Carbs, carbs, carbs. Should we eat them, avoid them like the plague, or should we perhaps only eat specific carbs? Does it matter what time we eat them? Do they make us fat?
As an online strength and conditioning coach, I deal with questions like these all the time. Many of us seek to blame this specific macronutrient in our diet when we gain weight, and aim to eliminate it when we want to lose fat. But should we?
Today I’m going to share a couple of studies with you in efforts to bust some myths about carbs. To make it easy, I’m going to look at carbs through four different lenses: carbs and fat loss, carbs and recovery, carbs and exercise, and various types of carb sources.
For this article specifically, please note that a “carb” is short for carbohydrate, one of the three macronutrients that makes up food. I’m not solely referring to grains, candies, or fruits. I’m referring to all foods made up of glycogen.*
To start, we will begin with carbs and fat loss:
So what? Do carbs make us fat? The answer is: it depends.
If you are someone who loves to eat sweets (made of simple carbs), or loves to eat salty chips or sweet bread, chances are that you’ll lose weight when you “cut carbs” simply because you’ll end up eating fewer calories per day. Therefore, because some carbs are prepared with fats that turn into high calorie meals/snacks (like macaroni, donuts, chocolates), if you reduce your carb intake, you’ll potentially decrease calorie intake and lose fat over time.
But what about the people who don’t change what they’re eating calorie-wise, and lose weight, you ask? Well, for every 1 gram of carbs, the body holds onto 3–4 grams of water. Therefore, if you eliminate/reduce carbs for a few days and exercise intensely (depleting your glycogen stores), you’ll naturally lose water, too. When you lose water, you lose weight on the scale — which is not necessarily equivalent to fat loss.
Some people can white-knuckle their way through a severely low carbohydrate diet for a few days, maybe even weeks! But, because the body truly needs carbs for more than just exercise, the person eventual ends up giving in and having an entire pizza, or box of donuts, etc. (you get the idea).
“Oh no! I gained it all back in one day!” Dieter Debbie says. But did she?
No. Debbie lost water weight post carb elimination, and after eating a pizza and drinking water, she gained back weight on the scale (thanks to sodium, carbs, water, and food content in the gut) but she did not gain seven pounds of fat in one high carb meal. But I digress.
The next question is, (with regards to carbs and fat loss) isn’t protein better for fat loss?
The answer? There is no magical unicorn macronutrient for fat loss.
If I had to pick one, it would be protein, I think, but can’t really say because knowing the science makes me feel like it’s saying there’s one magical spaghetti sauce — when all sauces can make the noodles taste good; just like macronutrients, fat, protein, and carbohydrates are fuel sources for the body.
A study done in 2009 proved that the only thing that matters for fat loss is a calorie deficit. The reason for the hype around protein is due to its effect on satiety (feeling of fullness), it’s role in repairing the muscles after resistance training and how amino acids play a large role in the creation of our cells’ structure.
Bottom line: as long as your calories are in check, you will lose fat. Whether you eat peanut butter and bread every day, corn on the cob with watermelon, or quinoa and chicken, you will lose fat in a calorie deficit.
Now, onto the next question you probably have: Do I have to eat carbs after a workout:
In 2007 there was a study done to look at the role of carbs in muscle repair/recovery after resistance training when paired with ample protein. Think: banana with a scoop of chocolate protein powder. Did the carbohydrate help with the protein uptake in the muscles and the recovery time?
The short answer: no. There was no significant change in recovery when protein was consumed in a different amount.
However, that does not mean you should skip out on carbs. Carbs are stored in the muscles as glycogen (what they are made of). When you lift weights, you use glycogen to fuel your muscles. Having glycogen stored in the muscles when you have less body fat is what gives you a toned look in many cases. On top of having carbs available to fuel a workout, they regulate hormones in the body.
When you are giving your body consistent doses of carbohydrates, your brain stays fueled, which keeps the hormones on task. For example, consuming a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or a piece of toast, you increase your plasma glucose (blood sugar) level and insulin concentration.
Insulin, as we know, stimulates leptin synthesis, which is what senses whether your body has energy available or not (aka it senses when you’re hungry or energy depleted). Therefore, if your insulin is stable, (aka you are not low on blood sugar from cutting carbs), you feel satiated, you function your best, and you do not have intense cravings. When insulin is low for too long it can and will affect your thyroid, it will lower testosterone levels, it will increase cortisol levels, impair your mood, suppress the immune system, and furthermore, cause muscle loss (you’ll tap into muscle stores for energy from protein).
Without carbs, you’ll also be more likely to break your diet plans of a healthy light dinner, because you’ll be reaching for the office candy jar on your way out of the office.
Bottom line: The body needs carbs to regulate normal day to day hormonal processes, to fuel workouts, and stick with your diet long term.
So what about exercise? If we know that carbs are not going to affect the protein re-uptake after a resistance training, will they help us with our workout, before and/or during the session?
A recent study done which tried to mimic a game-like scenario and intra-competition carb intake, proved that carbs do not have a significant effect on stamina for cardiovascular workouts over 70 minutes. However, they can help stamina during anything less than 70 minutes. So how does this apply to you?
Well, if your goal is fat loss, and you only have so many calories a day, chances are you sometimes deal with feeling less energetic than you’d like, which makes getting to the gym feel like a chore. If you save some calories for a banana as a pre-workout snack, or a 100 calorie gatorade during the workout, you may feel more energized by fueling your body just before or during the session.
Bottom line: if you can stomach it, having some carbs before a workout can help you feel more motivated and energized, plus give more stamina to crush the training.
Finally, which carbs are best?
Unless you have specific orders from your primary doctor to avoid gluten or certain starches due to an allergy or health condition, there are no “good” or “bad” carbs.
If John Smith eats 100 calories of apples for three days and then on the fourth he has 100 calories of Swedish Fish, the body will not say, “John, you ate simple carbs from candy, we will not make you fat.” The body simply registers an intake of “carb.”
Therefore my best advice is to eat carbs that you:
- can comfortably digest
- enjoy eating
- can be moderate with/control portions
- prepare easily, so that you can stay consistent with the carb in your diet
- can include a range of vitamins, minerals, and adds fiber.
Bottom line? You may be more likely to stick to your diet long term if you eat carbs regularly, and enjoy every bite!
This guest post was written by Garrett Wood, a MoveWith instructor specializing in Treadmill, Strength, HIIT, Cycling, and Mobility.
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