The Truth About Carbs – How Many Should I Eat And Why?

By Krista Rompolski, PhD

In the previous article in this series, we discussed the research that showed no real difference between low calorie and low carbohydrate approaches to weight loss, but noted that low carb diets may naturally lead to a lower calorie intake.

I’ve discovered a few reasons, mainly through anecdotes from clients, that avoiding carbs seems to lead to less calories.

First, it seems much easier to overindulge and mindlessly eat carbohydrates. Carbs start being broken down the minute they hit your mouth. Hold a saltine on your tongue for a minute and it will begin to taste just like sugar. Enzymes in your mouth start to immediately break more complex carbohydrates down into glucose.

Protein, however, doesn’t begin its breakdown until the stomach, where almost all of it occurs. A full, busy stomach means satiety. With a low carb diet, it would seem that people start to desire less calories. Thus, on the most basic level, choosing carbs seems to lead to increased calorie intake both during a single sitting and throughout the day.

truthaboutcarbs2-candyaisle-450x338There are also significant water losses during low-carb dieting, particularly in the first few weeks. The body will first pull from its glycogen storage depots in the liver and muscle for energy, which are surrounded by water molecules.

If you have ever eaten a very high-carbohydrate meal such as a large pasta dish, you may have a seen a spike in scale weight the next day. Carbohydrates have the greatest impact on scale weight of all the macronutrients.

Finally, carbs are everywhere. You don’t see chicken breasts for sale at check out line. You could make a compelling argument for or against carbohydrates depending on where you look.

Carbs can be conveniently classified as four types:

  1. simple/refined
  2. simple/natural
  3. complex/refined
  4. complex/natural

For most people, I could easily say with confidence that avoiding simple/refined carbohydrates just makes sense, because why waste your energy, literally, on a food that has no other health benefit? These would include soda, candy, or other highly processed foods with no vitamins, minerals, or any other physical benefit, especially when it is all too easy to lose control of your intake.

The rest of your carbohydrate intake should vary based on your individual needs. Simple/natural carbohydrates are found in foods like fruit and dairy, and while they are still quickly broken down, they accompany a number of other beneficial nutrients.

Complex/refined carbohydrates are breads, pastas and rice that have been processed to remove some of the fiber and along with it, some nutrients. You know them as “white” products: white bread, white pasta or white rice. They are complex because they are composed of many more molecules of sugar strung together.

Finally, complex/natural sources would be vegetables, potatoes, oats, barley, quinoa, brown rice and whole wheat breads. For both blood glucose control and maximizing your nutrient intake, try to choose complex/natural carbohydrates most of the time.

What to do with all this information about carbs?

First, understand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach with carbohydrates, and any plan or person that tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something. All nutrition recommendations must be customized to your health, your history, and your lifestyle needs. It doesn’t take carbs to store fat.

truthaboutcarbs2-twinkiesdiet-327x380The professor who successfully completed a large weight loss on the Twinkie a few years ago only diet is proof positive of the overriding influence of energy balance on body weight. Even if glucose gets stored as fat, it won’t stay long if energy deficits occur.

The first step to determining your carbohydrate needs should be ruling out any types of carbs that your body simply won’t tolerate. If you have difficulty breaking down certain types of fiber, or sugars like lactose, you are going to feel worse when eating these foods. Or, if you have Celiac disease, carbohydrates containing gluten need to be avoided.

If you have a history (family or personal) of diabetes or insulin resistance, this must be taken into consideration. If you have a history of hormonal issues such as thyroid disease or adrenal problems, carbohydrate restriction seems to exacerbate the abnormalities. Some people are simply more sensitive to lower carbohydrate intake than others. In one person, lower carbs may trigger the brain to slow down metabolic and hormonal processes, while in another person, all systems are go, regardless of carbohydrate intake.

When you know what types of carbs your body can tolerate, the next step is determining what your needs are...

...based on your genetics, body type, and lifestyle right now.

