By now, you should have calculated your daily caloric requirements and daily protein intake that correspond with your goals: building muscle, losing fat, or a combination. This segment of the macronutrients chapter addresses the most controversial macronutrient of them all: carbohydrates.
Allow me to start off this article by stating the following: Carbs (carbohydrates) are the least essential macronutrient in comparison to protein and fat. However, they are still useful and very important for optimal health and performance.
For whatever reason, the newest fad diets often promote a very low intake of carbs, and even zero carbs in extreme cases in speculation of maximizing weight and fat loss. While this is somewhat true, the truth is a bit deeper than that. While fat is the second most essential macronutrient, I intentionally put carbohydrates after protein due to the widespread misunderstanding and B.S. that surrounds them. Nonetheless, fat is more important.
Unfortunately, as a result of those low carbohydrate diets becoming mainstream, more people are starting to follow those trends. But, a few important questions arise:
1- Do very low carb diets really maximize weight and/or fat loss?
2- Since more people than ever are following low carb diets, why aren’t obesity rates decreasing? I am aware that many factors come into play here and that it wouldn’t be fair or correct to point the finger solely are low carb diets, but you would at least expect them to contribute a bit to a decrease in obesity rates nationwide.
3- Can prolonged intake of low carbohydrates have a negative impact on health?
With those points in mind, I shall move on to what this article is really about: what are carbohydrates and how do they affect health, muscle building and fat loss?
PS: There will be a complete separate LONG article on carbohydrates and low carb diets due to many people being scared of them, but let’s focus on the task at hand for now.
So, what are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates refer to the fiber, sugar, and starches that could be found in fruits, vegetables, sugar, grains, wheat, beans…etc. Chemically speaking, carbohydrates are made of the atoms of 3 elements: hydrogen, oxygen and carbon.
In comparison to protein and fat, the human body requires tiny amounts of carbohydrates for survival. Fortunately, our bodies are capable of producing carbohydrates on their own. They can do so through conversion of protein and fats to carbs in a process referred to as gluconeogenesis. However, the body cannot convert carbohydrates to fats or protein, thus they are essential and must be acquired from an external source: food.
Upon consumption, carbohydrates are converted into glucose which the body can then use as fuel for any activity you might be doing at the time, or it can be converted into glycogen and stored in the muscles and liver for later use. Glycogen is what gives you muscles that “full” look. However, due to the short-term nature of carbohydrates and why the body cannot store much of them, the human body doesn’t and cannot rely on carbohydrates as its main source of energy during periods of low food intake. Which is why the body’s preferred alternate energy source is stored body fat since its much more reliable, tons of it can be stored and contains more energy than carbohydrates when compared. That’s also why when we consume TOO MUCH carbohydrates, some of that will be converted into fat and stored for later use (Remember that this only occurs in the presence of a caloric surplus.) Think of it as a survival mechanism.
Carbohydrates are required for optimal cognitive function and physical performance. Yes, we don’t need carbohydrates to survive, but we need to consume them if we truly want to optimize those two components of our lives. If you have ever tried going low-carb, you know this is true because you experienced the following:
- You were more irritable than usual.
- You looked “flat”. Your muscles were glycogen depleted and you looked like crap. (We’ve all been there).
- You felt more lethargic than usual. Your energy levels were just not the same.
- Your performance in the gym or any sport you might play suffered. This holds more true for endurance based sports. For example: soccer.
- Mood swings, anyone?
- Your pumps in the gym suck compared to eating regularly.
Those are just a handful of what many of us experience when we intentionally consume lower than normal amounts of carbohydrates. With that being said, after you calculate your daily caloric requirements, ideal protein intake and ideal fat intake (in the next segment of this chapter), the remainder of your caloric intake will come from carbs. Ironically, carbohydrates will also make up the majority of your daily caloric intake!
Carbs do not make you fat!
Remember what the first and most important factor of gaining fat was? If you have a good memory you will recall that it’s a caloric surplus! That’s it! An excess of consumed in the absence of physical exercise will cause an accumulation of body fat. So, why is everyone accusing carbohydrates of making us fat then? Yes, it is true that carbs can be converted into fat and stored for later use, but this occurs in the presence of a caloric surplus and consumption of high amounts of carbohydrates.
In other words, if you are in a state of caloric balance (calories in = calories out) and you eat a lot of carbs, guess what happens? Nothing! You don’t gain fat. So, we only gain fat when we consume more energy than our bodies need. In fact, same goes for the other macronutrients; protein and fat. They don’t make you fat, but if you eat too much of them and you consume a caloric surplus, you will gain weight. That’s why “clean eating” is kind of b.s. (more on that later).
Carbs and muscle building
You know that insanely good pump you get once every 10 workouts? You know what kind of pump I am talking about; that pump that makes you take your shirt off in the gym’s bathroom and stare at your gains for an hour then take pictures and post them on facebook or instgram. 😉 We’ve all been guilty of those. Anyway, if you have a high-carb meal prior to working out, you will most likely experience that pump again! While this may be self-amusing, this isn’t how carbs can help you build muscle.
- Carbohydrates can help you build muscle by:
- Optimizing your performance at the gym.
- Making up the bulk of your calories and thus help you eat a caloric surplus.
Increasing the glycogen content within your muscles. This is not necessary to build muscle, but it will help you look your best by keeping your muscles full.
Carbs and fat loss
Contrary to popular belief, carbohydrates can also help you lose fat! In fact, some people will do horribly on very low carb diets in terms of losing body fat and performance. This is even more true for carb tolerant individuals. Those individuals can handle carbs well, so it wouldn’t make sense to put them on a completely low-carb diet. Those individuals will most likely feel sick, experience awful mood swings and might even faint if they try to consume no carbs, like myself. This is usually the case when transitioning to low-carb diets, though. So, keep in mind that carbohydrates are not essential, but some people can handle them better than others.
Carbs can help you lose fat by:
- Once again, optimizing your performance in the gym. The energy you get from eating carbs can help you push yourself more in the gym.
- Protein sparing. This means that your body will tap into alternative sources of energy rather than breaking down protein (muscle tissue). Thus, carbs can help you maintain your muscle mass and maximize fat loss.
- Put you in a moderate caloric deficit as opposed to an extreme caloric deficit. This is true since majority of someone’s caloric intake comes from carbs. The faster you try to lose weight/fat, the more muscle you will lose in the process.
It’s also worth to note that dietary fiber (carbs), as previously discussed, optimizes your digestive process and manages blood glucose levels, which can both result in better nutrient partitioning (towards muscle cells), improved health, better absorption of vitamins and nutrients, and better bowel movements. Again, good for muscle building and fat loss. You won’t be able to get fiber from protein or fats!
The next step is to address the different types of carbs: complex and simple carbs. Are there any differences between the two? Differences that matter to us anyway.
Carbohydrates are not so bad after all, ha? 😉 Oh, and they’re delicious!