Get to Know your Macronutrients: Carbohydrates
After a long hiatus, I’m back with my “weekly” blog. We’ll pick up on the discussion of macronutrients. We’ve covered protein and fat. This week will be carbohydrates.
In my post on fat, I commented on how the 1980s and 90s had us terrified of consuming fats. This is still prevalent in those who have a hard time shaking the ideas that were planted in their heads many years ago, but that dogma is mostly on its way out, with people realizing that fat is a valuable macronutrient and part of a balanced diet. Many are realizing that they operate better than ever on a high fat and lower carb diet and that all those years of fearing fat consumption were actually hurting their body composition and performance.
I’m of the opinion that the same thing is happening with carbohydrates now. As a society, we tend to swing dramatically from paradigm to paradigm. Whereas it was “fat is bad, carbs are good”, and everyone was attempting to eliminate all fat from their diet, now everyone seems to want to completely eliminate carbs from their diet. This is just as misguided. Except in extreme cases, carbohydrates have a valuable place in a balanced and efficient diet, especially in active people and in athletes. Without any personal basis or data for their decision, we have a tremendous amount of declaring that carbs are the devil.
Carbohydrates can be an excellent source of energy, and are often associated with some of the most nutrient dense foods that are available to eat.
There are many variables in the carbohydrate equation. Before you can make a decision on whether you should eat low carb, high carb or somewhere in the middle, you have to take your function as a human into consideration.
How Active are You?
When you eat carbohydrates, they are broken down during the digestive process into glucose. The presence of glucose signals the release of insulin. Insulin helps transport glucose from the blood to cells where it’s either burned for energy or stored. Short term, this energy source is a tremendous resource that can be incredibly useful if you need it. Long term, in most people, this stored of glucose translates into a storage of body fat.
With this in mind, your daily function as a human being will be a huge determining factor in where you will fall on the carbohydrate range. If you start to think about carbohydrates in their cost/benefit regarding your short term energy needs, the picture becomes a little clearer as to where you should sit on the low carb/high carb spectrum.
If you are mostly sedentary and you spend most of your life either sitting or lying down, and spend less than 2 hours a week exercising, you will most likely fall on the low end of the carbohydrate spectrum. This doesn’t mean you should cut out all forms of carbohydrate. If you are truly in this category, your carbohydrates should come primarily from cruciferous vegetables (things like broccoli, kale, and brussel sprouts).
If you are an active, hard charging athlete, who works out intensely 4-5x/week, and are generally very lean, you are probably more tolerant of dietary carbohydrates. Again, this doesn’t mean you can go free reign on anything with a higher carbohydrate profile, or that just because you happened to Zumba your ass off for the last 20 minutes that you can punish a container of ice cream. If you are someone who is CrossFitting 4-5x a week, you move around all day at work and can’t grab a handful of fat from your stomach, your daily intake can have more carbohydrate dense quality foods, like starchy vegetables (sweet potatoes, potatoes, squash).
This will take some experimentation, tracking and likely some guidance.
Types of Carbohydrates
Notice that even for the hard charging athlete, the source of carbohydrate is still very important. There is a spectrum of carbs. Some are good, some are bad, and many fall somewhere in the middle (again, this is dependent on the person). In general, your better carbohydrates are going to be things like vegetables and the occasional fruit. These are going to contain valuable nutrients, vitamins and minerals. They are great sources of fiber, and they will take longer for the body to process and turn into glucose. This means that your blood sugar won’t spike so fast, and that you’ll have a longer opportunity to burn before it is stored as fat.
The bad carbohydrates are going to be your highly processed and refined foods like cookies, candies, white flour, chips, etc. These are going to have almost zero nutrients and hammer your bloodstream with a rush of glucose and a subsequent spike in insulin. I’m sure you’ve felt that sugar rush when you have eaten those types of foods. It’s also why when you’re feeling hungry in the middle of the afternoon that eating these types of foods are so satisfying.
There are many foods that fall somewhere in the middle and will depend more on your tolerance and your function as a human. These are items like potatoes, pastas and breads. Depending on how you operate, these can be tremendously detrimental to your health, feeling and appearance, or they can be a beneficial part of your diet.
So How Do I Know For Sure?
It’s hard to generalize and make an accurate prediction for anyone, and I haven’t given you a ton of concrete rules or hard guidelines to follow. But as I’ve suggested many times in blog posts past, tracking and logging data is your best route to success. Keeping a food log on something like myfitnesspal.com will give you an accurate depiction of your daily, weekly and monthly macronutritients. If you keep your protein at or above 1g/pound of bodyweight, you can vary your carbohydrates and fats to make up the rest of your caloric intake. Pair that with logging your workouts, body composition and taking frequent pictures, and you'll be able to accurately tweak your daily intake.
If you feel like you need more guidance, I am happy to help, or I have a handful of very talented nutritionists that I can refer you to if you’d like.
Email or comment with questions!