Don’t fear carbohydrates. Eat the right kinds, in the right amounts, at the right times, and this critical macronutrient will help fuel your loftiest fitness goals.
By C.J. Logan
Are carbs evil? In a word, NO.
They’re only thought to be evil because so many people eat the wrong kinds of carbs, at the wrong times, and in excess amounts.
If you’re pursuing any health and fitness goal – be it muscle-building, fat loss, improved athletic performance, or simply overall health and vitality – carbs should absolutely be a part of your nutrition plan. Case in point: The Undersun TA2 Lean Build nutrition strategy includes carbs, even though fat-burning is a major objective of the program.
The important thing is to make sure you’re using carbs to your advantage, not abusing them.
Let’s be honest, the topic of carbohydrates could fill up an entire textbook, so we’re going to keep this particular blog post focused on one specific time during the day that carbs are beneficial: post-workout.
Your post-workout carbs can be a great ally for your muscle gains, energy levels, and performance goals, provided you consume the right types of carbs in the right amounts. Below, we’ll give you one great example of exactly how to do that, courtesy of Undersun Fitness Founder and Chief Fitness Officer, James Grage, who’s been studying nutrition and putting it into practice for over 25 years.
The Good Side of Carbs: Energy Source
Before we get into the post-workout topic, let’s briefly discuss the function of carbs, particularly in the context of exercise.
Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients (protein and fat being the other two). Your body uses carbs as a primary source of energy. When carbs are consumed through food, your body breaks the macronutrient down into glucose and releases it into the bloodstream.
From there, glucose is used to produce energy in the form of ATP to perform any number of metabolic tasks. Once those tasks are fulfilled, any excess glucose present in the blood is stored as glycogen in muscles and the liver.
Stored muscle glycogen can be used later on to fuel exercise; this is why endurance athletes often like to “carb load” the night before a race. So that they can use that stored energy during their long, grueling competition the next day.
In this context, you can see the obvious benefits of consuming carbohydrates: To provide energy and fuel for demanding physical activity.
The Bad Side of Carbs: Stored as Body Fat
Now, here’s the bad news about consuming carbs: Those that aren’t used for fuel are often stored in the body as fat.
The muscles and liver can only store so much glycogen (somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 grams in the liver and 500 grams in the muscles). Once those stores are filled, excess glucose/carbs are converted into triglyceride molecules and stored as fat.
This is precisely why people say that “carbs make you fat.” Because if you eat too many of them (which most Americans do, unfortunately), you’ll store them as fat and gain unwanted pounds.
The Carb Conundrum for Fitness Fanatics
If you regularly exercise, stored glycogen can be used to fuel your next resistance-training workout – same concept as the aforementioned runner example. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, if your goal is to get as lean as possible (drop body fat), you’d be better off having empty glycogen stores when you hit the gym.
Why? Because you’d rather have your body use fat for fuel instead of glycogen. Your body can use either source for energy, but it will pull from glycogen stores first, then move on to your fat stores when glycogen is depleted.
This is the whole premise behind low-carb diets, particularly when used by fitness athletes looking to “lean out.” By having little to no glycogen available in the first place, the body is forced to use fat for energy, and voila! You get leaner!
However, when glycogen stores are depleted, you run the risk of losing muscle mass. Reason being, in the absence of glucose, muscle can be broken down into amino acids by the body to produce energy.
This is not a good thing. Not only is muscle important for strength, both in the gym and outside of it for everyday tasks, it’s also a highly metabolically active tissue; the more muscle you have, the more calories you’ll burn at rest. If you lose muscle, metabolism drops, as does your potential for fat loss.
What Carbs to Eat and When
You can see the balancing act here. You want enough carbohydrates in your diet to fuel workouts and preserve muscle mass, but you want to keep carbs low enough to prevent fat gain and promote fat loss.
“My philosophy on carbs is that when I want to get lean, I want to eat only enough carbs to keep my intensity and performance high in my workouts, but no more than that,” says Grage. “For me, that ends up being right around 80 grams of carbs per day.”
The keys to that last statement are what types of carbohydrates comprise those 80 grams and when they’re consumed.
“Almost half of my daily carbs come post-workout – around 30-35 grams,” says Grage, “and I like to make sure they’re complex carbs. My schedule is… I don’t have any carbs in the morning, because I train in the morning – both resistance training and HIIT cardio. My goal with those workouts is to burn some calories, burn some fat, and lean up a bit. So, I eat protein and good fats in the morning, and post-workout I get those complex carbs along with more protein. And then the rest of the day, my carbs are high-fiber sources through vegetables and occasionally fruit (if I’m craving something sweet).”
Grage’s go-to post-workout complex carbohydrate “cocktail” – in addition to 30 grams of protein powder mixed in – is as follows:
- 1/4 cup Italian Farro Oats
- 1/4 cup Steel Cut Oats
- 1/4 cup Red Winter Wheat Berries
“Texture (how cooked it is) is important for glycemic index,” says Grage, “so it’s important not to overcook any of the three ingredients. The steel-cut oats take 25 minutes, so that goes first. The wheat berry is 15 minutes, so that’s next. The Farro is a quick-cook variety, at 10 minutes. I also add 30 grams of protein mixed into the grains with a little cinnamon.”
The above amounts make a total of 3 servings. Each produces 31 grams of carbs, 1.7 grams of fat, 3.7 grams of fiber, only 0.3 gram of sugar, and 30 grams of protein.
Why Post-Workout is a Great Time for Carbs
When you consume carbs post-workout, you’re providing your body the glucose it needs to produce energy and preserve muscle mass (and hence keep the metabolism running high) without hindering its ability to burn body fat.
This assumes, of course, that you’re not going overboard on carbs; note that Grage’s carb intake post-workout (30-35 grams) is pretty modest compared to the 100-plus-gram doses that many bodybuilders are known for.
Post-workout carbs also promote muscle recovery, due to both glycogen replenishment and increased insulin secretion, which helps drive other nutrients (namely protein/amino acids) into the muscles to start repairing the broken-down muscle cells. After workouts is one time when elevated insulin is actually beneficial.
That said, Grage still prefers to keep his post-workout carbs low-glycemic, whereas others recommend fast-digesting sugars. “Personally, I always prefer whole grains to simple carbs and sugars, even after workouts, simply because I think it’s the healthier choice,” he says.
The Bottom Line on Carbs
Completely eliminating one of the three macronutrients (in this case, carbs) from your diet is a slippery slope. Sure, it can help you lose significant body fat in a short period of time, but you run the risk of losing muscle, wrecking your metabolism long-term, and all the while running low on energy and feeling like crap. The latter situation makes super-low-carb diets like keto and Atkins unsustainable for most people, and potentially very unhealthy.
Proponents of these diets often make carbs out to be the enemy. But if you’re smart about what carbs to eat, how much, and when, they’ll help fuel your loftiest fitness goals.
RELATED: Do you want to build muscle, lose fat and feel fitter? Enroll in our TA2 Lean-Build Nutrition Plan, where you’ll form healthy habits and increase your metabolic health by following this simple and accessible approach. Don’t miss out on your chance for amazing results. Sign up today!