By now, we’ve covered two out of the three macronutrients. Today, we are covering the final macro: carbohydrates. After this post, you will have the basics on how to set up your diet. The next posts will go into some of the nuances: meal timing and frequency, methods for losing or gaining weight, etc.
Carbohydrates represent what are called saccharides, which encompasses all of the sugars, starches, and cellulose sources. There are three types of saccharides:
Monosaccharide – “mono” means one, so only one sugar (think glucose)
Oligosaccharide – “oligo” means few, so they contain a few (2-10) sugars linked together (glucose + glucose = maltrose)
Polysaccharide – “poly” means many, so many sugars (or monosaccharides) that are linked together either in one long chain or in highly branched structures
As our body breaks down carbohydrates, they are converted into their most basic units: glucose (remember, polysaccharides are just monosaccharides joined together). The sugar then enters your bloodstream. As your blood sugar rises, your pancreas produces insulin, a hormone that allows the cells in your body to absorb the sugar in your bloodstream to use for energy or storage. Our cells require glucose to produce energy in the body. All of the energy systems in your body (ATP synthesis, Kreb’s Cycle, ETC, etc.) ALL begin with glucose.
What happens if you don’t use all of the glucose in one meal? Your body doesn’t want glucose floating around in your blood constantly so when insulin is produced, the cells either use the glucose for fuel or store whatever isn’t used as glycogen, which is basically just our energy “reservoir.” Our bodies use this reservoir when our blood sugar gets too low or when we are in an active state, such as exercising. In other words, we need both glucose AND glycogen and this is achieved through carbohydrates.
Once we deplete our glucose levels and ESPECIALLY our glycogen levels, it is IMPERATIVE that you replenish these levels and that they are replenished via carbohydrates. If you participate in any high intensity, or “glycolytic,” sport (think CrossFit, OrangeTheory, HIIT, etc.), our body uses glycogen as its fuel source because it is readily available and just sitting there waiting to be used. Our bodies don’t use stored fat as our major fuel to get us through a brutal workout. Breaking down fat for fuel is a MUCH slower process and “burning fat” is achieved best by eating in a caloric deficit; however this is a completely different process than just fuel for exercise and day-to-day activities.
Obviously, there is even more fear around carbohydrates than there is with fats. That’s because there are a lot of very bad carbs out there. When we think carbs, we typically think sugar, but there are so many benefits of good, healthy carbs. We can start by classifying our carbs based on their glycemic index (GI) or their glycemic load (GL). Both factors indicate how quickly a carbohydrate spikes one’s blood sugar. We aim to eat a diet with low GI/GL carbohydrates. A high glycemic index or load means that the food is rapidly digested into glucose and enters the blood stream. Think sugars, candy, or pretty much ANY processed carbohydrate. A low glycemic index/load means that the food takes much longer to break down into glucose to then enter the blood stream. This includes all of our whole foods, most notably all of our wonderful vegetables.
Carbohydrates don’t need to be the devil that we make the out to be. The reason they get such a bad rep is that we focus on high GI carbs and the negative side effects they bring. If we could switch our diet to a whole foods based approach, then we would see that carbs aren’t the end to your diet as you know it. All of our whole foods—anything that comes from the ground—provide more than just carbohydrates. They are full of vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) that we need every day. Donuts and processed foods are not.
Most of my clients that I can get to fill their carbohydrate prescriptions with whole foods usually feel light years better than they did before. They are getting through workouts just fine, they are energized throughout the day, no more 2pm slumps, they are sleeping better, they aren’t as sore, the list goes on and on!
We rely on processed foods because they’re quick and easy. They’ve been around as long as we have been around. They’re cheaper than any whole food you try to purchase. They are also full of sugar, which triggers the SAME part of your brain as does alcohol or any other drug. This is the part of the brain that controls rewards, pleasure, and addiction. Sugar addicts? Chocoholics? These are all very real terms. If we instead opt for whole foods, we don’t have the same sugar-filled response and are much better off.
