Bowl of sweet potatoes broccoli and falafel

Eat Some Carbs

It started with the Atkins Diet. All you had to do to get the body you wanted was to cut out carbs. That was it. No exercise required. Eat bacon for breakfast. Drink a glass of cream. Butter your burger, just don’t eat the bun. Get rid of carbs and all your problems would be solved. That’s what we were told, and, for some, it worked. Kind of.

Low carb diets became popular because they lead to the fastest weight loss. The website Five Thirty Eight did a thorough review of the most popular diets and concluded that Atkins indeed yielded the greatest and fastest fat loss. But if you’re looking for more than fat loss, say, for example, you want to actually feel good, you will be disappointed with the low carb approach.

I am about to write something that you will be hard pressed to find on the internet, or in any wellness book these days.

Carbs are Good.

I know. Wild stuff. To understand where this is coming from, let’s quickly review what carbs actually are, and how our body uses them, so you can learn how to include carbohydrates in your diet in a way that helps you look, feel, and perform better.

Carbohydrates, or carbs, is a term used to describe foods that at some point in the digestive process become sugar. Sugar, otherwise known as glucose, is the building block of all carbohydrates. Carbs can be stored in the liver and muscles, and can in fact be made by the liver, but for most of us, carbs come from the foods we eat. Carbohydrates are not inherently bad, but we do need to be careful with the amount we consume. One of the issues with having sugar in the body is that sugar is the one food that we regularly consume that our kidneys cannot excrete, so whatever sugar you eat stays in your body, and there are a limited number of ways your body can use that sugar:

  • Use it to fuel an exercise session. This is the preferred option, and what carbs are really supposed to do. If you exercise a lot, your body can handle more carbohydrate since you are constantly depleting your stored carbohydrate, and you need to get it back. However, in the absence of exercise and the need to replenish stored glycogen, the body has two remaining options:
  • Convert the sugar to fat and store it (not ideal).
  • Attach the sugar molecule to something else in the body. This is a process known as glycation, and it’s bad. The most common example of glycation is when a sugar molecule gets stuck to a hemoglobin protein. Hemoglobin is an important blood protein, and when it’s got a sugar molecule stuck to it, it doesn’t work properly, and contributes to inflammation and other problems. In fact, the percentage of your hemoglobin that is bound with sugar is a common measure of diabetic risk or status.

What this means is that carbohydrates are very useful for providing fuel for exercise, but in someone who does not exercise, they can be harmful.

The key to avoiding this harm is to match your carbohydrate intake to your activity level. Of course, there are many factors for deciding exactly how much carbohydrate is best for you, but for a typical adult, having some carbohydrate immediately after exercise and one more serving of complex carbohydrate during the day is a good place to start.

Post-Exercise Carbohydrate Consumption

Your muscles and your liver store something called glycogen, which is a goopy semi-solid form of glucose. When you start exercising, your body liberates this stored glycogen, turns it into glucose, and it’s off to the races. When you’re done exercising, your body needs to get that glycogen back, or you’re going to struggle the next time you exercise.

As much as we have been told that sugar is bad (and it is) and we need to avoid it (we do), the rules are different after a bout of intense exercise. Your metabolism is in high gear, and your body is low on stored sugar. Your body knows EXACTLY what to do with carbohydrates after exercise, and therefore this is the one time that consuming liquid sugar such as a sports drink can actually be beneficial. This varies from person to person, but in general, consuming 30 grams of carbohydrate for each hour of exercise will give your body what it needs to recover and be ready for your next workout. This number is a guideline, but it’s important to bear in mind, since some of the larger sizes of popular sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade contain 50 grams of sugar or more.

Although your body can handle liquid sugars after vigorous exercise, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should get your post exercise carbohydrate from liquid sugar. Fruit, dried fruit, honey, energy bars, even grains will do the job. The point is, your body will put post-exercise carbohydrate to good use, so you don’t need to worry about it being stored as body fat, or gumming up other metabolic processes.

Eating Healthy Carbs During the Day

Not all carbs are created equal. Sweet potatoes and quinoa are not the same as Skittles, but you already knew that. If you are even moderately active, having some complex carbohydrate with one of your daily meals can help you feel good and provide food energy you can use. Many people do well with one serving of complex carbs daily. And dinner is the best time to eat your carbs.

Having a lot of carbohydrate with breakfast raises your blood sugar, which increases your appetite, and leaves you more vulnerable to sugar cravings throughout the day. Plus, the foods most people have as their breakfast carbohydrate are either breads, potatoes or pastries, and simply aren’t that healthy.

Having carbohydrate at lunch is fine, but I find saving them for the evening meal is even better. Biologically, we are more likely to crave carbohydrate in the evening, so why not deliberately eat your carbs with dinner to satisfy that craving? My favourite options include sweet potato, quinoa, rice, chickpeas, beans or squash. Having one of these as part of a hot meal for dinner is perfectly healthy and opens up more options in the kitchen.

The ideal amount of daily carbohydrate for you depends on your size, activity levels, body type, and goals. Having carbs post workout and once daily with one of your meals, probably dinner, is a good strategy for people with moderate activity levels who are looking to maintain a healthy body weight, or follow a gradual fat loss plan. For those with higher activity levels or significant body transformation goals, there are many other strategies with respect to carbohydrate consumption that can be considered. Extreme restriction of carbohydrate over a long period of time is not recommended. Although cutting out carbs in the short term can expedite weight loss, over the long term, completely restricting carbs can cause a host of problems ranging from hormone imbalances and mood disturbances to reduced cognitive function and an impaired ability to build muscle size and strength. For almost anyone, it’s a good idea to eat some carbs.

The important takeaway here is that carbohydrates are not inherently evil, but that their primary purpose is to provide fuel for exercise. Since exercise is essential to health, carbohydrates are an important element of healthy nutrition.

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