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What Are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates or “carbs” are one of the three macronutrients: protein, carbs and fats.

Carbs are sugars, starches and fiber found in fruits & vegetables, grains and dairy. Same as protein and fats, carbohydrates are essential for proper body functioning. Moreover, carbs are the primary source of energy for our muscle and central nervous system.

One gram of carbohydrates contains 4 calories. Not all carb sources are equal, as they break down and digest differently. Moreover, each type of carbohydrate has its own pros and cons when it comes to physical performance.

This article explains the most important aspects of carbs you need to know to lose fat without losing muscle, build lean muscle or reach any other fitness goal.

Specifically, I will cover:

Types of Carbohydrates

There are two types of carbs: simple and complex carbohydrates. Both differ in terms of a chemical structure and how fast they are absorbed and digested.

Simple vs Complex Carbs

In short, simple carbs are absorbed and digested faster than complex carbs, causing a much quicker boost in energy. Simple carb consumption can lead to spikes in sugar blood levels, while complex carbs provide more consistent energy.

Simple carbohydrates include sugars. Complex carbohydrates include starches and fiber.

Sugars

Sugars are carbs in their most basic form and they often taste sweet.

Those are naturally found in foods like:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Dairy
  • Beer
  • Honey
  • White & brown sugar
  • Other added sugars

Starches

Starches have a more complex chemical structure. They are often stored in muscles or liver and later converted into energy when needed.

Starchy carbs are found in foods such as:

  • Bread
  • Rice
  • Peas
  • Lentils
  • Quinoa
  • Pasta
  • Beans
  • Corn
  • Potatoes
  • Couscous
  • Other grains

Fiber

Unlike sugars and starches, dietary fiber is not broken down during digestion.

There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble.

Soluble fiber dissolves creating a gel-like substance, which may also help digestions. It maintains stable blood sugar levels, lower cholesterol (LDL-C) and decreases the risk of heart disease.

Insoluble fiber passes through undigested, giving it an energetic value of 0 calories per gram. The main benefit of insoluble fiber is that it helps with digestive processes.

Main sources of fiber are:

  • Whole grains
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Legumes

Good vs Bad Carbs

You may have heard that some people also classify carbs as “good” carbs and “bad” carbs. In my opinion, in some cases, it can be a pretty valid and simple way of looking at different carb sources.

Mainly because “good” carbs are considered to be complex carbohydrates like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes. Such food sources digest slowly, take a longer time to increase the body’s glucose levels and are nutrient-packed.

While “bad” carbs are mostly simple carbohydrates like sodas, pastries, cookies, doughnuts, candies, various white-flour goods. Such foods are highly processed, high in refined sugars and low in nutrients.

Even though, separating carbohydrates as “good” carbs and “bad” carbs might sound intimidating, you should not perceive it that way.

Focus on consuming whole, minimally processed sources of carbs, “good” carbs, for the most part. Then include some of the so-called “bad” carbohydrates occasionally, as this is what makes a diet balanced and most importantly – sustainable.

Good VS Bad Carbohydrates

The Glycemic Index

The glycemic index is a measurement of how quickly and by what degree the carbohydrates that you eat raise your blood sugar level.

High-glycemic foods like white bread, rice cakes, bagels cakes, doughnuts, croissants, sugary cereals, etc., raise the blood sugar level quickly. Low-glycemic foods like vegetables, beans, minimally processed grains, pasta, low-fat dairy and nuts raise blood sugar slowly.

According to Harvard Medical School, high-glycemic foods are linked with obesity, certain cancers, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

The Glycemic Index Illustration

Why Do We Need Carbohydrates

As stated before, carbohydrates are the primary source of energy for our muscle and central nervous system. One would argue that carbs are not essential for the human body to survive. While, in theory, that is correct as without carbohydrates our body would use protein and fats as the primary source of energy.

However, for proper body function carbs are essential. Moreover, carbohydrates provide a variety of other benefits like:

Best Sources of Carbs

By now, you might have noticed that specific kind of carbs share similar characteristics and have similar health benefits. I am referring to categories like “good” carbs, complex carbohydrates and low-glycemic foods.

All three of these food classes “check” the following boxes:

  • Low to moderate in terms of calories
  • Highly nutritious
  • Don’t include refined sugars and grains
  • High in fiber
  • Low in saturated and trans fats
  • Low in sodium

Simply put, the best sources of carbs you can eat are:

  • Fruits – a variety of fruits and berries
  • Vegetables – a variety of vegetables
  • Legumes – beans, peas and lentils
  • Nuts & Seeds – almonds, brazils, cashew, macadamia, hazelnuts, peanuts, walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds etc.
  • Whole grains – oats, buckwheat, quinoa, barley, bulgur, rice, pasta, bread, cereal
  • Tubers – potatoes, sweet potatoes
  • Dairy – milk and yoghurt

How Much Carbs per Day

How much carbs you should be eating essentially depends on how much calories you have left to play with after you have determined your protein and fat intake. Thus, it is the last macronutrient you have to determine when making a meal plan.

In addition, consider your preferences towards carbs and fats as both can be interchangeable, as long as the minimum amount of fats is reached.

How Much Carbs per Day to Lose Weight

Cutting diet that puts you in a deficit results in weight loss regardless of which macronutrients they emphasize. Therefore, it’s suggested that after the protein and fat amount is decided, have the remainder of calories come from carbs. However, if you like fatty foods more, you can lower carbs while increasing total fat intake accordingly.

Although, when losing fat, the introduction of carbs can provide an additional energy boost. Which could significantly improve your performance in the gym.

How Much Carbs per Day to Build Muscle

When your goal is to build muscle, carbs seem to play a bigger role, as it may enhance performance in the gym and help with muscle recovery. Thus, its recommended to devote the remaining calories to carbohydrates after determining protein and fat intake when following a lean bulk diet.

How Much Carbs per Day to Maintain

When it comes to maintaining current body weight, same rules as above apply. This means that your carbohydrate intake could be in the range of 35-60% of the total calorie intake.

Final Thoughts

Some may claim that carbohydrates are non-essential because the body can use protein and fats as the main source of energy. Although for a proper body functioning, muscle growth and strength gain carbs play a huge role.

In addition, whole, minimally processed carb sources like fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains, provide various health benefits. When deciding how many carbs to eat a day, it really depends on how many calories you have left after devoting calories to protein and fats. In addition, you can interchange carbs with fats if you prefer fatty foods, as long as the total calorie targets are met.

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