A common question that I get from my personal training clients is “How many carbs should I eat?”
Unfortunately, the answer is not always as straight forward as you would probably like.
Carbohydrates (carbs) are really getting a bad rap lately…
With Paleo-Atkins type diets at their height, it’s no wonder why there are so many questions like “how many carbs should I eat?”
What you eat truly depends on what fitness goals you are going after and how each individual feels with more or less carbs.
What is a carbohydrate?
A carbohydrate is one of the three main macro nutrients that our body uses when we eat. Carbohydrates are used as fuel and is our body’s main source of energy.
Carbs help you with:
- Brain function
- Physical activity
- Maintaining organ functions
Different types of carbs
I think when people think of carbs, they tend to think of pasta and breads. Yes, these are carbs but so are fruits and vegetables like broccoli, carrots, squash and yams. There are tons of different grains that are great carb option like quinoa, oatmeal and rice.
There are two categories of carbohydrates:
- Simple carbohydrates are your processed foods, pastries, cakes, doughnuts, fruit. Even though fruit has many great vitamins and minerals it is still processed like a simple carbohydrate.
- Complex carbohydrates are whole grains, quinoa, oats, vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, yams, potatoes, etc.)
What type of person does well on low-carb diets?
In my professional experience as a Personal Trainer, the people that do well on low-carb diets are people who are significantly overweight and are not very active. (Please do not use this an excuse NOT to exercise. You need to move your body as best you can AND incorporate healthy nutrition).
*Some people with liver issues and other medical conditions may not do well on a low/no carb diet. As with any fitness or nutrition suggestions you always should consult with your physician before changing your diet.
What happens when you eat carbs?
Once you ingest a carbohydrate it is turned into glucose (blood sugar). The glucose is then used for immediate energy or stored in the liver and muscle (as glycogen) for later use.
You get into trouble when there is too much sugar floating around in your body.
When is the best time to eat carbs?
The best time to eat a simple carbohydrate is right after a workout. With this said, you have to start with your glucose levels lower. For instance, if you eat a lot of processed simple carbs daily, there will be too much glucose circulating in your blood stream. If you have lower glucose levels (I am not talking about hypoglycemia), after a workout your muscle will soak up the glucose like a sponge and store it in the muscle belly. You want this! You do NOT want it stored as fat.
Other than right after a workout, the timing of these carbs is really the key (again depending on your particular fitness goals). The best times to have complex carbs is first thing in the morning and then before and after a workout. You will burn off the carbs as you move throughout the day.
If you are a marathon or endurance athlete, you are going to need more carbohydrates. If you fit into this style of exercise you may need to do 70% of your calories as carbohydrates. If you are sedentary you may need significantly less carbs.
“I heard people drop a lot of weight on low-carb diets?”
Yes, if you decrease your carbohydrate intake you WILL drop some pounds and maybe even some inches. This is not the magic formula for weight loss, sorry. Unfortunately, what you are losing is mostly water. You see carbohydrates hold water so as soon as you cut them or decrease carbs your cells shrink. You will gain about 2.7 grams of water for every gram of glycogen stored. The kidneys increase sodium retention in response to increased carbohydrates eaten. The body does this to keep the sodium-blood concentrations at a homeostatic level.
So “How many carbs should I eat?”
Depending on your fitness goals, you need carbs to fuel your body and for your brain to function. If you are Marathon runner or very active, you are going to need to eat carbohydrate mainly complex carbs. If you have a desk job and are not very active, you may not need as many carbohydrates. This type of person really should limit the simple carbs. In general, the majority of your carbohydrates need to come from vegetables and less from pasta, breads and simple carbs.