Nutrition Coaching: Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are big business. You want to know why? Because carbs can cause weight gain. On the other hand, carbs can also help get you lean, mean, and really strong. Sound confused? It’s okay, so is the rest of the world. That’s why there are opposing camps when it comes to “good carbs” and “bad carbs.”
Let’s talk a closer look at the world of carbohydrates and get a better understanding of how you can use them to get in shape.
What is a Carb
To some extent, carbohydrates are an energy source for the body. Part of the confusion lies in the fact that there are tons of different kinds of carbs. For our sake, we can limit carbs to simple sugars, fiber, and complex carbohydrates (starches). So the carbs found in a protein bar, raisin, and potato are all different and can have several fates once you put them in your body. Bonus points to those clients who can pick the two carbs from that example that would be better for you.
You brain, muscles, and organs can rely on carbs to do a whole host of functions in the body. One of the reason that you may crave sweets is that your blood sugar dropped and your brain wants energy stat.
Part of the issue lies in how your body responds to carbohydrates, which can explain why some people can tinker with fad diets found online and have great results (and how others can try it and have no change such whatsoever…or even get worse). One way your body responds to carbs is based on your insulin sensitivity. Insulin is a hormone that carries nutrients to your muscles and fat cells – when your insulin gets messed up, problems arise in terms of health, fatigue, and your weight. Which explains….
Your Body Type Plays a Huge Role
Carbs are probably the only nutrient that can be influenced by your body type. Leaner, more muscular and athletic individuals (they should thank their parents for the great genetics) can usually tolerate more carbs than someone who has had a more sedentary lifestyle. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you can change your body type. As you get leaner, build more muscle, and can handle more intense types of exercise (sprinting, swinging a kettlebell, listening to your trainer telling you to knock out two more squats, etc) you can take in more carbs.
Regardless of your body type, you can’t avoid carbs forever. Low carb diets work – in the short term. Avoid carbs for too long and you can mess up your thyroid hormone while giving your metabolism a one way ticket to rock bottom. Let’s delve in a little deeper now to get a better understanding.
Refined sugars – the stuff found in boxed food like cereals, crackers, condiments, and bread, could potentially be labeled as “bad carbs.” These carbs can cause fluctuations in blood sugar which in turn alters your hormones and causes the body to go into fat storage mode.
Case in point – a study was done in which subjects only ate simple sugars found in crackers and sport drinks. After several weeks, researchers found a 33% increase in triglycerides (or the amount of fat in your blood) (1). Another study mimicked the same format but this time measured brain activity. In an interesting turn of events, researchers found that when subjects ate highly processed carbs, areas in their brain associated with cravings and rewards were substantially activated (2)! This means that eating bad food made you crave bad food. This explains why you can run through a bag of Doritos before halftime but can struggle to get through a bowl of baby carrots.
If you want to label these carbs as bad, you probably want to couple boxed cereals, most breads, vending machine foods, and even “health” and protein bars.
So going by this example, we can determine that carbs can cause us to eat more food and possibly affect our cardiovascular health. But if you noticed one thing about these studies, they excluded more nutrient dense carbs. Where’s the quinoa, rice, veggies, and potatoes?
Maybe Carbs Aren’t Bad
When you exercise at the studio, your muscles and liver can potentially dump all of the carbs you had stored as energy. In fact, just 20 minutes of interval training can deplete nearly 40% of all the carbs stored in your body (3). If you don’t replenish those carbs, your body can start to actually destroy its own muscle mass in order to get energy. You can also keep your body’s stress hormones elevated- even when you’re at rest. These stress hormones can cause weight gain while suppressing your immune system.
I once worked with a hard working client who came to me to get in shape. And get in shape he did- dropping from 204 to 187 during the holiday season, which one could argue is one of the busiest times of the year. When he hit 187 I wanted to start introducing more calories and carbs into his meal plan. However, he was reluctant to do it. For a while he stayed at 187, but then weight started to creep up. Strength came to a halt and his waistline started to climb back up too. Unfortunately, the client put four pounds back on. I’d like to say that he came around and began eating carbs, but sadly, he became too frustrated and didn’t want to change his ways. He ended leaving shortly after that because it was getting difficult to progress his workouts.
So What Can You do
-As of right now, follow your meal plan. Always make sure to have carbs after you workout.
-On days where you workout, you can sneak in more starches and sugary fruits
-Continue to resistance train. Whether you’re doing a heavy deadlift or endless chin ups, resistance training is one of the proven methods to improve insulin sensitivity. This means less of a chance to store proteins and carbs as fat. I’m not going to lie, it takes time, but you can literally change your internal physiology after a year of serious strength training.
-If you do munch on cookies, chips, etc count it as one of your free meals within your adherence rate. So if you get 3 “free” meals per week, then each snacking session counts as a meal.
Questions? Need more guidance? Schedule that nutrition coaching session! In the meantime, keep up the great work and see you at your next session!
1.Bangle, John P. “Dietary Fructose and Metabolic Syndrome and Diabets 1-3.” (2009) The Journal of Nutrition. 139.6: 1263S-1268S
2. Lennerz, B.S., Alsop, D.C., Holsen, L.M., Stern, E., Rojas, R., Ebbeling, C.B., Goldstein, J.M., Ludwig, D.S. “Effects of Dietary Glycemic Index on Brain Regions to Reward Craving in Men.”(2013) American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
3. Rankin, J.W. “Dietary Carbohydrate and Performance of Brief, Intense Exercise.” (2000) Sports Science Exchange 13,4. 79-82