The great debate about whether or not to eat carbohydrates never seems to be settled. Every year a study comes out proving that carbs are good while another says carbs are bad. We as a society decipher this information to determine how to balance our diet to live a long and happy life.
There are two main categories of carbohydrates — simple and complex carbohydrates.
Simple carbohydrates are comprised of one or two sugars like those found in juice and candy. Complex carbohydrates are comprised of three or more sugars such as apples and broccoli.
How are you supposed to know if and how many carbs to consume? Is there a best time to consume carbs?
The answers to these questions are complex and depend greatly on the individual. For instance, a professional athlete who exercises 3 hours a day may consume carbs regularly to maintain performance. However, an office worker who exercises 20 minutes a day, or maybe not all, does not need to consume near as many.
When deciding whether or not to consume carbohydrates consider the health and fitness goals you want to achieve. The majority of us do not have to worry too much about consuming carbs if we focus on “healthy” carbs.
For instance, if most of your carbs come from vegetables and fruit you will consume all the carbs your body needs and supply it with other beneficial nutrients it needs to thrive. Whole wheat and oats do not need to be avoided entirely, but when you eat them might be the most important factor. Lastly, highly processed carbs like most granola bars and cereals should be avoided due to the excess sugar added to the product.
Let’s take a deeper look into the role of carbs in the body, the different types of carbs and the best time to consume them.
Carbohydrates are Your Bodies Preferred Source of Energy
There are three macronutrients that our bodies need to perform at the highest level — carbohydrates, protein, and fat. All of the food that we eat falls into one of these three categories. In terms of energy usage, the body prefers to use carbohydrates. It does so by breaking down food into glucose that the cells use as fuel.
However, carbs also play a critical role in our diet beyond energy usage. According to Julie E. Holesh and Andrew Martin, carbs “help control blood glucose and insulin metabolism, participate in cholesterol and triglyceride metabolism, and help with fermentation.” Fiber is the primary driver in controlling blood glucose and insulin metabolism. Fiber-rich food includes:
Caution should be placed on overconsumption of carbs because any extra glucose the body doesn’t use is sent to the liver and muscle tissue for storage. The glucose is then stored as fat and waits to be used until there are low levels of glucose in the body. Too much fat, specifically in the abdominal region and around the liver can cause serious negative health effects.
Simple Carbohydrates versus Complex Carbohydrates
When choosing what carbs to eat, if choosing to eat them, it should be focused on the quality of the carbohydrate. Consuming simple carbs, like those found in candy and juice, add unnecessary sugar and little to no beneficial nutrients to your diet.
Instead, focus on consuming complex carbs, like those found in whole vegetables and fruits. Some fruits might be high in sugar, but this is balanced out due to the vitamins and minerals they provide. Example: A small gala apple (5.5 oz) contains 16 grams of sugar, but also contains 4 grams of fiber, 50 mg of vitamin A, and 167 mg of potassium.
Many nutritious foods fall into the complex carbohydrate category, such as:
- Sweet Potatoes
You may have noticed that some items on this list of complex carbs are the same as those in the list of high fiber — this is not a coincidence. When thinking about what carbs might be best for you to consume you should be asking yourself, what food is high in fiber?
Timing Carbohydrate Intake
Some studies have shown that the timing of carbohydrate intake might be more important than the overall carbohydrate intake daily. What these studies are discussing is how our body uses glycogen stores — your body’s energy supply.
Some exercises such as moderate to high-intensity endurance and resistance training rely heavily on carbs for fuel, according to one study published in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition. The study also found that eating 8–10 grams per kilogram of body weight per day is best for those performing more intense exercises 12 hours or more per week.
However, most of us do not come near this level of physical activity. According to Health and Human Services, less than 5% of adults perform 30 minutes of physical activity per day. Therefore, we might conclude that timing carb intake might be best for the majority of us today.
When is the best time to consume carbs?
For us to perform our best during a workout, whether that be walking the dog, yoga, weight lifting, or a high-intensity interval training session it is important to properly fuel the body. Most of us have heard of carbo-loading, but again, this is generally reserved for endurance athletes.
However, consuming a small carb-rich meal within 60 minutes has shown to benefit performance. This meal should be small less than 200 calories and contain mostly carbs — a banana is perfect.
Most nutritionists and personal trainers agree that consuming a healthy meal post-workout is vital to recovery. Some may even push supplements, but I believe consuming foods in their whole state is far more beneficial.
A post-workout meal consisting of protein and complex carbohydrates can help with protein synthesis as well as replenish your glycogen stores. These benefits are best obtained when the meal is consumed within 1–3 hours after the workout is complete, according to a study out of the University of Texas.
How to know if carbs are healthy?
Naturally, at this point, you might be wondering what is healthy to eat and what is not. I once read, “if you have to read a food label to determine what your food is made of, you are probably eating the wrong food.”
Therefore, we can assume that all foods consumed in their whole natural state are generally safe and nutritious. Meanwhile, processed food such as fruit juice and granola bars are probably not as nutritious as what the package says — these foods tend to have a lot of added sugar.
Carbohydrates, even though they get a bad rap — due to people thinking pasta and sugar — play an important role in the body. They are crucial to our body’s energy needs, especially for high endurance athletes. Also, carbs contain nutrients the body needs to thrive, like fiber which we do not consume enough of today.