Carbs. Everyone generally interested in nutrition and healthy eating seems to be talking about carbs these days. But before I tell you all about them, I must address one of my biggest pet peeves and one of the biggest myth that seems to be floating around – the idea that you can “give up carbs”. Let me just say definitively that you cannot. Why? Because they are in everything that is good for you. Fruits. Vegetables. Even whole dairy. Because, you see, “carbs” are not pasta, rice, and baked goods. “Carbs” is really just an abbreviation for carbohydrates – the body’s main source of energy. So, you can give up grains. You can give up starchy carbohydrates. But you can’t really give up ALL carbohydrates. Allow me to explain further…
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are molecules made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, and can be found in simple or complex structures. They provide fuel and are the body’s most readily available source of energy.
Why do you need them?
When you eat carbohydrates, the body breaks them down into the simple sugar glucose, which is then transported throughout the body to provide energy, fuel important reactions, and maintain blood sugar levels. Any glucose not used immediately is stored in your liver as glycogen. During quick bouts of exercise, like a 100 meter sprint, the body uses glucose as the main source of fuel. But when it needs additional energy during longer workouts, it will draw on its glycogen stores, as well as stored fat, for energy. Having enough glycogen stored up for the body to use will allow you to perform at your best, both in competition and training. On the other hand, not getting enough carbohydrates and energy to meet your needs over an extended period of time can weaken your immune system – meaning you could get sick more often – and make you feel less energetic.
Where do you find them?
Carbohydrates come from a variety of sources, and some are better than others. Some of the better sources of carbohydrates include fruits and vegetables, starches like sweet potato, and some whole grains (quinoa, oats, barley). Fruits and vegetables are the best sources of carbohydrates because they have more fiber and other nutrients like vitamins and minerals (that occur naturally, not through fortification) and are less energy dense. Which carbohydrates you choose will depend on your goals (I’ll get to that in a minute).
The carbohydrates to avoid include baked goods, simple sugars (like table sugar and syrups), processed grains (or “white” grains), and other processed snack foods.
How many should you be eating?
How much carbohydrate you need depends on the intensity and volume of training, gender, and type of sport. Research indicates that elite (college and professional) athletes need 6-12 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight (weight in kilograms = weight in pounds divided by 2.2). Women and less active athletes will be on the lower end of that range, while men or endurance athletes will be on the higher end. However, most recreational athletes will need fewer carbohydrates, as they are not training over 2 hours per day as those athletes do. For most people I recommend 3-6 grams/kg of body weight, depending on your training. For example, a runner who does CrossFit twice a week and is trying to maintain weight will want to eat more carbohydrates than someone who does CrossFit four times a week and is trying to lose weight.
The thing about carbohydrates is there is not enough evidence to recommend exact levels to everyone. How much you need depends on your training, weight, and goals, but also on your subjective feelings. Two people might eat the same proportion of carbohydrates, and while one person feels fantastic, the other feels low energy and lethargic. All things considered, if you can’t focus at work you likely need to eat more carbohydrates.
Should You Be Giving Up Grains?
During the Transformation Challenge, a lot of us are giving up grains for 6 weeks. But after the challenge, how should you deal with reintroducing them? Or should you at all? Here are a few tips:
- Keep your weight goals in mind. If you’re trying to lose weight, keeping grains mostly out of your diet – while allowing yourself greater liberation in other areas – is a good way to cut out unnecessary calories. If you’re trying to gain weight (or have trouble maintaining it), it is much harder to get enough calories and carbohydrates without grains. It’s possible, but far more difficult (and expensive).
- Keep your fitness goals in mind: Endurance sports will require more carbohydrates than anaerobic sports (like CrossFit).
- Keep the grains healthy. Even if you do add back in grains, don’t add in the Eggo waffles, Oreos, and white grains. Add back in bread with only a few ingredients in it (less than 5),brown rice, oats, barley, etc.