Ah, the age-old question: Are carbs good or bad for you if you’re trying to pack on muscle and carve an enviable six-pack? Truth be told, the answer lies in what type of carbs you’re consuming and when you’re consuming them. Eat the right carbs at the right time, and you’ve got a match made in get-fit Heaven. Consume the wrong carbs at the wrong time – or in excessive amounts – and you could derail your results. To gain some clarity on the big carb debate, keep reading…
WHAT ARE CARBOHYDRATES AND WHAT DO THEY DO?
Carbs are the sugars, starches, and fibers found in fruits, grains, vegetables, and milk products. They are classified as a “macronutrient” and are one of the three basic food groups (along with protein and fats) that are vital to everyday life. Your body requires vast amounts of macronutrients each day to function properly, and it can only get these macronutrients from what you consume – it cannot produce them on its own. As one of your body’s main sources of energy, carbs provide fuel for your nervous system, brain, and working muscles. They also aid in fat metabolism and help prevent your body from using protein as an energy source. Why does this matter? Because your body needs protein to build the kind of lean, rock-hard muscle that demands attention!
WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU DON’T GET ENOUGH CARBS?
Without sufficient fuel from carbohydrates, your energy levels could take a nose dive, and you may experience dizziness or mental and physical weakness. Picture hitting the gym and barely being able to lift the weights you normally breeze through on autopilot. But fear not. The reality is, carb deficiency is rare for most of us in the Western world. Unless you’re purposely consuming a low-carb diet (we’ll touch on that in a bit), you’re likely one of the millions of Americans consuming more carbs than needed.
WHY DO CARBS GET A BAD RAP?
So far, most of what we’ve said about carbs has been pretty positive. Fueling your body’s everyday functions sounds important, right? Here’s where things get tricky: Not all carbs are created equal. “Good” or “complex” carbs are highly nutrient-dense and take longer to digest, while “bad” or “simple” carbs contain very little nutrition and leave you hungry soon after. When we say many people eat too many carbs, it’s really the bad carbs we’re talking about. Excessive consumption of these refined carbs – like sugar or corn syrup – can lead to a host of health issues, like obesity, type II diabetes, and even cancer.
ON THE NICE LIST
"Good” or complex carbs are usually found in the foods you know are good for you. Some examples include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, and legumes. As mentioned earlier, these carbs are processed more slowly by your body and have more good stuff in them – like vitamins and minerals. They also contain higher amounts of fiber to help fill you up and keep you satisfied. This is a huge plus if you’re trying to tame food cravings and keep snacking under control.
Overall, good carbs are:
• Lower in calories
• Higher in nutrients
• Lower in sodium and saturated fat
• Low or void of cholesterol and trans fat
• Void of refined sugars and grains
ON THE NAUGHTY LIST
The “bad” carb category contains foods you might expect – like sugary cereals, candies, donuts, and pops – as well as foods you might be surprised by – like some crackers, bagels, and fruit juices that are labeled as “healthy.”
Overall, bad carbs are:
• Higher in calories
• Lower in nutrients
• Higher in sodium and saturated fat
• Often containing cholesterol and trans fat
• Full of refined (aka processed) sugars
• Full of refined grains, such as white flour
ENTER THE LOW-CARB CRAZE
Ever notice how some guys avoid ALL carbs like the plague? The idea of restricting dietary carbs was introduced in the 1950s by Dr. Richard Mackarness, who published a book entitled Eat Fat and Grow Slim. More than a decade later, Robert Atkins touted the same low-carb thinking in his Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution. However, it wasn’t until the late 1990s and early 2000s – after Dr. Atkins updated and republished his earlier book – that low-carb diets become so popular in the U.S. While being mindful of your carb intake is certainly advised, totally boycotting any major food group is never the way to go.
WHERE DOES THE GLYCEMIC INDEX COME IN?
Originally created for diabetes patients, the Glycemic Index (GI) measures how much a carb-containing food or drink will raise your blood sugar (glucose) when eaten on its own. The index goes from 0 to 100, with lower rankings being better for you, and higher rankings being worse for you. For example, sugary foods like donuts will score a higher number and cause quick surges in your blood sugar levels. Meanwhile, fiber-rich foods like veggies will rank lower on the scale. Eating foods with a low GI score can help keep your blood sugar levels in check so you aren’t prone to sugar “crashes” that leave you running back to the snack cupboard. They also help your body metabolize fat more easily, which is always a plus if you’re trying to ditch those stubborn love handles.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
The three best times to eat carbs are in the morning, before you train, and after your workouts. Waking up to a healthy breakfast with complex carbs is a great way to replenish your body’s carb supply after it has been busy fasting during sleep. It will also serve as a good kick-start to your day. Pre-workout nutrition is also ideal since carbs are so critical to energy production. Consuming carbs about an hour before your workout will help give you that extra boost to train harder and longer, helping you see better results. Lastly, make sure to reach for some carbs after you’ve finished that last set. Post-workout carbs will help shuttle protein to your hard-working muscles after exercise, so they can recover properly and do their thing – grow bigger and stronger!
THE FINAL WORD ON CARBS
Some things just go better together… and that includes carbs and protein. So, when you’re adding some sweet potatoes to your dinner plate, make sure you’ve got a lean chicken breast or other high-quality protein partnered with it. Adding protein to your carbs helps slow down the digestion process even further, so you can feel fuller longer. Protein also acts as the building block of muscle, so you won’t want to go a day without it. Bottom line: If you’re looking for a strong, lean body, a carb-protein combo is a must-have!
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Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.