Carbohydrates are one of Nature’s amazing gifts, created from the energy of the sun and the carbon dioxide in the air, providing us with not only a source of fuel for our bodies but also oxygen for us to breathe! That’s pretty awesome, if you ask me. So, how is it that something so perfect in nature is considered to be bad for you?
The simple truth is that carbohydrates are not bad for you.
When carbohydrates are eaten the right way, you can energize your body and mind and still be lean, healthy and fit!
You just have to know the 3 Pillars of Conscious Carbohydrate Consumption.
- What type of carbs to eat (source)
- How much of them to eat (portion size)
- When to eat them (timing)
PILLAR #1: CARB SOURCE
Let’s start with your two main types of carbohydrates: simple carbohydrates (sugars) and complex carbohydrates (starches and fibers).
Simple Carbs (aka sugars)
In nature, simple carbohydrates are found in fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains and other foods. They come in the form of natural sugars (fructose, sucrose, glucose and galactose). Processed sugar (sucrose) is made from extracting and crystalizing sugars found in natural sources such as sugar cane. These sugar molecules are easy for the body to break down, raising blood sugar levels quickly and giving the body a fast source of energy.
Complex Carbs (aka starches)
Complex carbohydrates are chains of more than three sugar molecules combined. In nature, you’ll find complex carbs in the form of nuts, whole grains, legumes and seeds. When your body digests these types of carbs, it takes longer to break these longer chains down, raising blood sugar levels more gradually and providing a more sustained source of energy.
It would be easy to assume that simple sugars are bad and complex carbs are good, but sometimes it’s the opposite – simple carb sources can be good and complex carbs can be bad. So, what’s the deciding factor?
When Bad Carbs Do Good and Good Carbs Go Bad
Why is it that fruit can be healthy, although it contains simple carbs, but pasta can be unhealthy even though it’s a complex carb? The simple answer is because a piece of fruit is a type of carbohydrate in its natural form, the way nature made it. Although it contains fructose, a natural form of sugar, it also contains fiber, which slows down the digestive process and lowers blood glucose response.
Pasta, on the other hand, although made from grains, is highly refined and processed. The way nature designed grains, there’s a perfect balance. Grains naturally contain three key edible components: the bran, germ, and endosperm.
The bran is the outer layer that makes brown rice look brown. When brown rice is refined, the bran is stripped off, leaving you with the starchy endosperm, which we call “white rice.” The bran is where all your natural fiber is. Any food made from grains that looks white has had all of its bran stripped out in the milling process. This is an example of taking a good complex carbohydrate, with good natural fiber content, and turning it into a man-modified refined carbohydrate that digests quickly and therefore raises blood sugars more rapidly.
Why Ruin A Good Thing?
So, why is it that we take something that’s so good in its natural form and ruin it? Simple: Because of our need to make everything easier and more convenient.
Not only does fiber (bran) take longer to digest, it also takes longer to cook. This is why whole grain oats are rolled flat (rolled oats) to break the bran and expose the endosperm, allowing the oats to cook quicker. It’s the same reason they’re cut with steel blades (steel cut). This process of making foods quicker and easier to cook was the beginning of “faster food.”
Here’s one important thing to remember: The quicker something cooks, generally the faster you’ll be able to digest it. A firm baked potato is going to be lower glycemic than mashed potatoes, all because of the texture of the food (soft vs. hard) and the rate at which the body is able to digest it.
We’re starting to see a theme here: Slower digestion raises blood sugars more gradually, giving us more sustained energy and feeling full longer. Faster digesting carbohydrates raise blood sugar levels more quickly, giving us shorter bursts of energy and often leaving us feeling hungrier between meals.
The faster digesting carbs can also spike insulin levels, which subsequently crash, leaving us feeling hypoglycemic. Not only does this affect your energy; it also increases your desire to eat more food sooner.
Carb Rule of Thumb: Foods in their natural forms are generally lower on the glycemic index (GI), a measure of how quickly a food increases blood sugar.