If you are an endurance athlete or perform moderate to large amounts of exercise, such as five to seven days per week, keeping glycogen storage optimal is very important. Carbohydrates immediately after any sort of moderate to intense exercise are an excellent way of replenishing glycogen stores and speeding up recovery. Furthermore, if you tend toward being thin, jittery and the “ectomorph” body type, you will likely tolerate and feel better on a diet with anywhere from 55 to 70 percent of daily intake from complex carbohydrates.

If you tend towards the endomorphic body type, find it hard to lose weight, have difficultly motivating yourself to exercise or are relatively sedentary, you won’t need the same amount of carbohydrate to feel great. Of course, no one is strictly one “type” of person, which is why experimenting is important.

After knowing what types of carbs you can eat safely, and what is optimal for your body, you must look at your goals. Are you trying to simply have more sustained energy, or “get shredded?"

It takes some time to assess, but the goal should be to eat carbohydrates that provide you with sustained energy that help you recover from exercise and limit fluctuations in energy and mood. Carbohydrates have been shown to increase performance when ingested prior to exercise and prevent protein breakdown and increase protein synthesis post exercise.

When taken at rest, carbohydrates may be stored in fat after glycogen stores are replenished, but that storage will be used later. Carb loading is popular the night before endurance events for many athletes – this maximizes glycogen stores in the liver and muscles for the next day’s activity.

In order to find what's right for you, start tracking your food intake in a journal or online app, which should give you a breakdown of your percentages from the three macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fat).

I would suggest that every two weeks, see what your averages are, and track how you feel between workouts and during workouts at these percentages. If you feel like you aren’t performing optimally, or recovering, start tweaking your carbohydrates, keeping the same daily percentage but perhaps increasing intake before and after exercise and decreasing later in the day.

If that’s not enough, increase your total daily intake. You may have heard “don’t eat carbs at night” since this will spike insulin levels, leading to fat storage. Remember, as long as you are in energy balance, this isn’t a problem unless you have high blood glucose levels, or a family history of problems with glucose control.

I personally feel that a "South Beach" or "Zone" approach of 40 to 50 percent carbohydrate, 25 to 30 percent fat, 25 to 30 percent protein should fit most people well who are moderately active, lift weights a few days per week and participate in some aerobic activities. These ratios providing satiety and variety and ensure that all nutritional needs are met.

If you are concerned about carbs from a health perspective, I would strongly recommend speaking to a nutritionist who also has a background in exercise physiology and fitness.

Ultimately, no recommendations matter unless they work for you and you can adhere to them realistically.

truthaboutcarbs2-catandcupcake-450x338I could write for days about carbohydrates, and I’m sure there are many questions you have that are still unanswered. I welcome a dialogue! My hope for all of you is to not fear food, or let food control you. If you are unsure how to track your intake, or determine on your own what your body type or needs might be, you can reach out to the resources mentioned above, the ladies on GGS, or myself. Last but not least, and perhaps most importantly, don’t skip cake on your birthday…ever. Studies have shown that it leads to sadness, bad luck and a lack of embarrassing songs in your honor.

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About the author:  Krista Rompolski, PhD

Krista Rompolski, Ph.D.: Krista holds a doctoral degree in exercise physiology from the University of Pittsburgh and is a certified exercise physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine. She is an assistant professor at Drexel University, where she teaches anatomy and physiology, pathophysiology, exercise physiology and courses in clinical research. In addition to conducting research and writing several articles for Girls Gone Strong, Dr. Rompolski is the Lead Digital Author and new contributing author for Fox's Human Physiology, 15th edition, a McGraw Hill publication. Furthermore, Dr. Rompolski wrote a chapter on exercise recommendations for obese pregnant women in Pregnancy in the Obese Woman: Clinical Management in 2012. Krista is passionate about body positivity and removing weight bias and weight stigma from our culture. To contact Krista, connect with her on Twitter.


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