The What and The When of Carbs (Part 1)

Assorted Carbohydrate Sources Spelling Out 'Carbs'

Carbohydrates are an often feared and even hated macronutrient. It seems we have traded in our fat phobia for a carb phobia. And perhaps with good reason. After all, there is plenty of compelling research to show us that fats are health enhancing, while carbohydrates can lead to many lifestyle diseases.

I get asked all the time about carbohydrate intake. How many carbs should I eat per day? What are the best sources of carbs? When should I be eating them? Is a low carb diet the best for fat loss? What is a typical serving size?

So here’s my answer: IT DEPENDS 🙂

Yes, a frustrating answer for sure, but it’s really true. The answer depends on so many factors, it’s impossible to say that everyone can follow the same approach when we are all so different. What are your goals? Are you wanting to lose weight, gain muscle, or both? Are you male or female? What type of exercise do you do, or perhaps you don’t exercise at all? What are your stress levels like? How do you sleep? For women, what is your menstrual cycle like? Anyway, my point is that your personal intake of any single macronutrient depends on, well, everything. But at the same time, it’s unnecessary to completely over complicate things by weighing, measuring, and obsessing about numbers.

So where does that leave us? With a really long article…haha.

But today I want to address just a couple of things. The what and the when. What are ‘carbs’ and when should we eat them?

1. The What

A quick definition: carbohydrates are essentially chains of sugar strung together that the body eventually breaks down into glucose or fructose, depending on what you’re eating. Smaller chains are referred to as simple carbohydrates, longer chains are complex. Simple carbs are digested faster, while complex carbs take a bit longer. They both have their use in the body and one is not necessarily better than the other. For the sake of this post, let me clarify what I’m talking about when I say carbs. I am referring to your starchy/sugary sources: tubers, root vegetables, fruit, grains, processed foods containing added sugar, etc. I am not referring to non starchy vegetables (broccoli, celery, spinach, peppers, cucumbers, cauliflower, kale, etc). They do have carbohydrates, but are so nutrient dense and low in total carbs that they can be, and should be, eaten freely and with reckless abandon 😉

I firmly believe we can all benefit from staying away from bread, crackers, pasta, and any other processed grain like edible products. Yep, even the gluten free stuff! So let’s just eliminate those completely shall we 🙂 Ok!

That leaves us with your healthier carb choices, including: yam/sweet potato, regular potato, fruit of any kind, winter squash, rice, quinoa, whole oats, and legumes (yes, these are a starch NOT a protein). This is not an exhaustive list, but pretty much covers the basics. If you don’t eat grains already, don’t start just because I mention them here. I’m simply trying to give options for all people, no matter what type of eating plan is followed. My bias is always towards grain free 😉 But basically, if it’s in a whole food form, it’s gonna be good.

2. The When

The first meal of the day is very often the one that most people get wrong. A carb rich breakfast (that is simultaneously low in protein) is not the best choice if you’re looking to maximize fat loss and keep blood sugar stable for the rest of the day. Unfortunately most popular breakfast choices are very heavy in sugar and fall short on the protein. Let’s assume you’ve already eliminated the bad stuff we discussed in The What. Keep your breakfast higher in healthy fats and protein, and your energy and satiety levels will be elevated all day! If you’ve just worked out intensely while in a fasted state (ie 6am Spin class, bootcamp, weight lifting, etc) then having carbs with breakfast is extremely important. And if you can’t function during your morning workout without a little carbohydrate, that’s fine too, have something small like half a banana (there are no hard and fast rules here: listen to your body!) If you workout later in the day, then it may be best to save your carbs for dinner, or pre and post workout. But as always, please remember we are all individuals here, what works for one person may not work for another.

Then there’s the option of carb cycling. Eat a moderate amount of carbs with each meal on active days, and eat significantly fewer on non active days. For example in a 7 day week it would look something like this: low carb, high carb, low carb, high carb, low carb, mod. carb, high carb. Or low, low, high, high, low, low, high. The possibilities are endless, do what fits your lifestyle. If you aren’t very active (and by active I mean weight lifting, high intensity cardio, Kettlebell class, etc.) then sticking with a smaller portion of carbs all the time is probably your answer. In general, lunch is typically best kept on the lower end, too much might leave you tired and sluggish, craving a sugar hit at 3pm. Dinner on the other hand, should always contain some carbs. Our body needs them in order to stimulate serotonin and melatonin production so we may sleep better.

Ok, let me just pause to say there are SO many caveats to this issue of carb timing, which is why the answer is never simple. I am not going to go into every last possibly scenario. The last thing I want is for you to develop an obsession with carb counting and guilt. And just to be clear, I am not saying carbs are bad for you in ANY way, at all. As a macronutrient, carbohydrates are absolutely essential to our well being. It’s more about the source of carbs and the excess amounts that we tend to consume. Remember, you should be freely eating non starchy vegetables with every meal, so you are always getting carbs into your diet. When I refer to low, moderate, and high, it’s all relative. High carb does not mean a free for all! But we do need to eat carbs. Period. So even when I’m talking about low carb, you’re still consuming some. As long as it’s coming from REAL FOOD, you’re doing good.

Ok, to sum up. Ask yourself:

Did I just lift some heavy stuff or sprint like mad during some kind of interval training? High Carb. Did I have a rest and or light cardio day? Low carb.

See, it IS actually simple!

One more note, don’t over concern yourself with fruit. People get stressed about their fruit intake and whether it’s too much sugar or will cause weight gain. Let me just say, when was the last time you heard of someone having a weight issue due to eating too many apples? It’s not the fruit. Just keep it real, keep it simple, and RELAX 🙂

Stay tuned for Part 2 where I will discuss the How. How much and How the heck do I apply it to my life?