Carbs get a bad rep for being a major culprit of weight gain, and are considered the major macronutrient responsible for the massive rise in obesity and diabetes throughout the world. Regardless of what you might think of carbs, they’re not all bad. In fact, the amount of carbohydrates you should be eating is more dependent on a number of factors, not just one or two, including your activity level, your insulin sensitivity, and your metabolism, specifically how efficiently your body uses the carbs you’re feed it. In this post, I lay out the truths about carbohydrates and provide you with some guidelines on how to get the most out of them in your diet.
What Are Carbs and What Does the Body Do With Them?
Carbohydrates are considered the body’s main source of energy. They help fuel our muscles during workouts and help power our brains. Carbohydrates are composed of simple sugar molecules known as glucose linked together to form long chains. When you eat carbohydrates, these long chains are broken apart by enzymes, into single glucose units, resulting in a raise in glucose levels in the blood, which causes the release of the hormone insulin. This growth hormone’s main job in the body is to clear the blood of glucose by storing it in the muscle as glycogen. But once those glycogen stores are at full capacity, insulin has no choice but to shuttle the glucose to fat to be stored as triacylglycerol in fat tissue. When you work out, the body uses up any readily available glucose in the bloodstream, then shifts to its reserves of glycogen in the muscle, and lastly to fat. If you are continuously eating more than you’re burning during a workout or during your daily function then the result is excess storage – also known as fat!
Do You Really Need Carbs?
Scientifically speaking, we actually don’t need carbs, the body can make them through the process of gluconeogenesis – where the liver converts protein to glucose. That means the body uses the protein we consume, but since muscle is made from protein, the body has no problem going after your lean tissue as a source of fuel either! If you’re following a very restrictive low carb diet, plus performing an intense exercise program, it is more likely that the body will end up catabolizing your lean muscle for fuel, after it has gone through the protein you have feed it. This can leave your muscles starved of protein and in a state of amino depletion! If not replaced, the muscles will not have enough aminos or protein to facilitate a full recovery, or even to maintain or grow new muscle!
Without enough carbs you will not only end up breaking down muscle, you will also not have enough energy for your muscles during workouts. Additionally, carbs have a muscle building or anabolic effect. Carbs help inhibit cortisol production, the hormone that breaks down muscle, while also stimulating the anabolic shuttling hormone insulin. This hormone drives not only glucose to muscle cells but also those aminos that make up the protein that builds your muscles and helps keep them strong.
What Are the Benefits of Eating More Protein and Less Carbs
Research has shown that low-carbohydrate diets not no carb diets, result in weight loss, reduce blood sugar levels, and increase in HDL or good cholesterol. In addition, low carb diets have been shown to improve body composition – reducing body fat and increasing lean mass, particularly when compared to high carbohydrate diets of the same caloric value.
The key is getting the right amount of protein, and carbs in the diet based on your specific needs. If you’re eating an excessively high protein diet, the body will convert it into glucose. In fact, more than half of all ingested amino acids are broken down in the liver, and a good percentage of those can be made into glucose, especially when carbohydrates are super restricted. Even if you eat the right amount of protein for your body, but are too low in carbohydrates, then amino acids from protein will be burned as fuel in preference to being used to repair or build muscle tissue.
Bottom line, to ensure that amino acids are used to build muscle you have to get the right amount of carbohydrates, as well as the right amount of protein! Be sure to get in at least one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight to start with. Protein should be about 40 percent of your daily calories, while carbohydrates can be about 30 percent or less depending on how efficiently you use up this energy.
Do Women and Men Need the Same Amount of Carbs?
Both women and men have the same muscle glycogen storage ability, and the same availability of transporters to facilitate glucose moving into the muscles where they can be stored or used. However, women utilize lipids more and carbohydrates less for energy than men do. This is primarily due to the female hormone estrogen, which increases muscle glycogen sparing and increases lipid or fat utilization during exercise. So filling up on carbohydrates, over protein is not necessary, and can result in excess fat storage. Men on the other hand utilize carbs very efficiently; carbohydrates that are ingested and stored are accessed quickly for energy during activity or workouts. This means most men can eat more carbs, particularly if they are following a regular exercise program, without worrying if those carbs will end up as fat on their belly!
How Many Do You Need?
The amount of carbohydrates an individual needs is dependent on numerous factors including your amount of excess fat weight, your genetics, your metabolism, your ability to process carbohydrates, your insulin sensitivity and the amount of activity or exercise you are performing. It may take some time to understand your body completely. Become aware of how your body function depending on the carbohydrate level, and experiment with what fits with your goals. The Kcal Extra meal plan is built on providing a lower to moderate carbohydrate diet based on your individual needs.
Moderate carbohydrate diets – such as the Wellness and Athlete plan are optimal for maintaining your body’s condition. Carb ranges are generally in the range of 90 to 180 g of carbohydrates, depending on the individual. Above this is bordering on a high carbohydrate diet. Moderate carbohydrate diets can help sustain activity levels, while supporting your muscle glycogen needs, without excess storage of carbs in fat.
Low carbohydrate diets such as the Success and Success Plus plan are commonly used for weight loss and fat burning. Low carbohydrate diets provide enough carbohydrates to sustain blood glucose levels in the brain, which means less brain fog, and less cravings then ultra low carb diets. This balance can allow the carbs that are taken be used up efficiently, without allowing for sufficient fat storage. Carbohydrates are usually kept within 40 to 100 grams per day depending on your goals.
When Should You Eat Carbs?
There are a few ways you can approach your carb eating. You can try to eat two times per day first thing in the morning when your muscle glycogen is lowest, or immediately following your workout to help shut down muscle breakdown and refill loss muscle glycogen used up during a workout. However, breaking up your carb up-takes into small amounts throughout the day can also be helpful to maintain a steady energy and keep blood glucose levels balanced.
Wismann J, Willoughby D. Gender Differences in Carbohydrate Metabolism and Carbohydrate Loading. J ISSN. 2006. 3(1): 28-34.
Zehnder M, et al. Gender-specific usage of intramyocellular lipids and glycogen during exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2005. 37(9): 1517-24.
Written by Lauren Jacobsen, Nutrition Director