PILLAR #2: CARB PORTION SIZE
It’s not only important what kind of carbohydrates you eat – it’s equally important how much of them you eat. This is the difference between glycemic index (what source) and glycemic load (how much of it). When you eat too much of something, even a low-glycemic food, it ends up providing a high glycemic load and can still spike blood sugar levels.
In simple terms, we’re talking about portion sizes. A bowl of steel cut oats is a good, healthy carb source; eating three bowls, however, is probably too much and will have negative effects. Likewise, a higher GI food can have a low glycemic load if you’re eating a very small quantity of it.
Excess Calories from Carbs Can Turn to Fat
Glycemic load affects blood sugar and insulin levels, but at a more basic level it comes back to the amount of calories you’re eating.
More carbohydrates means more calories, and calories in versus calories out still matters. Consume more calories than you burn, and you’re going to gain weight. It doesn’t matter if those excess calories come from carbs – they’ll still be stored as body fat.
We’re not cavemen. We don’t need to gorge on food while we have it in fear that our next meal could be days away. Food is readily available, so there’s no need for large portions. We can fuel our bodies through the day with more frequent, but smaller portions, including small portions of good low-glycemic carbs. This is eating the right kinds of carbs, in the right amounts, to help stabilize the rise and fall of blood sugar levels throughout the day.
The No-Brainer Approach to Portion Sizes
You don’t need measuring cups and weight scales to determine the right amount of carbs. A more intuitive way to figure out how much to eat is to use humans’ original utensils: our hands.
Here’s a general rule of thumb: Your carb portions should fit in the palm of one hand. If your portion of rice is bigger than what you could hold in the palm of your hand, it’s too much. You can hold an apple in your palm – that’s a good carb source for a meal. Three apples in your palm? Only if you can juggle!
Total Carbs vs. Net Carbs
If you’re already tracking your carbs, remember that there are two numbers you need to pay attention to: total carbs and net carbs.
Total carbs comprise all sources of carbohydrates in a given food or meal – starches, sugars, fiber, etc. Net carbs include only those carb sources that can be fully digested by the body and converted to glucose. The most common carb sources that cannot be digested are fiber, so those are subtracted from total carbs to arrive at the net carbs.
If you’re monitoring your carbs closely, the number that really “counts” is net carbs.
To calculate net carbs, look at the Nutrition Facts label of a given food. You’ll see numbers (in grams) for Total Carbohydrate and Dietary Fiber. Here’s the simple formula for figuring net carbs:
Total Carbohydrate – Dietary Fiber = Net Carbs
For example, if a food has 27 grams of total carbs and 12 grams of fiber, it has 15 Net Carbs.
One caveat, though: Don’t try and overload on pure fiber to offset your total carbs. The recommended daily fiber intake is 21-25 grams for women and 30-38 grams for men; exceeding that can possibly cause digestive issues.
Pillar #3: Carb Timing
What types of carbs and how much of them you eat is critical, but when you eat them also matters.
Your body has different nutritional needs throughout the day, depending on what you’re doing. Are you just starting your day and heading off to work? About to go train, or just finishing a workout? Sitting around on your couch in the evening? How you fuel your body for these activities (or inactivities) will play a major role in how you look and feel.
When To Fuel The Tank
Since carbs equal energy, think about when you need more energy and when you don’t during the day…
First thing in the morning, sustained energy from complex carbohydrates and/or low-glycemic carbs like fruit is helpful to power your brain (remember your brain alone uses 120-130 grams of glucose daily) and your body.
During an intensity workout, your Type II (fast twitch) muscle fibers use glucose as a source of fuel, tapping into those glucose reserves (glycogen) stored in your muscles and liver.
After your workout, the body is hungry to restore that depleted glycogen. This is another good time to eat good complex carbohydrates. Many old school bodybuilders use simple carbs (sugars) to quickly restore their glycogen stores, but this isn’t necessary, especially if you’re trying to manage your blood sugar levels.
First thing in the morning, early in the day, and after a workout are all times you need more fuel, and the right type of carbohydrates in the right amount are a good thing.
