10 Carb Commandments To Live By
Carbohydrates are your body’s primary source of energy, fuelling your mind and muscles throughout the day. But when, how and what type you consume can play a big role in your health and happiness. Follow these simple rules to enjoy carbs and indulge your sweet tooth the smart way
1 Thou shalt not condemn carbs as the enemy
Carbs are everywhere. In your breakfast porridge, your lunchtime burrito, your takeaway pizza, your Sunday roast veg… barely a day goes by without tucking into a scrumptious serving of moreish carbs. Yet they get a bad press. They’re blamed for fuelling the world’s obesity epidemic and often spurned by those who assume they’re intolerant to gluten and wheat (even when they might not be). They’re typically the first thing to go when people look to eat clean but cutting carbs out of your diet could deprive you of the wide array of valuable nutrients, minerals and vitamins locked inside them.
Carbs are critical for energy and hormone production, metabolism and everyday body functions.
“Carbohydrate is one of our main three macronutrients, along with protein and fat,” says performance nutritionist Nick Morgan, co-founder of A Word On Nutrition. “It’s critical for energy and hormone production, metabolism and everyday body functions. People obsess about being high carb or low carb, but it’s more important to be carb clever — eating the right type of carbs at the right time to supply your body with the fuel it needs when it needs it.”
2 Thou shalt consume mostly slow-release carbs
Why? To avoid the productivity-draining, attention-sapping sugar crash you get from processed or refined carbs like white pasta. How? By getting most of your carb hits from slow-release sources such as wholegrain rice, oats, nuts, vegetables, legumes and the all-powerful sweet potato.
These forms have a low glycemic index (GI) so the natural sugars they contain are released slowly into the body for a stable supply of energy. Better yet, they’re also densely packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fibre to support overall health.
Get most of your carb hits from slow-release sources such as wholegrain rice, oats, nuts, legumes and sweet potato.
3 Thou shalt consume high-GI carbs sparingly
Think: white rice, pasta, potato and bread. “The sugar in high-GI foods is released into your body quickly, making it useful fuel before high intensity or long duration exercise where you need to mine your glycogen energy stores to keep going,” says Upbeat nutritionist and personal trainer Sophie Enever. But if you’re not about to burn it off, try to resist the lure of sugary high-GI carbs.
4 Thou shalt beware of the sweet stuff
Spoiler: sugar is in ALL carbohydrates. Some occur naturally, such as in fruit (fructose) and in milk (lactose) — the kind you’ll find in low quantities in a bottle of Upbeat — and some are sweeteners, such as table sugar and sugar cane syrup (sucrose). The latter variety is the one you should reserve for matters of energy emergency.
Carbs containing natural sugars like fructose and lactose are nutrient dense.
“Be sure to limit your intake of refined sugar,” suggests Morgan. Save your sugar hit for desperate times, such as from an energy gel during a long-distance race when a you’re starting to run empty. “Whole foods that contain natural sugars, like lactose and fructose, tend to be dense in other nutrients like protein and fibre, and are generally released into the body slowly, helping prevent wild energy fluctuations.”
Carb variety is the spice of life.
5 Thou shalt consume carbs from varied sources
Variety is the spice of life and that rings especially true when it come to carbohydrates. Mix up your sources of grains to harvest the broad spectrum of nutrients they each boast. For example, tuck into brown rice for energy-producing magnesium, enjoy the heart-healthy perks of high-fibre barley, spoil yourself with the anti-inflammatory antioxidants in buckwheat and go nuts for the muscle-supporting complete proteins found in quinoa.
Build your meal around high quality protein first, then plenty of veg, then a handful of carbs.
6 Thou shalt balance carbs with protein and fat
“Your carb needs will depend on your activity levels, gender and much more,” says Enever. “But a good rule of thumb for each meal is to build it around high quality protein first, accompanied by plenty of veg and then a small handful of nutritious carbs to keep your diet evenly balanced.
So instead of a mammoth jacket potato with a small portion of tuna and mayo, layer your plate with some heart-healthy mackerel, dark green leafy veg and wholegrain rice.
Protein is the key for recovery but carbs still have a role to play.
7 Thou shalt know the role of carbs for recovery
Protein is the key for recovery but carbs still have a role to play. “They should still be a part of your post-exercise nutrition to ensure you’re replenished and ready for action the next time you’re active,” Enever says.
Unless your day breaks down like a Rocky montage and you’re training round the clock, eating a balanced meal soon after your workout will generally be enough to replenish your energy reserves. But for convenience, a bottle of Upbeat, containing 20g of high quality whey protein and a small dose of slow release carbohydrates in the form of natural sugars (from whey and fruit) is perfect for optimal recovery post exercise.
Unlike protein, your body stores carbs around the body and quickly converts it into energy when needed.
8 Thou shalt carb load cautiously
Stockpiling your body with energy by scoffing huge servings of pasta and potatoes in the days leading up to a big race or match is a relic of a bygone exercise era. “It’ll likely just leave you with heavy legs,” says Enever. “Grazing little and often on carbs throughout the days leading up to the event will do the job – as well as tapering down your training so you’re using up less energy reserves.”
You don’t need to force down a vat of carbonara just to last your weekly five-a-side match.
Similarly, if you haven’t eaten for a few hours, and your weekly five-a-side is fast approaching, you don’t need to force down a vat of steaming carbonara just to last the match. That’s because, unlike protein, your body stores carbs around the body and quickly converts it into energy when needed. “During exercise your body can go for around an hour without the need to have carbs,” says Enever.
9 Thou shalt carb cycle wisely
Carb cycling is the technique of mixing up your week into low carb or high carb days, built around your workouts. A common example is to go for a morning run on an empty stomach, where your last carb hit would have been at dinner the night before.
Exercising in a fasted state can get your body used to burning off stored fat for fuel.
“Some research suggests exercising in this ‘fasted’ state can train your body to use reserves of fat more efficiently for energy, called fat oxidation,” says Enever. “Then, if you are doing a long duration session, you’ll benefit from enhanced performance because your body can oxidise fat more efficiently when carbohydrate runs out.”
Most people already do a mixture of this anyway — our bodies are very intuitive — but if you’re serious about training it’s a good way to get the benefits of both states.
10 Thou shalt respect the role of insulin and carbs
The powerful hormone insulin is released by your body to balance the books when too much sugar is in your blood, typically after consuming carbs. Your cells will take glucose from your blood and use it as energy. If you’ve got enough energy, the liver and muscles will store it as glycogen.
The healthier you are, the more you’ll be able to tolerate carbs.
If you’re insulin resistant this process isn’t as efficient, meaning higher levels of insulin, higher levels of blood sugar, more food stored as fat and over time a greater risk of type II diabetes and associated health problems. Your insulin resistance is both affected by your genetics and diet. The healthier you are, the better this process works and the more you’ll be able to tolerate carbs.
Check Your Ability To Break Down Carbs With The “Cracker Test”
This simple and fun test that was developed by geneticist Dr Sharon Moalem to see how well your body tolerates carbs. Simply chomp on a cracker, noting how long it takes for the taste to turn from bland to sweet.
< 15 seconds
Your body is effective at breaking down starch quickly so that spaghetti Bolognese may be worth keeping in your diet to fuel your day.
> 15 seconds
Your ability to break down carbs is not as effective and you may wish to up the fat and protein in your diet for energy.