A Healthy Perspective - Are Carbs Good or Bad
Author - Stephen Griffith C.S.C.S.
A healthy Perspective is a series of articles that aims to take a look at controversial topics in health and fitness. Often the industry falls into an us-vs-them, good or bad, conversation creating a confusing situation for you because it’s hard to tell who's right or wrong. Often there is truth lies somewhere in the middle, so my goal is to provide you with a healthy perspective on these controversial topics so you may decide what works best for you.
The fitness and nutrition industry loves a good villain. For a while fats held this role and every chronic disease from strokes, to heart disease was blamed on it. Americans responded by going fat-free cutting fats from milk, butter, and everything else. Despite this massive reduction in fat consumption Americans continued to gain weight and feel worse. Recently the tides have turned with carbs being named the arch nemesis of everything lean and good in life. Numerous celebrities have come out denouncing carbs and now low-carb diets are being promoted as the answer to all of your ails.
Life has taught me to have a healthy sense of skepticism when people begin making grandiose claims - especially when there's money to be made. While the body is incredibly adaptable, going to the extremes is often not a successful long-term strategy for health or success. Cutting carbs out of your diet is no different. The truth is being skewed whenever we denounce an essential nutrient or begin naming 'bad guys'. So let’s go over what you need to know about carbs and take a healthy perspective on the topic.
What you need to know
The foods we eat are full of macronutrients. Macronutrients provide energy and are essential for survival. The 3 main Macronutrients are Carbohydrates, Fats, and Proteins.
Each macronutrient can be used as energy within the body but with different results.
Fats are broken down in an efficient but slow process making it an ideal fuel source for slow, steady, and sustained activities.
Proteins main job is to provide the building blocks the body needs to build new cells and structures - such as muscle mass. The body is also incredibly adaptable and when needed can breakdown protein for energy in a very slow and inefficient process. The body doesn't store protein like it does fat or carbs. So when it needs energy it will breakdown muscle mass and recycle that protein for energy. It's for these reasons why the body only uses protein as a last resort.
Carbs are the most readily digested and usable source of energy for the body and are the go-to source of energy for short bouts of activity.
Proteins and fats both contain essential resources that the body would die without. In contrast carbs are not an essential nutrient which leads to many claims that carbs aren't necessary.
However foods that have carbs also happen to be some of the most nutritious foods you could eat. For example, foods that have carbs include fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains. To say carbs are bad and to be avoided would also say that the foods I listed above should be avoided. This goes against all the research we have for living a healthy life.
This is what happens when you begin to brush with a broad stroke.
Carbs are not inherently bad. Carbs provide a ready source of energy to workout at a high level. It serves as a muscle sparing affect in the body as the body will use carbs and fats instead of protein. Lastly, foods highest in nutritional value such as fruits and vegetables are primarily carbohydrate rich foods.
So why do carbs get such a bad rap?
There are 3 issues that contribute to carbs bad reputation break down to - quantity, quality, and timing. When these three criteria are met you will feel great. Unfortunately, many of us are off in one or more of these area.
When it comes to quality, natural food choices are great. These include fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, grains,and legumes. However, the issues arise when we talk about the processed foods that dominate our modern diet. These include processed foods that are often devoid of nutrients such as cakes, cookies, candy, soda, and other sugar-filled foodstuffs. In my article The 5 Principles of Healthy Eating I outline the keys to a healthy diet and numbers 1&2 sum up to -Eat a variety of whole natural nutrient dense foods. Carbs are not bad if you get them from veggies and fruits, but they are if you get them from sugar or sugar enhanced products. While a cake has carbs it doesn't mean that all carbs are cakes. The carbs are bad critique is a generalization that fails to discern the difference between good sources of carbs and poor sources of carbs and instead paints them all as bad.
Let’s go to the 2nd area where carbs may cause an issue which is quantity. As I mentioned carbs are energy, and we need the energy to go about our daily activities. A lack of carbs usually leads to low energy. Low energy means you will fail to get the most out of your workouts and consequently decrease the results you're looking to achieve. Additionally if your body doesn’t have fuel when it works out, it will break down muscle to cover the deficit giving carbs a muscle sparing effect.
They'res a difference though between enough carbs and too many carbs. Any excess carbs not used during the day will be stored as fat. As mentioned carbs are a source of energy for the body and the issue is most of us don't spend enough energy during the day to justify how many carbs we eat. Most days involve waking up, sitting down as you drive to work, sitting down at work, driving back home, and then sitting down to relax after a long day. This is why carbs cause weight gain.
The last issue you can run into when managing carbs is timing. There are two types of carbs; Complex carbs and simple carbs. Complex carbs have fiber which slows digestions and provides sustained energy for your daily activities. Complex carbs include whole grains, legumes, veggies, and other fibrous foods.
Simple carbs lack fiber and digest quickly, which is good if you need a quick boost of energy before a physically demanding activity but bad if you don't. Common sources include white bread, flour products, and sugar. Healthy choices of simple sugars are fruits and certain veggies such as potatoes and corn. If you need a boost get it from a healthy choice.
The issues arise when we eat simple carbs when we don't plan to expend energy. It digests quickly for a boost of energy but then has nowhere to go. The body has to put it somewhere so it packs it away as fat. It's like pouring water into a sink faster than it can drain - the result is a sudden overflow.
I have three rules for managing carbs. If you follow them you will avoid any pitfalls and be a leaner nourished version of yourself.
Rule #1 - Your carb consumption should be proportional to how much energy you spend during the day.
If you spend all day sitting then you don’t need many carbs. So skip the toast and sandwiches and opt to get your carbs from sources such as vegetables. Opt for an omelet for breakfast or a salad for lunch. Go with Salmon with sauteed veggies instead of pasta. Protein, healthy fats and veggies should be most of your meals with a little fruit, nuts, seeds, and legumes here and there.
If you're more active during the day like if you went hiking, worked out, or ran several miles then you may add in some more carbs such as fruit, beans, or whole grains. Preferably consumed around workout times when the body is most receptive and least likely to store them as fat. But keep it in proportion - A person working out with a 20lb weight will not need as much as a person working out with a 100lb weight.
Rule #2 - Eat Quality Carbs
This is my rule for all foods, and carbs are no exception - aim for foods that are natural, minimally processed, and full of nutrients. These are your fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains. Avoid the processed junk foods like cakes and cookies. Also, read the ingredient labels to avoid foods with added sugar. Sugars are added to several foods, even ones you wouldn’t expect such as bread, sauces, and peanut butter. Find the ones without added sugar.
Tip- Manufacturers will use a number of different names to fool you into thinking there's no sugar. When looking at the ingredient list names that end in “ose” are typically sugar in a different form. This includes glucose, sucrose, maltose, dextrose, and the most common one fructose.
Rule #3 Time your Complex and Simple Carbs
Complex Carbs are slow digesting and provides sustained energy for the day. Have them with meals and in the morning.
Simple Carbs provide energy so eat them before, during, or after a bout of activity when your body is most receptive to use them. Fruit is your best choice, eat some about 30 min to an hour before activity to ensure you are ready to perform your best.
Carbs are not inherently bad but consuming them from poor sources and in large quantities can be. Eat carbs in proportion to your activity and get them from whole natural sources. If you're eating carbs eat them around activity time so they can be put to use. Use these three rules and you'll avoid the pitfalls that give carbs their bad reputation.