Whether you’re an athlete or you’re just trying to manage your weight, here’s everything you need to know about carbohydrates.
We’ve all heard the terms carb counting, carb loading, and carb cycling, and constantly see advertisements for both low and no carbohydrate food products. We're constantly being reminded that carbs stand between us and those last five pounds. But even though the carbohydrate craze has died down some, there are still many new food products and meals appearing in grocery stores and restaurant menus for the, “carb conscious”.
Before you decide to go low carb or attempt to avoid them all together, you need to ask yourself why? What’s my goal? Is it for improvement in athletic performance or is it for physical appearance? Below we’ll talk about both, and how each affects carbohydrate monitoring.
Most diet and nutrition issues revolve around three basic concepts: What you eat, how much you eat, and when you eat it. Follow the rules below and you’ll see great changes in your body composition and performance.
1. Stick to complex carbs except pre- and post-workout
Generally, the carbohydrates just about everyone should avoid, or at least choose less often, include foods like sugary cereals and pastries, white bread and pastas, and highly processed and packaged products... essentially all simple carbs. The problem with these carbohydrate sources is their nutritional quality, or lack thereof, compared to their caloric content. Better choices include complex carbohydrates like whole grain cereals and breads, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, and fresh fruits and vegetables in their natural, unprocessed state.
2. Keep your calories in check and don’t overeat
How much you eat is also equally important. If you eat too many calories for your activity level you won't get cut regardless of whether those extra calories came from a fresh fruit salad, or a caramel apple pie. To put it simply if you consume more calories than you expend throughout the day, you’re going to put on weight.
3. The most important times to consume carbs are at breakfast, before training, during long workouts, and after training
Assuming that you’re not going overboard with the extra calories though, how can you use this macronutrient to improve your performance and body composition? Believe it or not, a lot of it has to do with the times at which you consume carbs.
For starters one of the most important times to consume carbs is at breakfast. Eating a morning meal that contains complex carbs breaks the fast your body endured while you were sleeping. This meal is important because it prevents your body from breaking down protein (your muscles) to fuel your system.
Additionally carbs should be consumed pre-workout to help top off energy stores in order to sustain performance throughout your workout. Half a bagel or a small banana should do the trick. During long, intense training sessions, or exercise in hot environments, you’ll want to maintain blood sugar levels by consuming a sports drink with specifically a calculated percentage of carbohydrates to maximize absorption. By hot environments I’m talking more about a summer training session or two-a-days, and not your dorm room that may be hot on a particular afternoon.
Last but not least, the most important time to consume carbohydrates is after training. Post workout, your muscles are at their most absorbent state, so refueling them with a carbohydrate source can improve your recovery time and better prepare your body for the next session or competition. Recovery shakes, chocolate milk, trail mix or a sports bar are some good examples that will have you feeling much better the next day.
Having discussed the three basic principles of nutrition and how they relate to carbohydrates, let’s look at how athletes and beach bodies should approach consuming them.
From an athletic performance standpoint, if you are trying to gain weight or have trouble maintaining your weight, then you have a lot of flexibility with your food choices. It means you can generally eat what you want, how much of it you want, and when you want to eat it, all within reason. Your main objective should be to eat a variety of nutritional dense, quality foods.
As an athlete trying to lose weight, you still need an adequate intake of carbohydrates for the necessary fuel to train, recover, and compete optimally. To facilitate weight loss you need to choose foods from the cleaner carbohydrate category while still maintaining a 55-60/10/30 calorie breakdown of carbs/proteins/fats. It’s still important to eat the 5-6 meals and snacks throughout the day but you will have to be mindful of the portion sizes & caloric content of your foods. For many athletes in this category, simply substituting juice drinks, energy drinks, and sodas for water or low calorie/no calorie sports drinks and beverages is enough to elicit the necessary weight loss.
For those, like myself, who want to cut carbs for appearance, what you eat, how much you eat, and when you eat are all extremely crucial. Carbohydrates are pretty much a bad word to us, but a necessary evil as well to provide the body with enough energy to fuel training and recover from training. While being able to physically train is important, it’s frankly all about looks rather than athletic performance.
Let me make this clear, an athlete concerned with physical performance, particularly those in endurance sports, should not restrict their carbohydrate intake. Muscles prefer carbs as their fuel source. Instead, the goal should be to choose quality, nutrient dense foods, and eat them in appropriate portions throughout the day on a regular basis. This is especially true for meals leading into and following a competition or particularly taxing training or practice session. But if you’re just trying to look better limiting your carbs to breakfast, pre-workout, and post-workout may make more sense to help you accomplish your goals.