Opinions on carbs differ widely in mainstream fitness media. You’ll find everything from “essential for health” to “addictive as cocaine and equally dangerous”. And for all of these opinions you will find some guru propagating them in the form of some weird diet to make money. Forget all of the non-sense, I have compiled a science based guideline on carbs to answer all the questions. Enjoy!
is a carb a carb?
Depending on whom you are listening to, you hear about “good” and “bad” carbs, and on the other hand that “a carb is just a carb” and it doesn’t matter what the source of carbs is. As often, the truth is in the middle.
It is true that all carbs that can be completely metabolized by the human body have the same energy content, no matter wherever you take them from: bananas, bread or gummy bears. As the energy content is the same, you can use all of these foods to fill out your macros and reach pretty much any dieting goal. So far, so good.
However, the source of your carbs plays a huge role on satiety and nutrient intake. As you surely can imagine, fruits offer far more nutrients than cookies. We also have to consider satiety, which is generally much higher in foods rich in fiber and water, so fruits and vegetables are superior in that regard.
Your takeaway? Eat fruits and veggies most of the time to make sure you are satiated and well nourished. After that you may have your sugary treats if they fit your macros. Be aware that ultra-processed foods have a number of drawbacks, so stay on the whole-food side of life.
what about fiber?
Strictly speaking, fiber is also just another kind of carbs. However, we are very inefficient at digesting it (soluble fiber), and sometimes even completely incapable to do so (insoluble fiber). Depending where you are living, fiber is, or is not figured into the calories labled on a product. Yes, this is a confounder, but you can simply ignore it, as it is a systematic error and evens out as long as you adapt your calories to your progress.
Fiber is important for gut and general health (especially your microbiome!) and it helps with satiety, so we have to get it in. Fruits, vegetables and legumes are perfect for this. Whole meal (or grains) are a second choice as they are usually a little harder to digest as they are pretty rich in anti-nutrients. And please forget those fiber supplements, just eat your veggies!
How many carbs should I eat?
Contrary to some aminoacids, some fats and vitamins, glucose (every metabolised carb is converted into glucose in the end) is not essential because it can be synthetized from other molecules, like alanine, glutamine or glycerol, through gluconeogenesis. However carbs can help with performance and recovery, although research on this in resistance training is limited. As they taste good and people just like to have them, there is no reason to leave them out.
There is no “hard number” on carbs that you should consume. You usually determine your protein and fat intake and allocate the rest to carbs. Most people don’t even worry about it in that detail as long as they hit protein and calories, they can use the remaining calories to fill it with fat and carbs as they see fit each day.
However, if you do endurance style training, play a sport or have long, hard training sessions, pushing your carbs up and leaving fats relatively low might be beneficial for performance and recovery. This is because our body likes to have pretty topped off glycogen storages (the storage form of carbs in animals) and eating plenty carbs ensures this.
When to eat my carbs?
When it comes to meal timing, I think most people overthink it. Prioritise meal quality first, only then you have earned the right to think about the nitty-gritty stuff like carb timing.
However, if you want to optimise, try to get the most of your carbs around training sessions if possible. Have some carbs (together with protein) before your session to fuel an intense workout. You may have some intra (during) workout carbs if you like so, most likely in the form of a carby beverage like orange juice or even maltodextrin. While it is unclear if intra carbs really benefit resistance training, it is well established that they help with endurance bouts. Give them a try, some people swear by it, some don’t feel any difference. The next meal after your training should also contain some carbs as they help with recovery.
When you plan your carby meals, consider when you eat them relative to your training session. Have easy to digest carbs before your workout (like rice) to make sure they do not distrub your training.
For some people it might be beneficial to have a portion of carbs before bed as they may induce sleep. Just give it a try if you have problems to get asleep by increasing your carb intake and reducing your fat before going to bed.
Carbs and fat loss
There are high carb diets, low carb diets, high fat diets, low fat diets and all claim to be “the best diet”, often giving themselves fancy sounding names to peek interest.
The beauty of fat loss is that all diets work that put you into a calorie deficit! There is literally no difference in a 200kcal deficit from a high carb diet to a 200kcal deficit from a low carb diet. However, the most important factor in dieting is compliance. You have to, at least somewhat, enjoy your diet. Without compliance you binge or quit your diet. That said, some people just like having more carbs and some like having more fats in their diet. So choose the type of diet that you enjoy and stop worrying about the carbs content of it.
By the way, you can read more about low carb vs. low fat diets here.
Are carbs even healthy?
Carbs can be as healthy or unhealthy as protein and fat. Again, food quality is important: whole foods are rich in fiber and micronutrients, so they are superior to highly processed foods. These should be the mainstay of your diet.
Processed foods (and carbs for this matter) usually aren’t unhealthy or “bad” on their own, the problem is that many people only eat the processed stuff and completely lack whole foods. So the problem isn’t that these foods are bad, the problem is that peole eat too little of the “good” stuff.
So yes, you can have your carbs. However, high blood glucose levels are inherently inflammatory. This type of short term inflammation usually isn’t a problem for healthy individuals, but in people struggling with autoimmune diseases, it can trigger the disease. Therefore low carb diets can be beneficial in certain diseases, improving quality of life massively by reducing drugs taken. Please get this right: low carb can help with certain diseases, but it is not going to improve your health if you are already healthy!
Carbs, in any form, are perfectly safe to consume. They aren’t better or worse than any other macronutrient. Carbs in the form of fruits, vegetables and legumes come with lots of micronutrients and fiber and are therefore essential for a healthy diet. Processed carbs like flour and sugar aren’t inherently bad, they just are easy to overconsume and offer little to no other benefits to a diet. Eat carbs to match your calorie needs, after getting in your protein and fat.
I hope I’ve answered all questions regarding carbs. If you still need more information or anything is unclear, please leave a message down in the comment section and help me grow this article!
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