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If you’ve ever started a diet and training regimen that is geared towards weight loss – then you’ve probably heard the phrase, “Carbs are the enemy”! This statement is, in fact, based on real science to an extent.  The reality, however, is that carbohydrates can only be the enemy of fat loss if they are not properly understood. 

Carbohydrates are essential to good health. We need carbs to feed our mind and body with useable energy.  This energy comes in the form of glucose (which is what carbs are broken down into by the body). We need glucose to think straight and to have the energy to get through our days, and especially through workout sessions.

So why do so many people perpetuate the notion that carbs are, “Bad”?

Simply put, it’s because they do not understand how much and when to consume them. By getting your carb intake in check alongside your protein and fat intake, you will reach a “sweet spot” where you will benefit from feeling full for longer periods of time, benefiting from improved mood, faster recovery from training sessions, more energy throughout the day, and much greater willpower to stay away from unhealthy, “Junk” foods that is long-lasting throughout the day.

So why isn’t everyone optimizing their carbohydrates?

Well, this is where it becomes more complicated. Optimizing carb intake is not a one-size-fits-all approach.  It varies based on training volume, body composition, goals, and preferences. Some people want to lose fat, others want to gain muscle, some want to improve strength/power, and yet many just want to maintain their current physical shape.

In general, a 2009 review in the journal of Nutrition and Metabolism broke down the three categories of carb intake:

  1. Low-carb ketogenic diet = less than 50 grams per day and less than 10% of daily calories
  2. Low-carb diet = between 50 and 130 grams of carbs per day and 10% to 26% of calories
  3. Moderate carb diet = 130 to 225 grams of carbs or 26% to 45% of calories

With the above as a guideline, fitness professionals will work with their clients to provide the proper carbohydrate intake ranges that are specific to their individual goals.

  • Fat Loss – Normally calls for carbohydrate intake in the 50g – 130g per day range
  • Maintenance – Normally calls for carbohydrate intake in the 150g – 225g range for an average 75kg person
  • Athletic Performance – Normally calls for 3g/kg of carbs

Of course, the above ranges are just meant to be used as a guide because there are so many other variables that come into play (e.g. Type of training, commitment to training schedule, etc.)

Now what about WHEN to eat carbs?

This too is a key piece to optimizing carbohydrate intake to contribute to the achievement of your specific goals. Some coaches like the idea of consuming carbs during breakfast, others at dinner, yet some advocate spreading their consumption out throughout the day. Although different theories work differently depending on the person, the literature about this indicates that carbs at the end of the day makes most scientific sense.  Studies indicate that starting the day with protein instead of carbs is a sure-shot way of improving energy levels because protein elevates neurotransmitters that have stimulating effects.  Carbs, however, have an opposite effect and this is why their preferred times of consumption are post-workout, and with dinner.

Carbs Post-Workout:

The absolute best time to consume carbs is after training due to the fact that this is the time when the muscles are glycogen depleted and the carb intake will simply replenish the depleted glycogen from the training session and be stored as energy and not as fat.

Of course, this will only work if you have worked out hard enough to deplete a significant amount of glycogen from the muscles. Otherwise the consumed carbohydrates will be much more likely to store as fat.

Carbs With Dinner:

This is a good time to eat carbs because the triggered insulin release works to reduce cortisol levels for faster recovery. The carbs also stimulate the release of serotonin which is then, in turn, converted into melatonin to aid in sleep. Those people looking to lose fat will find that consuming carbs post-workout and then also during dinner will be of most benefit.  Athletes looking for a competitive edge in terms of performance., however, will find that carbs at dinner makes the most sense for better sleep, recovery, and good clean energy to be readily available for the following day.

Finally, it is important to understand what kinds of carbs are better than others.  Simply put, staying away from processed carbs is the key here! Processed carbs typically include refined wheat and contain no fiber. As a result, they affect blood-sugar differently and can create as cascade of negative effects, such as, initiating massive cravings, igniting adverse immune responses due to their inflammatory properties, and are just packed with empty calories.

Instead, focus on whole carbs from starches, vegetables, fruits, and non-wheat grains.

Although the amount, timing, and types of carbohydrate intake varies from person-to-person depending on their individual goals, this article serves as a summary of some of the basics as a means to dispel the myth that, “Carbs are the enemy”. They are actually the complete opposite, but you must find out where your, “Sweet spot” (pun intended) is.

References:

https://www.poliquinstore.com/articles/the-art-science-of-timing-your-carb-intake/

Alves, R., et. al. Eating carbohydrate mostly at lunch and protein mostly at dinner within a covert hypocaloric diet influences morning glucose homeostasis in overweight/obese men. European Journal of Nutrition. 2014. 53, 49–60.

Bird, Stephen. Strength Nutrition: Maximizing Your Anabolic Potential. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 2010. 32(4), 80-83

Helms, E., et. al. Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2014. 11(20). 

Fan, M., et al. Evidence of decreasing mineral density in wheat grain over the last 160 years. Journal of Trace Elemental Medicine and Biology. 22(4), 315-324.

Phillips, Stuart. Dietary Protein for Athletes: From Requirements to Metabolic Advantage. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 2006. 31. 647-654. 

Slater, G., et. al. Nutrition Guidelines for Strength Sports: Sprinting, Weightlifting, Throwing Events, and Bodybuilding. Journal of Sports Science. 2011. 29(S67-S77). 

Sofi, F., et al. Effects of Short-Term Consumption of Bread Obtained by an Old Italian Grain Variety on Lipid, Inflammatory, and Hemorheological Variables: An Intervention Study. Journal of Medicinal Food. 2010. 13(3).

Zhao, F., et al. Variation in mineral micronutrient concentrations in grain of wheat lines of diverse origin. Journal of Cereal Science. 2009. 49(2), 290-295.