The first in our Do You Know Your Macros series is The Carb. Once you’ve worked out how many carbs a day you should be aiming for using the macro calculator, continue reading for everything you need to know about carbs, including which ones, and when to eat them!
Carbohydrates or “carbs” are the body’s preferred source of energy, necessary for daily activities, sport and exercise, metabolic and systemic functions, as well as fuelling growth in children. Carbs are easily stored within the body to be accessed for later use. Carbs can be found in foods such as bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, fruits and vegetables.
“A Calorie Is A Calorie, A Carb is A Carb”
I touched on this briefly in the initial ‘Do You Know Your Macros‘ post, and it’s the opinion of many flexible dieters, or IIFYM-ers. This is because it’s believed that the body doesn’t discriminate between food sources and that everything gets broken down into the same usable substance anyway; ie a calorie is a calorie, and a carbohydrate is a carbohydrate, whether it came from a piece of fruit or a chocolate bar. This is how many people manage to fit their favourite less healthy foods into their daily calorie and macro targets whilst remaining on track with their goals.
Cut The Crap
As a huge advocate of clean eating (read all about that one here), I do not believe in the “a calorie is a calorie” mindset. Short term, yes, it may not make a huge difference on the scales if you have the same macro intake from junk foods as you would from other healthier carb sources. I know I feel really heavy and hungover (like Rae did after her dessert restaurant review!) after eating too much sugary food, so I always like to eat natural, whole foods to feel fab (as well as look fab!) We should always prioritise long term health and happiness over short term goals, such as dieting to lose weight (or even gain weight). Because 10 years down the line, your body will be a healthier, fitter and happier place for you to live if you have focused your diet on nutritional needs over balancing the scales. So you should definitely be aiming to get as many of your daily grams of carbohydrates as possible from the best sources you can, such as vegetables, wholegrains, rice and potatoes. Avoiding junk foods, processed foods and those high in sugar, will mean you are far less likely to develop diseases and cancers when you are older. Consider that when aiming to hit your next macro count.
Not All Carbs Were Made Equal
So we know we should ideally be avoiding carbs in the form of junk food, processed or refined foods, and sugars. But did you know there are huge nutritional differences between even the healthiest sources of carbs?
Carbohydrates are made up of sugar molecules that our body will break down through digestion, and either use the sugars as energy or store it for later use. The terms ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ carbs refer to the amount of sugar molecules each contain, and therefore how rapidly digested it is. For example a simple carb will contain only one or two sugar molecules so can be quickly and easily broken down for use in the body. These types of carbs provide quick release energy, and can be found in sugar, honey, jams, fruits and fruit juices, and of course, sweets.
Complex carbs are made up of many more sugar molecules strung together, making the digestion of these much longer and slower. So the energy provided by complex carbs is slower and more gradual. Complex carbs are often referred to as starchy carbs, and contain dietary fibre as well as vitamins and minerals, making them a great nutritional all-rounder. Examples of complex carbs are wholegrains, rice, vegetables, potatoes, sweet potatoes. Have a look at a GI (glycemic index) scale, to identify which foods are the simplest carbs, which are more complex, and so which you should favour in your diet! Are there any that have surprised you??
Carbs & Insulin
Basically, the body produces insulin when carbs are digested. So the simpler the carb, the quicker the digestion, and the quicker insulin is released, resulting in a sharp rise in blood sugar levels which will then drop dramatically afterwards. This is why eating sugary foods can leave you feeling hungry again soon afterwards, craving more sugary foods and even feeling tired or grouchy.
In a nutshell: insulin is the fat storage hormone, and the quicker it’s working, the more fat you’ll store. So if you eat a lot of simple carbohydrates, the body will respond by producing insulin and rapidly digesting the simple carbs so that they are readily available to be either used as energy (see Carb Timing below) or stored away as fat. Eating complex carbs does not trigger this rapid insulin-spike response, but a much slower rise in blood sugar levels which will mean you feel fuller for longer and have more energy for longer, too.
This is why eating too many simple carbs, even if they are ‘healthy’ such as fruit, fruit juices and honey, can be attributed to weight gain, mood swings (think: sugar crashes), and headaches.
Carbs & Fat Loss
It’s common practice for people to want to cut out carbohydrates when trying to lose weight. Since carbs are the body’s preferred fuel source, once removed, the body will (in theory) burn it’s fat stores as fuel. Coupled with a lowered insulin production as very little sugars are being digested, and it seems like a great way to lose weight. However, the body needs carbs to function, and if you reduce carbs too much the first thing to suffer will be your mood, and the second will be your workouts! You can’t expect to train as hard without a decent fuel source. You also risk slowing your metabolism and lacking the necessary recovery that you body needs if you are working out.
I’ll let you in on a secret, there’s a perfect time and a place for simple carbs, when it’s good for you, even necessary, to have a quick, sharp release of energy. It’s right after a workout! That’s because your glycogen (or energy) stores will be depleted (considering you’ve truly worked out hard!) and will need a top-up to avoid dropping too low. Don’t get too excited though, because this doesn’t exactly mean you should reach for the donuts after the gym, as a banana will often contain enough simple carbs to do the trick.
There are other ways in which carbohydrate intake can be optimised throughout the day, again depending on your goals, but I think that’s something I’ll wade into in depth another day!
The Take Home
Understanding carbs doesn’t have to be a nightmare, nor are they the enemy! Here’s 4 simple steps to maintaining a healthy, carb friendly diet:
- Calculate your daily carb goal
- Cut the crap, not the carbs! Eliminate junk foods and refined sugars
- Focus on complex carbs and veggies for the majority of your carb intake
- Reduce simple carbs, with the exception of post-workout
I’ve tried to touch on all the most baffling parts of the carb conundrum, please let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed!
Don’t forget to keep an eye out for the protein and fats instalments of our Do You Know Your Macros series!