In the world of nutrition, carbohydrates (or carbs) are a contentious issue. Depending on who you read, they are either the root of the current obesity crisis and something you should never eat or an essential source of energy that should make up around 60-percent of your daily food intake.
Fitness is full of such polar opposites – cardio or strength training for fat loss, kettlebells or barbells for strength training, CrossFit is the best workout/worst workout ever…
As is often the case, extreme points of view to the left or right don’t really tell the whole story and, often, a more moderate and middle of the road point of view is better. Both cardio AND strength work well for fat loss – even better when they are combined. Kettlebells and barbells are both awesome strength building tools so why exclude one or the other? And as for CrossFit – it’s neither the best or worst workout ever; it’s just a workout and not a religion for goodness’ sake!
So, back to carbs…
Carbs are not inherently evil and nor should they make up such a huge part of your daily calorific intake. Carbs are essential for providing your muscles with energy and also supply your brain with its preferred source of fuel – glucose. Your muscles and liver store glucose so you always have energy “on tap” and while you can use fat for fuel, when you are being very energetic it’s carbs that your body prefers to use.
If I had to summarize the importance of carbs in a single sentence, I would say that carbs are the fuel for an active lifestyle. From that, you can deduce that the more active you are the more carbs you need and the less active you are the fewer carbs you need.
When the food pyramid model was first produced, where 60-percent of your daily calorific intake came from carbs, people were generally more active than they are now. Walking was the most common mode of transport, many people had physically demanding jobs, entertainment was less passive and there were far fewer processed and sugary foods available. Carbs were necessary to fuel this level of activity.
Fast forward to the 21st century and the vast majority of the population are sedentary, walk very little, work in offices using computers rather than dig ditches for a living and there is an abundance of sugary, processed foods available for easy consumption. The same 60-percent carb intake recommendations are still bounded around by many nutritionists but clearly our needs for carbs has declined significantly.
It’s not that the carbs are bad; it’s just that we don’t need them so much anymore.
Rather than label carbs as being bad, it’s better to become more “carb smart” and that’s where this article comes in. I want to help you make carbs your friend so you can eat them, enjoy them and get the most form what they have to offer. It’s all about timing…
There are certain times of the day when your body is best able to handle carbs. Just for clarification, carbs are foods like bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, fruit, and porridge oats and so on and where possible you should select the least processed carbs available so shoot for wholemeal bread rather than white bread or brown rice instead of white rice. By timing your carb intake in sympathy with things like insulin sensitivity and periods of activity, you can make carbs work for you while preserving or shrinking your waistline.
Do your best to time your carb intake around the following “windows of opportunity” so that carbs are not your enemy but your very good friend.
1. For breakfast
After a night of not eating, your blood glucose levels can be a little low and your sensitivity to carbs is elevated. While a coffee might get you up and moving, for sustained energy (both mental and physical) you need to get your blood glucose levels back up to base line. The best way to do this is by eating a portion of slow releasing/low glycemic carbs for breakfast. Porridge is ideal but any slow releasing wholegrain carb will do. Add in some quality protein and you have the ideal start to the day.
2. Before your workout
As previously mentioned, carbs are your body’s preferred fuel for exercise so make sure you have plenty of “gas in the tank” by consuming carbs in the lead up to your workout. Slow acting carbs are ideal two or so hours before your workout begins and fast acting carbs are better within an hour of the start of your workout. Eating carbs before exercise will prevent hypoglycaemia or low blood glucose that can leave you feeling weak, tired and may even force you to stop your workout prematurely.
3. After your workout
As exercise uses carbohydrate, specifically the carbs stored in your muscles (called glycogen) you need to replace these stores before you can perform a similarly demanding workout. After exercise your body is especially receptive to carbs and will do its utmost to ferry any and all carbs consumed after your workout into your muscles. Make the most of this phenomenon by eating fast-acting carbs such as fruit straight after your workout.
By making the most of these three windows of opportunity you ensure that your body is much less likely to shunt ingested carbs into your fat stores – something it is more than happy to do if you eat excessive amounts of carbs when you don’t really need them. Adjust your carb intake to match your activity levels and you will be golden. The rest of the time, keep your carb intake to a reasonably low level (no need to eliminate them completely though unless you are seeking rapid fat loss) and focus more on protein. Protein is very unlikely to be converted to body fat, elevates your metabolism, helps preserve muscle mass and helps keep you feeling fuller for longer.