Everywhere in the world, there are people who go on crazy fad diets that are supposed to help with fat loss and becoming healthier. The “low carb” diets in particular, have been especially popular. This is where people dramatically reduce their daily intake of carbohydrates to extremely low amounts or worse, close to none each day. The common misconception that carbohydrates are bad for you and that they are the main reason for increased body fat, is untrue.
Carbs, short for carbohydrates, are your body’s main source for energy. When your body consumes any form of carbs, it will digest these carbs, into glycogen (stored energy) or use them almost instantly for energy expenditure like physical activity. A simple example is when young children consume candy, which contains a high amount of sugar (a carbohydrate), and subsequently you see the child have a burst of energy. Carbohydrates serve your body in other ways as well, like providing your body with necessary micronutrients as well as preserving muscle mass.
Consuming adequate amounts of carbs is essential to being healthy and reaching your fitness goals. First, carbs protect and preserve muscle mass. For example, when you are in a caloric deficit you are reducing your overall calorie consumption in order to lose (just) body fat. As you exercise, your body needs energy to complete your strenuous workouts. Carbohydrates are your body’s first choice for the task. If you are lacking adequate amounts of carbs, your body will resort to digesting dietary fat and adipose tissue for energy. Then, your body will resort to digesting protein. Either your body will break down your dietary protein, or it will digest its own muscle. Let me emphasize, your body will break down its own muscle mass if you don’t consume adequate calories/carbs for your physical activity! This is why carbohydrates are referred to as “protein sparing”.
Secondly, carbs protect and preserve your muscle by maintaining performance. When you are eating less calories than your body requires to maintain your current bodyweight, there is the potential to lose muscle along with fat while maintaining your caloric deficit. The best way to counter your body trying to break down your muscle is by simply using your muscle. The truism, ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it’, can be applied here. You need to be exerting your muscles by putting tension on them and you need to maintain your athletic performance. This means lifting the same weight with the same amount of volume. Maintaining performance is the most essential and important method for preserving muscle mass. The only way you can ensure your performance does not suffer is through consuming adequate amounts of carbohydrates daily.
Another reason you should be consuming carbohydrates is to ensure that you are consuming enough micronutrients daily. Micronutrient, in addition to water, are vitamins and minerals, which are essential for cellular function, metabolism, and performance. For example, a common deficiency in female athletes is iron. In one study, a group of female athletes was supplemented with iron. The results showed that during strength testing, the iron-supplemented group displayed greater total strength across a range of barbell lifts compared to the control group that did not receive iron supplementation.
Most of your vitamins and minerals come from fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are made up of mostly carbohydrates. Therefore, if you skimp on your carbs, you will miss out on some of those important micronutrients.
Carbs received their bad reputation for many reasons. For starters, they are villainized because they are one of the most easily accessible foods. In addition to being readily accessible, they can be consumed in large quantities without becoming very satisfied. Let’s take Oreo cookies (my personal favorite) for example, one serving of Oreo cookies equals only two cookies and the carbohydrate content is 24grams of carbs! This is a rather large amount of carbs in a very small and non-filling package. These are also referred to as “empty calories” as they do not provide quality calories for your body. Compare the nutrition of Oreos to a serving of cooked brown rice measured by 100 grams, which contains 23grams of carbs, and is more micronutrient dense and satisfying. 100 grams of brown rice has more nutrients and contains fiber which will help you feel more satisfied and full when compared to eating Oreo cookies.
Carbs are your body’s most preferred source of energy, however, if you are sedentary you probably don’t need all the carbs from a fast food meal for example. In summary, carbs mostly got their bad name due to their overconsumption. Also, a lot of people are not metabolizing the carbs as energy because of their low activity level. Instead, the excess carbs that are not used are being stored as fat.
Hopefully, after reading this blog you can see that you are able to eat carbohydrates totally guilt-free and you actually need them to achieve your fitness goals. Carbohydrates are not evil and you should not go on crash diets excluding entire foods/food groups. You should look for a more inclusive and balanced mindset by tracking your macronutrients and micronutrients. Carbs are important for maintaining muscle mass because they are your body’s main source of fuel for your workouts, and they assist you in maintaining your performance and avoiding muscle catabolism (muscle loss). Aim, to workout 3-6 times per week with resistance training, track your nutrients, and you can stop feeling guilty about eating carbohydrates.