If you want to forge your ideal physique, you need to get your nutrition right.
But one of the biggest things people struggle with is carbohydrates.
Are carbs really the devil? How many should you eat? What kinds will give you the best results? And what time is it best to eat them? These questions crop up time and time again where carbs are concerned.
Carbs: Good or Bad?
Like fats, there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding carbs.
They’re neither good nor bad, it’s more a matter of understanding the role they play in the body, and how/when to use them.
On a really basic level, carbohydrates are a direct energy source to the muscular and central nervous system.
It’s worth noting that there is no such thing as an ‘essential’ carbohydrate, unlike with protein (essential amino acids) and fats (essential fatty acids).
This means that, while it’s not always optimal, you can actually survive without any carbohydrates in your diet.
Today’s Carb Problem
In today’s world, the real issue is that people simply eat way too many carbs.
This is in part driven by government guidelines recommending around 60% of your total daily intake to be coming from carbs.
What makes this a problem is that the majority of the population is now both overweight and typically sedentary. Does this type of person need over half their calories coming from a direct energy source? Of course not!
This is what makes carbohydrate intake so individual. It depends on a host of factors, including a person’s activity level, body fat and goals.
However, what’s happening with most people is that there’s no consideration of these factors, and carbohydrates are forming the base of their diet.
One of the reasons carbohydrates are often demonised for their role in fat loss is the relationship with insulin.
One of insulin’s primary roles is to regulate blood sugar (to prevent hyperglycemia).
To do so, it clears glucose from the blood and shuttles it into the liver, as well as muscle and fat cells.
Where things get a little complicated is when looking at insulin’s ability to inhibit lipolysis (fat breakdown) and stimulate lipogenesis (creation of fat)
You’ve all probably heard someone shout ‘insulin stops fat burning!’ Yes, this is true, but only temporarily.
Throughout the day, we go through periods of ‘fat storage’ and ‘fat burning’ every time we eat.
This is completely normal and not an issue for healthy individuals (it’s only problematic in insulin-resistant people).
What really matters is that over a 24-hour period, we’re in a calorie deficit. If so, then the peaks and troughs of ‘fat storage’ and ‘fat burning’ through the day will balance out, and lean towards ‘fat burning’.
What are the benefits of carbs?
When used appropriately, carbs can provide some real benefits:
1. Fuel high-intensity workouts
Keeping some carbs around your training times can help boost performance, strength and recovery.
2. Increased muscle mass
After training, muscle protein breakdown is at its highest. Providing the body with carbohydrates at this stage can provide glycogen replenishment when you’re most sensitive, as well as an increased insulin spike to create an ‘anabolic environment’ after training.
While some dismiss the ‘window of opportunity’ that training provides, our experience with thousands of clients has shown us that having your carbohydrates post workout can really help with building muscle and losing fat.
3. Thyroid output
Carbs can affect thyroid function directly due to the role insulin has in the conversion of the inactive T4 hormone, into the active T3 hormone which is responsible for healthy metabolism.
4. Better sleep
There are two times in the day we like to add carbohydrates: after training, and before bed. Simply put, carbs at night can help ‘relax’ the body and improve your sleep. To read more on how to use food for better sleep, click here.
So how much should I eat?
You might be beginning to think, ‘all of this sounds great, give me more carbs!’ Not so fast…
The way we determine carbohydrate intake at UP initially is by looking at a client’s body fat, muscle mass, insulin sensitivity and activity levels.
As a general rule, the leaner and more muscular someone is, the more carbs they can handle.
For example, a new client starting at 75kg with 25% body fat will probably be getting all their (limited) carbs from green vegetables and incidental intake from nuts and seeds.
On the other hand, a male who’s 80kg at 14% body fat will be able to include a lot more starchy carbs in the diet.
Another important point to consider is that carbohydrate intake should be inversely proportionate to fat intake.
If you’re on a high-fat diet, keep your carbs on the lower end, and vice versa.
To Carb or Not to Carb?
If carbs aren’t the devil, it then becomes a question as to whether you should or shouldn’t have carbs in the diet, when fat loss is the goal.
Here’s how we decide:
1.When to Low Carb
If you’re anything like the majority of our clients: busy, stressed and no real passion for nutrition, lower carb diets may be your friend.
Low carb diets are much, much easier and simpler to follow, especially for gen-pop clients.
Another bonus is that it gets results quickly at the beginning, which can help with motivation and provide the initial ‘buy-in’.
Also, if you travel a lot, and always caught on the go, it’s much easier to buy some meat or fish with greens, than it is to get the right amount of carbs, whilst keeping fat intake low.
2. When to Carb
On the other hand, if you’re already well trained, with an education in nutrition, a moderate carbohydrate approach may work better for you.
3. Personal Preference
All diets work. What really matters is finding the diet you can stick to consistently with ease and feel good on it.
This is the beauty of coaching and finding out what the client functions best on.
We have clients who after three years of training with us, will still feel and perform best on lower carb diets.
On the other hand, we have clients who are bouncing off the walls beaming with energy when carbohydrate intake is kept a little higher.
The real answer to how many carbs you should eat is:
- Set your protein goal
- Decide your approximate calorie intake
- Manipulate fats and carbs to find your personal sweet spot. Experiment!
In order to find this sweet spot, starting with a Low Carb Boot Camp and then slowly building carbohydrates into the diet, while constantly monitoring yourself, is the best way.
Every time you make changes, ask yourself these questions:
- How’s my focus at work?
- How’s my strength and performance in the gym?
- Am I sleeping well?
- Am I getting cravings?
By doing so, you’ll begin to build up knowledge of how your body responds to changes, and what type of diet you feel best on.
When it comes to adding carbohydrates to the diet, nutrient timing can play a very useful part in how you feel and how you perform.
The first place to add carbohydrates to the diet will be in the post-workout window.
This is the time to not only halt muscle protein breakdown, but also amplify the protein synthesis response already stimulated by protein intake.
After this, you may want to add carbohydrates at night time, for their ability to help you relax before sleeping.
From an adherence standpoint, it also makes sense to have more carbs at night to allow you to enjoy dinners with family and friends.
No carbs after 6 pm?
This myth has come from the assertion that since you’ll be going to sleep, your metabolism will slow down, your insulin sensitivity will diminish, and all the carbohydrates you eat will be stored as fat!
Without discussing all the metabolic mechanisms behind this, let’s look at some of the real evidence on this.
One study in Israel placed two groups of people on a calorie-restricted diet while keeping protein, fats and carbs exactly the same (Sofer, et al., 2011).
The only difference was that the control group ate carbs throughout the day, whereas the experimental group consumed almost all their carbs at night.
What they found was that the group who ate more carbs at night lost more body fat!
They also reported less hunger and less dietary temptations. These findings are critical as we know how important adherence and consistency is to any diet.
Interestingly, they also improved their insulin sensitivity from the reduced frequency of carb intake (spread throughout the day vs one meal only).
What Type of Carbs Should I Eat?
For the most part, your focus should be on eating high quality, low glycemic sources of carbohydrates.
Foods like sweet potatoes, quinoa and oats are all great choices.
The only time high glycemic type carbohydrates may be beneficial is during or post workout, especially if the sessions were high volume.
The verdict on carbs, like all things nutrition, is somewhere in the middle.
You probably don’t need 60% of your diet coming from carbs, nor do you need to go zero carb forever.
The answer lies in experimenting with your own unique physiology and psychology to find out what makes you feel, work and look the best it possibly can.