Carbohydrates are the macronutrient that breaks down into sugars. Starches and fibers are also carbs. They are a natural part of fruits, vegetables, and dairy. They are also found in foods made of flours. Carbs are a great source of energy for people who have an active lifestyle and already have a lot of muscle mass, but if your goal is to lose weight and improve your health, carbs may be holding you back.
How Carbs Affect the Body
When carbs are ingested, the pancreas releases insulin to regulate blood sugar levels. How your body regulates the sugar is dependent on the glycemic load of the carbohydrate, how much protein or fat was consumed, and how sensitive you are to insulin. Weight management, mood and energy levels are all affected by this process.
For example, sodas cause very large blood sugar spikes. This creates a rush of energy and a boost in mood. A large amount of sugar requires a large amount of insulin to shuttle it from the blood. Once the insulin processes the sugar, your blood sugar levels drop drastically, leaving you tired, hungry and irritable. A diet that stimulates large quantities of insulin will lead to blood sugar instability, weight gain, and eventually insulin-resistance.
Carbs can be beneficial for active people as they replenish muscle glycogen and provide the body a secondary source of fuel for heavy activity. For those who are overweight or sedentary, your body may be less efficient at nutrient partitioning, and most of the carbs you eat will end up stored as fat. Nutrient partitioning is how the body decides to store the energy you've ingested. This process is improved when you have low bodyfat, but it doesn't work as well when you're carrying extra weight. This is why fit, active people can eat more carbs than sedentary people without gaining weight.
How Much Is Too Much?
The amount of carbs you eat depends on your muscle mass, bodyfat percentage and activity levels. A high-carb diet would be considered 300 grams per day or more and this would be tolerated by bodybuilders and most athletes. Low-carb is 150 grams per day or less, and very low-carb is below 50 grams per day. For weight loss, the sweet spot typically lies between 25-100 grams of carbs daily. If you have no idea how many carbs you're eating, I suggest you take a day or two to assess your diet.
The benefits of a low-carb diet include decreased appetite, increased satiety after meals, steady energy throughout the day, fat loss, and improved lipid profiles. If you're trying to lose weight and you plan on reducing the amount of carbs in your diet, expect a change in your energy levels. If you've been eating a higher carb diet for most of your life, you can bet that your body expects regular sugar intake for fuel. It will require some time to adapt to having less sugar in the diet. Essentially what you're doing is switching from burning carbs to burning fat which will require you to include more protein and healthy fats in your diet. This switch should be made gradually to give the body time to adapt without sabotaging your energy levels and increasing sugar cravings. Focus on eliminating the worst carbs in your diet first.
Good Carbs and Bad Carbs
Our bodies don't respond to every carb the same way. Wheat, for example, is high in the sugar amylopectin A which absorbs incredibly fast and causes a massive blood sugar spike, more so than eating candy. Fructose, the sugar found in small amounts in fruits and large amounts in high fructose corn syrup, doesn't spike insulin at all. This may sound beneficial at first, but unless your liver is glycogen depleted, this sugar is converted straight to fat.
The worst carbohydrates are foods that raise the blood sugar quickly. Some of the worst choices are things you would expect like sugar, flour, candy, cereals, sodas, bread, and pasta. There are other carbs to avoid you may not expect such as corn, peas, beans, juices, milk, and white potatoes. The carbs in these foods are very quickly absorbed and elicit spikes in both your blood sugar and insulin levels.
Lower carbohydrate options include most fruits and vegetables, and nuts. Eating these foods provides a steady supply of energy, fewer mood swings, and more stable insulin levels. It's important to experiment and assess how your body reacts to different types of carbs and different amounts. Try to include lots of vegetables such as leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, squash, zucchini, peppers, asparagus, radishes, and cabbages.
If your day begins with a bagel, a banana, and a glass of milk, you can expect a large blood sugar spike and subsequent crash within hours. Morning is also the time when the body is more likely to store carbs as fat. To fuel your body for sustainable energy, load up on protein and fat while keeping carbs to a minimum at breakfast.
Earn your carbs.
The best time to enjoy your carbs is 30-60 minutes after a hard workout. With this strategy, you perform resistance training (lifting weights, bodyweight training, sprints) so you can use carbs to raise insulin and push nutrients into the muscles. After a workout, your muscle cells will be very insulin-sensitive and looking to replenish glycogen. Resistance training is the best way to earn your carbs.
Eat whole food, complex carbs.
The majority of your carbs should be from unprocessed whole food sources. These carbohydrates have a lower glycemic index and are slower to digest. They also have more nutrients than carbs from processed sources. Sweet potatoes, rutabaga, plantains, acorn squash, almonds, bananas, apples, chestnuts, beets, and carrots are all examples of healthy, whole food carbs.
Combine carbs with protein or fat.
Protein and fat both lower the absorption of the sugars by slowing gastric emptying. Fat has been shown to blunt the spike of blood sugar associated with eating carbs. Adding butter to your carbs would allow for a more level insulin response.
Cinnamon has been shown to lower blood sugar when carbs are ingested by improving insulin sensitivity.
If you're struggling with low energy levels, mood swings or weight gain, I recommend tracking your food for a few days in order to asses your current carb intake for quality and quantity. A low-carb diet is easy to implement. Begin by making adjustments in your carb choices. Choose healthy, unprocessed carb sources and be sure to include protein, fats, and vegetables in your meals. Then slowly decrease your daily carb consumption, avoiding AM carbs, and finally, add exercise and you will be well on your way to seeing gainz.