For all the women that aren’t sure whether or not carbs are bad, I have great news for you…
With all the carbophobia running rampant in the United States over the past twenty-some-odd years, I thought it’d be helpful to expose the truth about carbs and help with some of the confusion regarding their effect on your health.
Are Carbohydrates Good or Not?
Like any other controversial topic, there is truth to both the pro-carb, anti-carb argument; what’s important is that you gather enough information to determine its true effect on your weight, training, hormones, and overall longevity. Let’s get into talking all about carbohydrates!
The Truth about Carbohydrates: Carbs 101
Here we go. There are three macronutrients needed by the human body: carbohydrate, fat, and protein. These are the nutrients your body requires in greatest abundance to grow, develop, and maintain normal bodily function. Micronutrients, on the other hand, are substances your body requires in trace amounts to stay healthy-this includes vitamins and minerals.
By definition, carbohydrates are chemical compounds comprised of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen that can be broken down and utilized by the body for energy. This nutrient composition is not exclusive to the stereotypical bread and potato-it is a vastly occurring chemical configuration found in both plants and various animal-based foods.
What Do Carbohydrates Do For You?
Carbohydrates break down into glucose without any transitory steps, making them the most readily available source of energy. What is glucose you might ask?
Glucose is a simple sugar essential to the brain, muscles, and most of our cells. Not only is it required by the mammalian body, it is essential to all living organisms, including bacteria. It is stored as glycogen in animals (us), and as starch in plants. During periods without adequate caloric intake, these glycogen stores can be broken down for energy.
If the human body falls victim to the lowest possible state of living energy expenditure, say an unfortunate state of comatose, glucose is still required by the brain to continue neuronal function.
This is not a black and white topic. Physiologically, your body does not actually need carbohydrate to create glucose; you can convert protein and fat into energy, as well.
The Breakdown of Fat For Low Carb Diets.
This is the premise behind a very low carb-diet (~ < 50g/day): once there is no longer adequate carbohydrate available to break down into glucose to maintain normal function, the body will eventually revert to breaking down fat stores for this same energy.
This process is called lipolysis- glycerol is cleaved from the triglyceride (fat) molecule and converted to glucose.
The Truth about Carbs and Weight Loss: Ketones and Ketosis
Ketones are a byproduct of lipolysis and when they saturate your blood to a certain extent, this is known as ketosis. Ketosis is not dangerous-it is a normal homeostatic process that prevents the body from falling into a deadly hypoglycemic state after about only 24h of fasting.
Ketones are an alternate source of energy for the brain and muscles, and a healthy liver and kidneys help to excrete extraneous amounts from the body.
What’s right and wrong when it comes to calories?
Unfortunately, in a hypocaloric (lower calorie than what your body needs for maintenance), fasted state, the body will not only target fat, but also your glycogen stores. Glucose is stored in the muscle, as well as the liver, in the form of glycogen, and your body will want to use it. Boom, there go your biceps.
But what if you consume the right number of calories but retrieve them from primarily protein and fat? Research shows that yes, lean muscle mass will be spared. So why not just do this? Sounds like a weight loss magic bean, right?
The Carbohydrates You Need
A big part of exposing the truth about carbs is addressing what types of carbohydrates you should be eating. Let’s start with the basics: the hands-down, undeniable, irrefutable necessity for fruits and vegetables.
Fruits are naturally higher in sugar (carbs) than the latter, but they are oftentimes more palatable and practical than raw veggies.
Non-starchy vegetables, on the other hand, win the gold star for most nutrients packed into the least number of calories of ANY food items out there, particularly the leafy greens such as spinach, collards, Swiss chard, and kale.
Skimp on these babies and you’re at higher risk for obesity, gastrointestinal issues, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. Whichever proportion of F/V you choose, there is simply no getting by without the powerhouse phytonutrients, antioxidants, and fiber they provide.
People that cut carbs usually also miss out on calcium.
Moreover, going the low carb route probably also means cutting out dairy. Leafy greens such as spinach and broccoli are two of your next best bets on consuming adequate calcium.
This is important because muscles alone aren’t impacted by weight-bearing exercise; strength training is positively associated with maintaining bone mass and attenuating bone loss typical of the aging process.
Okay, let’s move on.
Up until this point we’ve been primarily focused on basic human functioning. It’s clear that yes, if weight loss or maintenance is your goal, a very low carb diet may be effective and safe (no mention of sustainability here, folks).
how Carbohydrates Affect Your Health
What if you want to do more than just survive- you want to train, grow strength, build endurance, and get into awesome shape? How does a low carb diet impact athletic performance?
Simply put, glycogen is the primary fuel for muscular activity, and depletion of glycogen stores contributes to muscular fatigue and the body’s inability to complete high intensity exercise.
