can also prioritize getting our carbs from sources that have more protein and fiber on their own.
Focus your carbs around intense physical activity
Remember how we discussed earlier that carbs are really only necessary for high-intensity activities?
Well, if we’re not regularly engaging in these activities, we don’t really need a whole lot of glucose on hand. We’re also less likely to deplete our muscle and liver glycogen stores to the point at which we’ll need a lot of carbs from food to replenish them. Most of what we do on a daily basis – unless we happen to have a very physically active job – can be fueled just fine with fat.
However, many of us never give our bodies the chance to get used to burning fat because we’re constantly giving ourselves hits of glucose. On the other hand, if we start to swap out some of our carbs for fats, we can adapt to utilizing fat more readily. This can lead to an improved ability to go without food, less of that “hangry” feeling, and more comfortable fat loss (provided overall energy intake is in check).
For these reasons, find it most convenient to keep their carbs focused immediately before and/or after intense physical activity. This strategy can help ensure adequate glucose to perform well during those activities and replenish glycogen afterwards, while allowing us to tap into our fat stores the rest of the day.
If you choose to use this strategy, you might find that utilizing higher-starch, lower-fiber carbs like tubers work best. The rest of the day, your meals might consist of only protein, veggies, and healthy fats (which we’ll cover in a later post).
Prioritize carbs from minimally processed plant sources
As a general statement, carbs from minimally processed plant sources like beans, lentils, squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes, wild rice, and whole fruit are typically higher in protein, fiber, and other non- (or slowly) digestible plant material than processed carbs like breads, pastas, and other baked goods. These foods usually take longer to enter the bloodstream and are more likely to provide a slow trickle of glucose as opposed to a sharp spike (and crash).
Carbs from minimally processed plants are also typically lower in salt, fat, and simple sugars than processed carbs. Foods high in each of these alone are usually pretty benign, but when we start combining them we’re more likely to overeat – especially in the absence of fiber. After all, most desserts and snack foods are combinations of salt, sugar, and fat, with minimal fiber.
Potatoes, for example are one of the most filling, satisfying foods out there. However, when we cut them up, deep fry them in fat, and top them with cheese, salt, and bacon, we’re more likely to demolish a whole platter. Trust me. I’ve fallen victim to my fair share of bacon cheese fries.
Finally, carbs from minimally processed plant sources also provide more vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber than processed carbs. Fiber’s not only important for slowing digestion, but also critical for gut health. While we’re still learning a crap load about the bacteria that live in our guts, we’re finding that they have a profound impact on our moods, digestive health (irritability, regularity, etc.), cognition, and how much energy we extract from our food.
What carbs should I eat?
Nearly all minimally processed plants contain sugar, starch, and fiber in varying amounts. Tubers like potatoes and yams are higher in starch relative to fiber and sugar. Beans and lentils do provide some starch, but also a higher amount of fiber and protein. Sweeter fruits like apples, bananas, and oranges are typically higher in sugar relative to fiber and starch. Less-sweet fruits like berries do some provide sugar, but also a higher amount of fiber.
Looking primarily to fuel performance? You might try dialing up the starch and sugar and dialing down the fiber. We’re talking potatoes, yams, rice, and some higher-starch squashes.
Looking to lose fat? You might try dialing up the fiber and dialing down the sugar and starch. We’re talking beans, legumes, or just veggies/fat.
Play around with different options and see how they affect how you look, feel, and perform.
How many carbs should I eat?
A good starting point might be two or three cupped handfuls of carbs from minimally processed plant sources before and/or after training. Remember to start with a palm or two of protein and a few fists of veggies (although some people prefer to keep training meals limited to just carbs and protein). From there, you can dial your carbs up or down depending on how you look, feel, and perform.
Since both carbs and fats provide calories, and calories do matter, overall energy intake must be considered. It may take some experimenting to find what ratio, frequency, and timing of carbs and fats works best for you. We’ll cover some troubleshooting strategies in a later post.
Should I try a low carb diet?
Some people see great success implementing low carb diets. Pumping the brakes on starches and sugars for a while may provide an opportunity to re-sensitize to insulin’s effects and up-regulate the metabolic machinery involved in burning body fat.
While many in the “low carb” camp point out that our bodies can satisfy their baseline requirements through gluconeogenesis, cutting carbs too low can present some problems. For example, carb restriction may have negative impacts on hormonal health, sleep quality, and thyroid function for some of us.
So, even we we don’t engage in regular intense physical activity, it may not be a bad idea to include serving or two of carbs each day with dinner. Keeping our carbs at dinner is thought to allow liver glycogen stores to deplete throughout the day, creating a “sink” for incoming glucose, and give our bodies the opportunity to get used to utilizing fat. The ensuing insulin release from the meal may also help promote more restful sleep.
I cannot reiterate enough, though, that optimal carb intake will look different for different people, and may require some experimentation.
What to do next
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