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What Are Carbs and Are They Your Enemy?

Low carb diets are all the rage these days. Diets like Atkins, Keto, Carb Cycling and Paleo all tote the weight loss benefits of reducing or eliminating carbs from your diet. The common idea with most of these diets is that reducing the intake of carbs somehow retrains the metabolism to utilize body fat for energy instead of carbs.

Unfortunately, there has been no consistent scientific evidence that low carb diets alter the metabolism in any way, or are even superior to any other type of diet for weight loss. The reality is that the positive weight loss results seen with low carb diets are often simply due to caloric deficit. Caloric deficit is when you burn more calories than you eat, and it doesn’t really matter how you break down the macros. For most people, the easiest way to maintain a caloric deficit is to reduce or eliminate carbs from the diet because they tend to be the most calorically dense foods and the easiest to overeat (bread, cakes, sweet drinks). Does that mean that it is necessary to eliminate carbs from your diet? No. Carbs have their own place and application in your diet but how do you do it without overdoing it? To help you answer that question, let’s review some information on carbs.

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What exactly are carbs?

When broken down by the body, a carb -or carbohydrate- is essentially a form of sugar. 

There are various different forms of sugar from fructose found in fruits, to galactose found in animal dairy, to glucose found in vegetables and fruits. 

This sugar is what fuels our life and gives us energy to perform-if you’ve ever tried a low or no carb diet then you will have experienced first-hand what carbs contribute to your daily energy. 

Carbs are your body’s gasoline.

What are the different types of carbs?

The three main types of carbs are sugars, starches, and fiber. Carbs can be slow digesting (complex) or fast digesting (simple) depending on the source from which they came. For instance, sugar coming from a fruit will be slower digesting than sugar in a candy because the sugar in the fruit requires more digesting by the body. 

Why are complex carbs preferable to simple carbs?

Complex carbs are often preferable to simple carbs for two main reasons: 1) they provide a steady flow of even energy over the course of several hours and 2) there is extra energy required to digest them (more calories burned during digestion). That isn’t to say that there isn’t a time and place for a simple carb.

When do I use complex carbs?

Complex carbs are what you want the majority of your carbs to be-especially through-out the day. They help keep you energized to perform your daily tasks with fairly even energy levels and moods. Complex carbs come from fresh fruits and vegetables, along with grains, legumes, and beans that have not been over processed. Snacking on fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the day, adding modest amounts of things like quinoa or brown rice to your meals, and swapping out your white toast for multigrain will provide your body a steady flow of healthy “gasoline”. 

The application of carbs to fuel a workout is well known among athletic professionals. Habits of eating a complex carb like a banana, oatmeal, or even toast before a workout is common with people who frequent the gym or perform exercise shorter than 2 hours in duration.

When do I use simple carbs?

Simple carbs are most useful when you need a quick, short boost of energy-this is commonly seen in endurance sports like marathon running, cycling, or triathlons. Snacks like stroopwaffels, carb gels, and even candies are used to get a fast-acting boost of energy to get over a fatigue hump. Outside of the athletic world, application of a simple carb is not commonly advised, but it could have it’s time and place. For instance, drinking a glass of juice to increase the blood sugar quickly (for diabetics), or popping a hard candy in your mouth before you jump on a lengthy conference call. Or even when it’s getting late at night and for no good reason you start craving some sort of sweet treat: your body is getting tired and basically telling you “Hey! If you want to keep going I’m going to need some more energy-fast!”. 

How much carbs is too much carbs?

The answer to that varies from person to person-there is not “one size fits all” diet. For instance, a person with a lot of energy demands like an athlete or even a stockroom worker who might have a very physical job will need more carbs than a person who sits at a desk all day for work. Additionally, the body composition goals a person has will affect their recommended carb intake: people looking for hypertrophy will need to eat higher amounts of carbs than people who are looking to simply lose body fat. If you want to know exactly how much carbs you, specifically would need to eat to reach your goals, I would recommend reaching out to a professional. Anything else that you read like “no one should eat more than 100 grams of carbs a day” is a generalized statement and not necessarily applicable to you or best for you.

Is it possible to have too little carbs?

Being deficient in carbohydrates is associated with fatigue and moodiness-most people who have avoided carbs for any length of time have felt this. Aside from that, there aren’t typically any medical issues that have been seen to arise from a deficiency of carbs in the diet. In fact, many people who have a low or no carb diet will tell you that once the fatigue goes away they actually feel pretty great without carbs.

What is your own personal application of carbs?

When I am trying to gain weight, I use more carbs in my diet and I eat a carb every time I eat but it’s not usually a “bready carb”. I try to get most of carbs from fruit and vegetables because they feel less heavy on my stomach. I also get a lot of my carbs from milk and dairy because of the high protein content. I eat a carb like rice or potatoes with dinner on days I have done heavy lifting.

When I am trying to lose weight I prioritize protein so heavily in my diet that I rarely have room to many carbs that aren’t fruits and vegetables. Not that I avoid them, but I try to eat more protein than anything else and I am on caloric restriction so it doesn’t often leave me a lot of calories for carbs. If I do eat carbs while in caloric deficit, I try to use carbs that are decently high in protein like beans and quinoa.

I don’t often intentionally use fast digesting carbs for anything, but if I do I may just pop a jolly rancher in my mouth before I start a circuit training workout after an 8 hour work shift-and that’s only if I feel like I may just fall asleep standing right up otherwise I try to push myself without it.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, carbohydrates are not your enemy! Both simple and complex carbs have their own proper application in the diet-you don’t need to avoid them entirely. Once you know what carbs do for you and when you might need them, you’ll know how to properly apply them in your diet so that you can enjoy them without overdoing it!