When is a bad time to eat carbs? When you’re relaxing late in the day (evening and nighttime), with very little activity, you don’t need as much energy. A good rule of thumb is to start lowering the amount of carbs you eat the later it gets in the day. And make sure that late afternoon carbs come from high-fiber foods like broccoli, cauliflower and asparagus.
Here’s one last thought that puts it in perspective. After a meal, depending on the type of carbohydrates you ate, it can take anywhere from 60-90 minutes for your blood sugar levels to hit their peak before they start coming back down, and up to 3 hours after a meal for them to normalize. This means that if you eat a carbohydrate-rich dinner at 9pm, your blood sugar levels aren’t coming back down to baseline until around midnight. That’s not a good thing.
Carb Timing Rule of Thumb
If you work 9-to-5 (give or take) and exercise during the day, here’s a basic carbohydrate prescription:
- Complex/low GI carbs early in the day to fuel your brain and muscles for work and daily activity. Oats and fruit are good choices here.
- Save moderate GI carbs for after workouts.
- In the evening, get your carbs from vegetables, not starches like pasta and bread.
If your primary goal is to build muscle (but still stay relatively lean), make sure you replenish your carbs after every workout with good complex carbohydrates.
If you want a good pump and full muscles during your workout, make sure you eat some carbs beforehand, preferably complex/low GI sources like oats and fruit.
If you want to lose body fat, be mindful about when you’re consuming carbs. If you’re about to do a cardio workout for the specific purpose of fat loss, you want your body to use fat, not carbs, as an energy source. The last thing you want to do in the hours before a fat-burning cardio session is eat a bunch of carbohydrates. Remember, the body prefers glucose as a source of fuel over fat or protein.
How Blood Sugar Levels Affect Your Goals
Now that we’ve talked a lot about how faster digesting carbohydrates raise blood sugar levels, let’s quickly cover how that affects the way you look and feel.
When blood sugar levels rise, the body responds by releasing a hormone called insulin, which regulates our blood sugar levels by either making that energy available for immediate use or storing it in other cells (fat cells, muscle cells, liver cells). In normal circumstances, with a healthy diet and moderate portions, insulin is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do.
Now, if you’re raising blood sugar levels higher and faster than you need for immediate energy, that energy is going to be stored for later. Problem is, only so much can be stored in the liver and muscle – but fat cells are a different story.
Insulin helps us store away all that energy in the form of body fat… and it will store, store, and store. Not only can insulin promote fat storage, it can also inhibit lipolysis – or more simply put, our ability to burn fat for energy.
How Insulin Affects Our Energy & Health
We’ve covered how chronically elevated blood sugar levels can affect the way we look (body fat), but what about the way we feel?
When insulin is working the way it’s supposed to, it helps in the production of energy from carbs. But when we consume carbohydrates that are digested too quickly (high glycemic), this causes a sudden rise and fall of our blood sugar levels, which can leave you feeling fatigued.
The sudden fall in blood sugar often results in crashing below our baseline levels, leaving us in a hypoglycemic state.
Over time, if we eat the wrong types of carbohydrates (refined, processed), the overproduction of insulin in our body can potentially lead to what’s called Type II Diabetes.
With Type II, our body is able to produce insulin, but the cells in our body stop responding the way they’re supposed to. This leads to the body producing more insulin to try and keep blood sugar levels regulated. There’s a name for this: insulin resistance.
When Type II diabetics are prescribed insulin to offset the “resistance,” it can lead to unwanted weight gain from the added insulin. Over time, diabetes and obesity can lead to other diseases such as heart disease, kidney failure, blindness, and loss of limbs (just to name a devastating few). In the U.S. right now, it’s estimated by the CDC that 1 in 3 Americans are either diabetic or pre-diabetic.
The Secret To Carb Consumption
One of the most important factors when it comes to carbohydrate consumption, and the management of our blood sugar levels, is fiber (aka “roughage”). It’s not technically considered an “essential nutrient,” but it’s absolutely essential to weight loss success and overall health. That’s why fiber is the sole topic of the next article in Part 5 of the Carbs 101 Series: The Super Nutrient we Ignore: Fiber.
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