When it comes to “dieting,” something always has to be off-limits. Often, it’s calories. It used to be fat. Gluten, dairy, sweets in general, . Now, the most hyped trend is to avoid carbs at all costs, and I hate it.
I won’t deny that keto and other less intense low-carb diets work really well for some people. If it’s been beneficial to you, by all means don’t change a thing about what you’re doing. The first rule to eating is that we’re all individuals with our own particular needs.
But on the whole, nutrition science backs higher carb diets, and in my experience, they’re still the best choice for most athletes. We’re talking about 50% (or more) of calories coming from carbs! Below, we’ll explore everything there is to love about my favorite food group.
Is butter a carb?
Let’s lay out what carbs actually ARE before moving into why they’re awesome.
Carbohydrates are one of the staple macronutrients of the human diet, along with protein, fat, and water (and alcohol if you want to be technical). They’re called MACROnutrients because you consume them in large quantities, vs MICROnutrients which you consume (hopefully) in much smaller quantities.
To give a (very) simple definition, carbohydrates are organic compounds found primarily in plants that are made up of sugars, starches, or fibers. They clock in at 4 calories per gram (the same as protein, and significantly less than fat’s 9 calories per gram). Frequently, foods are called “simple carbohydrates” or “complex carbohydrates.” Simple carbs are so named because their structure is formed with only one or two molecules of sugar. Because they are such “simple” structures they can be broken down and used very quickly. In contrast, complex carbs have longer structures (3-10+ sugar molecules), which take more time to break down into usable fuel, which is why you’ll hear people talk about them giving long-lasting energy.
Carbs for athletic performance
Especially those oft-demonized “simple carbs!” It’s very true that the body uses both carbohydrates and fats for energy. During exercise, your body will first use up its glycogen stores – the stored glucose (sugar) molecules in your muscles and liver. When it runs out, your body needs to turn to the other energy-containing macronutrients: fat and protein. Fat takes awhile to convert to usable energy, which isn’t ideal in many competitive environments. If it comes to protein, that means your body is breaking down muscle tissue to convert to glucose (sugar), which no one wants.
To avoid that fate, we do two things:
- Keep glycogen stores high by prioritizing carbohydrates in the daily diet. The better stocked your glycogen stores, the longer you can go without turning to fat or protein for energy!
- Supplementing with simple carbs DURING exercise. Gatorade is a thing for a reason!
Long-distance runners have all heard of “bonking” or “hitting the wall” at the end of a long race. That happens when glycogen stores are depleted and the body can’t convert fat fast enough. You avoid it by intaking carbohydrates BEFORE you near that point, so there’s always a steady stream of glucose available to power those legs.
Even powerlifters have some experience with energy depletion. Ever endured a 12-hour meet? No, it’s not continuous activity, but the meet atmosphere keeps adrenaline high, which quickly depletes your liver glycogen stores. That means when you get to your deadlift warm-ups 8 hours after your first squat attempt, you might feel like you’ve hit the wall. Meet day Poptarts aren’t so bad after all I guess.
Carbs for the brain
On the topic of liver glycogen stores, let’s talk brain fog. We’ve all experienced days where we struggle to connect the dots, stay focused at work, or come up with the word on the tip of our tongues. The next time you experience this, try combatting it with a small glass of orange juice.
One of the simple carbs, fructose, needs to pass through the liver before it can be used by any other cells. For this reason, fructose is more likely to be stored as liver glycogen than muscle glycogen.
Your brain uses up to 400 calories of energy a day, and as it turns out, the primary source of energy for your brain is liver glycogen. So if liver glycogen is low, your brain may feel a little low energy as well. When overall glycogen is low, muscle glycogen replenishment gets preferential treatment, EXCEPT when it comes to fructose.
A good source of fructose? OJ. So drink up and see if you notice a difference.
Carbs for energy all day
Like I said above, I ask clients to eat what seems like a large amount of carbs even on days off from training. And I’m often met with apprehension. After they stick with it for a full week, the most common feedback is that their energy levels were much higher than normal! Given everything we’ve already discussed, that makes a lot of sense. Well stocked glycogen stores mean your muscles (and your brain) have plenty of energy to do whatever you ask of them.
From my perspective as a coach, that increase in overall energy level means you’re more likely to complete all of your workouts in a given week without feeling burnt out and losing interest. It means you’re more likely to be moving around more in your regular life, adding to your overall health and burning extra incidental calories. That means you can eat more overall, and get more of the micronutrients that we can miss out on when focusing on low-calorie or low-carb diets.
These are all wins.
You’re sure carbs won’t make me fat?
Positive, because the only thing that will make you gain weight is eating more calories than your body expends. What those calories are made up of will definitely make a difference in how you feel (energy, hunger, hanger). The amount of calories your body needs can be dependent on genetics, hormonal issues, exercise levels, gender, heigh, weight, and even fidgeting. But no matter what you make of it, calories are still king.
So eat those carbs as a part of an overall calorically-balanced diet. Have energy all day. Have a fog-free brain. And workout longer and harder than you could otherwise. Thank me later.