Now what are some good carbohydrate sources for you to eat? To keep it simple, pick foods that make up the cover photo of this post. You can see a rainbow of colors from all of our fruits and veggies plus some of our grains and pastas.
I like people to follow a modified Paleo diet where you eat foods (for the most part) that a caveman would eat… meaning foods that come from the ground. I say modified because the Paleo diet doesn’t let you eat enough carbohydrates and a true Paleo diet doesn’t include bread, rice, or even potatoes. This is almost too extreme for most people. Again, if you’re in a high intensity sport, you NEED carbohydrates for fuel and for recovery.
This includes ALL vegetables and as many of them possible: broccoli, spinach, kale, brussel sprouts, swiss chard, kale, cauliflower, mushrooms, bell peppers, asparagus, zucchini, beets, squash, etc. These are very low in carbohydrates when you compare them to processed carbs so you can eat more of them for way fewer calories. They are also all low GI foods, meaning they will take longer to enter your blood stream and be absorbed into your cells. This means you will stay full longer and will have more energy for a longer period of time while suffering no sugar crashes.
We can also include our fruits in here too: berries, apples, pears, bananas, etc. Fruit sometimes gets a bad rep because they’re high in sugars. However, fructose is the main sugar found in fruit, not glucose so it requires the body to digest fruit in a similar manner as veggies. Fruits are also great for your liver and abundant in micronutrients.
This also includes potatoes, both white and sweet potatoes, and yams. These are much more carb dense and will help you reach your carb amount easier than if you were just eating vegetables and salads.
We also can eat some processed carbohydrates: rice, quinoa, buckwheat, lentils/legumes, oats, whole grain breads and pastas, and sprouted grains.
Aim to get 75% of your daily carbs from the first three sets of examples with the following 25% from a processed source. I don’t recommend avoiding these processed carbs because they are good and yummy and we want them! What sustainable plan doesn’t allow you to enjoy a processed food? Just don’t let it function as the base for all of your meals.
Now the final question… how many carbs should I eat?
This is highly debated, but I am under the firm belief that you need carbs. Carbs supply blood sugar, aka fuel, to your brain and to your muscles. They give you the energy to function throughout the day and more. People will push a low-carb diet and at times, that may be appropriate BUT for your everyday person, low-carb diets are not sustainable and end up leaving you mentally and physically fatigued. I get some CrossFitting clients that don’t eat carbs because “they’re body doesn’t like them” and “they’re better without them”. First thing I do is get them to just try and almost every time, we see them crushing their workouts, feeling amazing during the day, and sleeping through the night. Why is this? Carbohydrates shut down cortisol, our stress hormone. When we workout, we produce cortisol. When we put any stressor on our body (work, traffic, family, relationship), cortisol is produced. Cortisol will then keep adrenaline pumping and block our calming hormones such as melatonin which puts us asleep and keeps us asleep. Carbohydrates block cortisol which allows our bodies to recover and have a break. Carbohydrates before bed are even greater because they get rid of any residual cortisol and allow you to have a restful night of sleep.
Now how to determine that magic number. It’s actually pretty simple. We’ve already determined our calories, then protein and fat amounts. Now all we have to do is figure out what number of carbs gives us the right number of calories for the math to work out.
Protein and carbs contains 4 calories/gram. Fats contain 9 calories/gram.
Again, we will use me for an example. My calories are 2700. My protein intake is 150g. My fat intake is 115g.
The math has me eating 265g carbs. I used to eat maybe 100g and felt terrible. I slowly (emphasis on slowly) worked my way up to this magic number and I’ve never felt better. I have SO much more energy and sleep better and just overall feel a lot happier than I did many years ago when I tried restricting myself. ALSO I should point out that I gained no weight during this increase.
If you find these numbers drastically different OR if you are scared of carbs and unable to bring yourself to do this then reach out to me and let’s talk about this. This isn’t me forcing you to hire me. This is me wanting YOU to feel better and eat better. Same as last week's post, the first 5 people to contact me through my site or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org will receive a free personal 30 minute strategy call. Have any questions on what I'm talking about or where to start? Or maybe how much food you should eat? We can talk about all of this!
What are you waiting for??