Carbohydrates—the much maligned macronutrient of the 21st century. Are they really as bad as everyone has been saying? Well, yes and no. Demonizing an entire macronutrient is much easier than explaining the proper types of carbohydrates to consume and at which times that consumption would be beneficial. I’m going to explain the ins and outs of carbohydrate consumption, so you may use this type of fuel in an efficient manner.
History and Science
Let’s begin with some history. Up until about 12,000 years ago, the elevated carb consumption that exists today didn’t happen. During the Neolithic Revolution we as a species began to transition from hunter gatherers to creating human settlements supported by agriculture. The protein in cultivated cereal grains allowed us to implement staple foods that kept societies fed, but unlike vegetables, and to a lesser degree fruits, grains are packed with a shitload of carbs. When a field worker woke up, they ate a ton of grains. They did this because they could go out and work all day without needing to replenish their fuel, aka food. Their bodies would choose to burn those carbs first, then tap into the fat, and eventually protein.
This worked in that paradigm, but it doesn’t for most people in the paradigm of modern society. Today, it’s not unusual for your average office worker to load up on cereal, hash browns, toast, pancakes, and sugary coffee drinks. The thing is, they don’t need a lot of fuel to sit on their ass all day, yet they consume it anyway. As a result, all of the fat that was consumed with the extra carbs gets stored away as reserve fuel. This typically continues, and the fat reserves continue to pile up, until the rate of overweight people in America has reached 73%; with 36% being obese.
Let’s talk a bit about the science of how carbs work. Our bodies need carbs. They are integral to our health. Your body will seek out the glucose from carb intake and refinement first to use for energy. Whatever carbs are not used for fuel will be converted to glycogen. When you have produced enough glycogen—about 2,000 calories or 500 grams—the rest will be converted to fat. There’s the kicker right there. Not only is your body storing all of the fat you ate along with the carbs, it’s converting the excess carbs into more reserve fat. As you can see, your body goes through a bit of a process to refine carbs. There is a cleaner, more efficient fuel for the body to burn, and it’s fat, but that’s another article.
Carbohydrates To Avoid
Some of you may disagree with me, but… grains are bullshit. Our bodies just run a lot better on other things. Fossil records indicate a massive increase in tooth decay around the time of the Neolithic Revolution, this is because grains contain high amounts of phytic acid. Phytic acid contributes to mineral deficiencies, which in turn contributes to host of other issues including, but not limited to, tooth decay, rickets, and osteoporosis. I’m sure we’ve all heard enough about gluten already, and I’m not even going to get into lectins; you can research the ills of those for yourself. Obviously our bodies can digest grains for energy, they are just not very efficient at doing so. In addition, each serving contains a large amount of carbs, and one serving is not that big; most people eat quite a few in one sitting. This wouldn’t be so detrimental if the people eating all of these carbs were out doing manual labor or running around all day, but that is typically not the case.
It’s time to discuss the white devil; sugar. Not only is it terrible for you, it’s literally as addictive as cocaine. Sugar dulls the signal to your brain that you’re full, allowing you to eat more. When you finally feel full, your body experiences massive insulin spikes—refined grains do this too—clearing the sugar from your bloodstream, leaving you hungry and craving more sugar. This roller coaster really screws up your insulin system after a while, messing with your pancreas, and leading to diabetes. 8% of the population has diabetes already, and if that’s not bad enough, the percentage of people 65 and up who have it is 27%. As a bonus, un-burned sugar gets stored as fat around your organs too; awesome. If you really need to have something sweet and fruit won’t suffice, go for a dab of raw honey.
What does that leave for carb intake? Fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Fruits contain moderate amounts of fiber and sugar. One serving of fruit contains around 20 grams of carbs, which is mainly sugar. Two caveats about fruit; try to keep it to one or two portions a day, and steer clear of fruit juice. Juice is stripped of the fiber of fruit in its natural state, allowing the sugar—usually in higher amounts—to rush into your system, making it practically like soda. Vegetables contain varying levels of carbs. Root vegetables generally contain more, but usually have a higher glycemic index number too; use them sparingly. You should eat leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables to get a significant amount of your carbs. You’ll need to eat a lot of them, but that’s OK, they are packed with nutrients. You should also receive a modest amount of your carbs from nuts, an ounce or so a day. I wouldn’t have more than that because they contain phytic acid.
The Timing of Consumption
You also need to employ a bit of timing for your carb intake. If you decide to avoid grains and sugar, this should be fairly simple. However, there are root vegetables with high to moderate carbs such as carrots, beets, and potatoes; also non-root vegetables such as squash, peas, and corn, among others. Therefore, you need to have a sense about the macronutrients you’re consuming together. If you were to eat a lot of fat, with a bunch of carbs simultaneously, your body would primarily burn the carbs. If you don’t spend energy beyond the burning of the carbs, the fat stays with you, as does the excess carbs, as fat. That’s why something like ice cream is terrible for you. If you feel the need to carb out, try to make it a low fat meal. In summation, high carbs and protein: OK. High fat and protein: OK. High carbs and fat: not OK. High carb items should only be consumed in the absence of fat, or with only a trivial amount of it. Also, don’t eat a ton of carbs and then do nothing. It would behoove you not consume more than what you need for energy and glycogen storage.
Daily Carbohydrate Intake Ranges
0 – 50 grams
This range will bring on ketosis, this is when the body transitions to burning fatty acids instead of glucose. This range can be useful for short periods of time to accelerate fat loss, but too long and you will start to drag.
51 – 100 grams
Encourages weight loss, insulin production is low, and fat burning is increased. This range is good for slow, healthy cutting.
101 – 150 grams
The maintenance zone. This should be where you’re at once you’re active and your body looks the way you want it to.
151 – 300 grams
Slow weight gain happens here, along with the development of chronic health problems. The analogy here would be a lobster slowly boiling in a pot of water.
This level of intake is out of bounds and no good for your health, even if excessive cardio and training will prevent weight gain.
As you may be starting to figure out, there is no one size fits all prescription here. We are all different weights, we have different activity levels, and we have different fitness goals. For example; I lift heavy weights 3 times a week, I also do HIIT, plyometrics, and yoga once a week, and I’m looking to cut a little body fat. For my diet, I cycle in and out of different states to sustain muscle and hormone production while burning fat. I eat high fat/protein, and 50 grams of net carbs on Monday and Tuesday. I fast on Wednesday. Then I switch to high protein, low fat, and 75 grams of net carbs on Thursday and Friday. On the weekend, I stay low fat, go medium on the protein, and jack up my carb intake to 300 grams to restore my glycogen levels. This is what works for me. It helps me achieve what I want and incidentally satisfies a craving for carbs on the weekends.
What will work for you? That’s up to you. There’s enough information here for you to get a general idea of how the body interacts with carbohydrates. And, there are certainly enough clues for you to go out and do your own research if you want to take this seriously.
Read More: The Downfall Of Every Diet