Enough about protein. The fitness world is overloaded with information about the benefits of protein, and it's often seen as the heart of sports nutrition. Considering it’s recommended that between 45% and 65% of our daily calories should come from carbs, I think it's time we talked a bit more about them. That’s why we’ve pulled in our friends from Optimum Nutrition to give us the best advice.
Why Carbohydrates Matter
Carbs are an essential Macronutrient, and as mentioned above they make up a large majority of our calorie intake per day. But why do our carb needs stretch way above that of fat or protein? The simple answer; energy. Carbohydrates are our bodies preferred source of fuel and they play a large role in muscle function. They fuel our working muscles as we exercise. They refuel our muscles as we deplete. They also aid the recovery and development of new muscle tissue.
Oh so that’s what carbs do… quite a lot actually. And that's not all. Carbs play a role in supporting healthy brain function, aid our metabolism and even enhance our performance. Let’s look in further detail at the purpose of this critical energy- yielding nutrient.
The Foundation of Carbohydrates
What actually is a carbohydrate? Sugar. I know what you’re thinking… sugar?! Often seen as the enemy of exercise, who knew sugar actually played such a vital role in our fitness journey! However, not all carbohydrates are the same, and they differ chemically by the type and amount of sugar they contain. You’ve probably heard of the terms simple and complex in terms of carbohydrates. This is where sugar comes in. Simple carbohydrates (sometimes referred to as ‘simple sugars’) include one or two single sugar units (or molecules if you want to sound fancy). Complex carbohydrates are longer chains of these single sugar units linked together. Check out the table below of simple vs complex carbohydrates.
Simple Carbohydrates: Fructose, Galactose, Glucose, Sucrose, Lactose, Maltose.
Complex Carbohydrates: Glycogen, Starch- Amylose, Starch- Amylopectin, Soluble Fiber, Insoluble Fiber.
When we consume carbs, our bodies convert them into glucose which circulates through the blood to our brain and all tissues. All types of carbs (with the exception of fiber!) are converted into glucose. Glucose is the preferred energy type for many of our cells and that is why it is the main source. We don’t use all of this glucose straight after it's converted, so that’s where glycogen comes in. Glycogen is just the stored version of glucose… sounds easy enough. It is temporarily stored in both our liver and skeletal muscle to be used when we need an energy kick!
Remember when we talked about simple vs complex carbohydrates? Well glucose and glycogen work in a very similar way. Glucose is the single unit (molecule!) and glycogen is the long chain made from all those single units linked together. Our bodies are lazy… so we will always use glucose first if it is available. When there is no glucose left, the body starts breaking down the glycogen into those single units. So what happens when there is no glycogen left?! We become fatigued and our bodies start to break down our tissues such as fat and muscle. All that hard work muscle gain is undone! This is why it is super important to ensure you are eating the right amount of each macro for YOUR needs. Remember, if fat loss is your goal, your diet may look very different from your muscle building friends.
Dietary Sources of Carbohydrates
When people say carbs, personally pizza and pasta springs to mind. Did you know that carbohydrates are actually found in just about every food group?! Dairy? Yes. Fruit? Yes. Veg? Yes. Each food can be categorized into simple or complex. Let’s have a look at the difference!
Simple Carbohydrates: Short chain sugar units that are responsible for quick bursts of energy. When consumed they are quickly absorbed into the small intestine and as a result your glucose levels in your blood will spike. These kinds of carbs are good for pre/ post workout energy hits! Let's look at some examples of food types:
- Dairy: Milk, Cheese, Yogurt, Cottage Cheese, icecream.
- Fruit (Be mindful that fruit can contain complex carbs in the skin, peel or seeds!): Pineapple, Jackfruit, Lychee, Banana.
- Refined grains (aka the fiber has been removed): White bread, Cereal, White rice.
- Other: Honey, Cookies, Cakes, Pies.
Complex Carbohydrates: long chain sugar units responsible for slow release energy. As these long chains need breaking down before they are absorbed, they are digested slower and prolong the energy release over a longer period of time. These kinds of carbs are useful at the start of the day and with regular mealtimes.
Complex carbs include starches and fiber. Think potatoes, bread, oats. Other kinds of carbohydrates include Millet, Soybeans, lentils etc.
Overall, it’s important to remember that carbohydrates are a fundamental part of a balanced diet. They are essential in helping to fuel the body and muscles. Also, depending on the source, they can provide different types of nutrients, vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. Remember, both simple and complex carbohydrates play an important role in energy. The times you consume each type may depend on your schedule and types of activity. Embrace carbohydrates and use them to your advantage. Keep balance, variety and moderation in mind all while finding what works best for you, your activity and your goals.
Thank you to Optimum Nutrition for this great info.