Depleting your glycogen stores will only aid in acute muscle weakness and the reduction of force required by the body to make muscular gains.
Chances are, a few servings of fruit and vegetables a day will not provide you the adequate energy to fuel this performance, so be prepared to increase your carb intake.
Although some athletes are reverting to attempting to utilize fat stores as their primary source of muscular fuel, there are numerous studies that support the notion that carbohydrate feedings improve performance and endurance. Most don’t realize this about carbs…
Be aware, fat and carbohydrates fuel your workouts synergistically. Although the breakdown of fat does release more energy, carbohydrate is broken down more quickly; this is vital in high-intensity exercise as lipolysis alone cannot keep up with the energy demand of your muscles.
Important: Your overall performance
Going for a walk? Sure, a low-carb diet is adequate.
Trying to put up major weight or push your cardiovascular limits? Your performance is directly proportionate to the amount of energy you have to fuel your exercise. Skimp on carbs in your daily diet and you’ll find yourself exhausted and depleted far too soon to get results.
Okay, let’s keep going-carbs for athletic performance, check!
How do carbohydrates impact your hormones?
Leptin is a protein hormone on the front lines of weight management; it is produced in fatty tissue and is responsible for telling your brain whether your body needs more or less energy.
This drives appetite, satiety, and contributes to overall metabolic homeostasis.
Unfortunately, hunger cues alone do not drive our desire to eat, making leptin signals a little sticky (think “oooh I’m full but I want ice cream” behavior).
Want to make those signals even foggier? A very low carb diet can interfere with leptin synthesis, directly impacting multiple bodily functions.
Firstly, a very low-carb diet can cause menstrual irregularities, and who the heck wants to devote more of their time to regulating their cycle?
I’ll put that up there with peeling the tiny bits of skin from around my nails.
Throw in thyroid and adrenal irregularities and you’ve got yourself a hungry, cranky, overweight, and fatigued body unable to recover from its workouts while trying to ironically “get in shape”.
Carbohydrates and mood
Another undeniable impact when it comes to addressing the truth about carbohydrates is the whole realm of hormones, emotion, and mood.
A lack of dietary carbohydrates causes the brain to stop regulating serotonin, the brain chemical that elevates mood, combats pain, suppresses appetite, and acts as a natural tranquilizer.
Carbohydrates trigger the release of insulin into the bloodstream to uptake glucose and clear away all amino acids (protein building blocks) but one, tryptophan.
Tryptophan is then clear to flood the brain without competition from other amino acids, being subsequently converted to serotonin.
Serotonin leads to feelings of calm and contentment, having a positive impact on relaxation and even improved sleep.
Low-carbohydrate diets, in turn, may result in feelings of sluggishness, irritability, and even depression, leading to the counterproductive consumption of high-fat and sugary foods for comfort.
In delicate balance with serotonin is the steroid hormone cortisol, perhaps best known as the “fight-or-flight” hormone, contributing to the body’s ability to handle acute stress. The release of cortisol is normal, healthy, and necessary; prolonged cortisol release, however, can combat the body’s ability to repair muscle tissue. The reason for this is that cortisol is a catabolic hormone, while muscular growth is an anabolic process. Both phases cannot occur at once.
Studies show that in a state of glycogen deficiency, cortisol levels are elevated, impeding muscular gains.
Last but not least, there is the simple concept of sustainability.
I don’t know about you, but living in a low-carb world is a scary place to me, not unlike the scary notion of never getting into shape.
It is easy to grow anxious and cut severely down on carbs when you’re desperate to reach health and fitness goals, but know that this is not the solution.
It is also important to understand that a diet of 100g of carbohydrate is still considered relatively low-carb in comparison with the typical American diet, minus the possible nutrient deficiencies and stunted athletic performance that a very low carb diet proposes. If you are comfortable eating a higher proportion of protein and unsaturated fat to a lower proportion of carbohydrate, that is just fine, and is not the same as almost cutting out carbohydrates completely.
The efficacy of a health and fitness plan is dependent on more than just what is physiologically possible- your psychological, social, and cultural needs cannot be underestimated or overlooked.
Listen to your body and mind-if it needs more carbs, give it carbs!
If you are eating two huge helpings of pasta a night, take a selfie and post it so we can support you on your ensuing carb withdrawal because that just needs to stop.
Yes, a healthy body with healthy organs can survive without carbohydrates to an extent, but that just isn’t living…
And I don’t know many people who are content with just that.
You are reading this about the truth about carbs because you want to be greater, fitter, and healthier.
Be smart-eat what you need, what you crave, eat the right amount, fuel your workouts, recover from your workouts, and never feel deprived.
This is daily life, and carbohydrates are a part of that.