Carbohydrates are always a hot topic. There are a lot of misconceptions but there is a lot of truth behind what you hear. Before I start this topic, I want to share my standpoint. As with all of my content, carbs need to be individualized. With that being said, I personally believe in a moderate approach for most people. I don’t believe people with average energy expenditures (fast paced, normal lifestyles) need an extremely high carbohydrate diet. Furthermore, I don’t believe in completely removing or demonizing this particular macronutrient. With most controversial topics (religion, politics) you only hear one side. I want to pose both sides of the carb battle and talk about why individualization is the answer.
From my perspective, there are generally two camps when it comes to carbohydrates. We have pretty extreme ends. Have you noticed? We have the camp that believes carbs are the devil and are directly responsible for obesity and other health concerns. Then we also have the group that believes carbs are completely essential and should make up the majority of a healthy diet.
The Case For Carbs
Carbs can enhance hormonal output, boost muscle growth, reduce stress, improve sleep, and are a very efficient source of energy. They are also very helpful in improving performance in the gym or in sport.
The Case Against Carbs
Too many carbs can also cause bloating, gut stress, inflammation, possible insulin resistance (depending on individual factors), increases in body fat (if paired with a caloric surplus), negative hormone effects (depending on lifestyle and genetic factors), and alter nutrient absorption (depending on carbohydrate quality and quantity).
Before I dive into the case for individualization, I want to draw your attention to the case against carbs. The majority of possible downsides of carbohydrate have individual and situational caveats. Keep that in mind :)
The Case for Individualization
So the question becomes what carbohydrate intake is right for me? Furthermore, what source of carbohydrate is right for me? Where do I go from here?
It is impossible to answer these questions without looking at the bigger picture. For the most part, protein and fat intake can be quantified and agreed upon by the majority of literature and fitness professionals. We have pretty accurate generalizations that work for most people in these areas. Protein, generally floating around .7-1.0 gram per pound of body weight. Fat, generally floating around 20-35% of daily caloric intake. The amazing thing is carb intake is uniquely tailored to the individual’s fitness blueprint. The fitness blueprint is a term I coined that combines the internal and external factors that make you... you. These include genetics, DNA, exercise history, emotional status, gut health, body type, metabolism, body fat levels, age, allergies, intolerances, medical conditions etc. The amount of carbs that are beneficial for you ultimately depends on these factors. The best way to test this is by trail and error. Track total caloric and protein intake for 2-4 weeks. Once you dial in these numbers you can begin to play around with your carb and fat intake. Set fat intake at 30% and allow the rest to come from carbohydrates. Pay attention to your senses and adjust fat intake up or down 3-5% accordingly. Some people will do better with more carbohydrates and less fat. Others will do better with lower carbohydrates and more fat. Some will do better with a balanced approach in both areas. The last thing to consider is body fat percentage. If you are relatively lean, it is reasonable to assume that you have higher insulin sensitivity. This means that you can handle carbohydrates for efficiently/effectively than those with higher body fat percentages. If you have a higher body fat percentage then it is reasonable to assume there is some level of insulin resistance. This means you don't handle carbohydrates as well as others.
The next question becomes which sources of carbohydrates are beneficial for me? There are multiple studies that have shown carbohydrate sources are individualized as well (Wired To Eat ... read it). However, for the most part, fitness professionals will agree to these recommendations; Eat unprocessed, natural, carbohydrate sources. These sources have the most micronutrients and posses carbohydrates that are believed to provide ideal blood sugar levels. Blood sugar is a big deal in regards to the carbohydrate topic. Chronically elevated blood sugar can be correlated to diabetes (insulin resistance), cardiovascular diseases, inflammation, and biological stress. This is the pathway to a host of diseases. So the logic is to choose carb sources that control blood sugar... enter The Glycemic Index. The Glycemic Index (GI) is a chart that shows the relationship between certain carb sources and blood sugar levels. The higher on the GI means the higher blood sugar levels are raised when said source is ingested. The general advice is to eat low on the GI which allows for unprocessed, natural, carb sources with favorable blood sugar outcomes.
We now know that glycemic responses are completely individual as well. There have been studies that have shown certain people do better (favorable blood sugar levels) with foods that are high on the GI as opposed to others. Now, the only true way to know how you react to certain foods is to test using a blood sugar tracker. This is actually very inexpensive and realistic. If that’s something you aren’t up for then my advice turns to your senses. Pay attention to bloating, energy levels, performance, mental clarity, sleep quality, and mood while dialing in carbohydrate sources. Remember there is no universal approach. Stick to higher GI carbohydrates around your workout window (before and/or after depending on goals) and stick to lower GI carbohydrates through the rest of the day.
I hope that gives you some practical advice to follow and will help you take another small step towards your wellness goal. Remember, although carbohydrates have relevance in your diet they are not responsible for weight gain and health issues. They are a window in a much larger picture!
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