The last post talked about what carbohydrates were at the molecular level. I know it can be boring and in many cases it’s a lot of information to be taking in, but it’s also a good base to understand what they do for our bodies, how much we need and where we can find them.
What do carbohydrates do for our bodies?
The simple answer – they provide energy for us. They are the first fuel source utilized and they are preferred by different organ systems like the nervous system. This doesn’t mean we can’t get fuel from other macro nutrients like fat, it just means that the optimal choice for a healthy body is typically carbohydrates. We get 4 calories per gram of carbohydrates consumed (Thompson & Manore, 2015).
The more complex answer glucose provides the necessary nutrients in cellular respiration for the creation of Adenosine triphosphate or ATP (Reece, Taylor, Simon, Dickey, & Hogan, 2015). Below is the process of cellular respiration – it utilizes glucose and oxygen, which breaks down to carbon dioxide, water and ATP, energy not used can be lost as heat (not pictured). This answer gets even more complicated, but if you’re interested and have 10 minutes, here a little video about it.
ATP is needed in almost all forms of cellular work. You want to dance – you need ATP. You want to run – you need ATP. You want to walk around the house cleaning – you need ATP, or maybe you don’t want it. Each action we do, from sitting at the breakfast table to lifting weights in the gym needs ATP to be performed, but they all use different amounts of energy.
Our cells can only store a limited amount of ATP, which means we need to continuously create it throughout the day.
I know some of you are thinking, yeah, but what about the keto diet and running on fat or ketones. I talked about that in this post. But for the sake of lessening carbohydrates as an enemy, we’re just going to talk about them here.
So how many carbohydrates does a person need in a day?
This question can be tricky because it goes back to the individual and the goals. Someone who is more active may need more than someone who is less active. Activity can be related to your job like a teacher who walks and stands most of the day or an office employee who sits most of their day. Activity also relates to additional exercise like lifting or running or yoga or swimming.
Currently, it’s recommended that carbohydrates make up the largest part of your nutritional intake between 45-65% of calories. The United States bases these numbers off of a 2,000 calorie diet – so for the sake of round numbers means 900 calories (225g) to 1,300 calories (325g) should be consumed (Thompson & Manore, 2015). That’s a lot of carbohydrates.
The U.S. National Academy of Sciences “estimates that the average adult needs to take in food that provides about 2,200 calories of energy per day” but they also acknowledge that this will vary ( Institute of Medicine, 2005). Regardless, that’s a lot of calories and when I think about the conversations I hear about weight loss and dieting – many doctors suggest low calories. My doctor years ago tried suggesting I stick to 1,200 calories to lose weight. So if energy balance is estimated at 2,000 to 2,200 calories, why do people suggest such drastic nutritional decreases? Faster progress? I don’t know the answer.
Anyway, my own carbohydrate consumption makes up 42% of my total calorie intake at around 185g on average.
After working with clients, my own trial and error and other research – I don’t fully agree with this recommendation and here’s why.
- Many people aren’t eating a 2,000 calorie diet.
This caloric recommendation is inflated and is all to hopeful that individuals are working out a specific number of times a week for a specific length of time – that’s just not realistic. Also, not everyone needs this many calories for optimal function plus exercise. I eat just under this recommendation, sometimes going higher when I go out to eat.
2. Even those who have healthy organ function, don’t necessary feel great eating this many carbohydrates regardless of the carbohydrate source – remember fruits and vegetables are carbs too!
I can attest to this. When I consume more than 240g of carbohydrates, I feel tired and sluggish – even when the carbohydrates are combined complex from grains and simple from veggies and fruit. Some vegetables also make me bloated like brussels sprouts and broccoli because of how they break down in the digestive system #enzymes, which also means I have to be mindful of how I build my meals and how many greens I’m eating. Yes, even without the cookies or process carbohydrates, I don’t feel great eating that much.
3. Those focusing on a whole foods, minimally processed approach can easily consume more carbohydrates through beans, quinoa, rice and higher carbohydrate veggies and fruit like sweet potato, apples and bananas – but this can still be a lot of volume.
Volume keeps us full, which can be a good thing and a bad thing. If you’re too full from breakfast, even five hours later, it’ll be hard to consume lunch, which can prevent someone from hitting caloric goals. It might be great in a deficit to be full, but not so great when you’re trying to maintain or build. The feeling of constantly being full isn’t pleasant. Also, if you think about how we discuss carbohydrates and the stigma that carbohydrates lead to obesity and general weight gain – a lot of people aren’t eating beans, quinoa, rice or carbohydrate dense vegetables and fruits.
I’ve had a number of clients tell me they weren’t allowed to eat bananas and apples before because it was too many carbohydrates. My suggestion – if it fits your plan calorically/macro nutrient-wise and keeps you satisfied, there’s no reason to get upset about eating fruits.
So, what are your goals because like I mentioned above the body uses different amounts of energy to fulfill different activities.
The more intense the activity, the more carbohydrates may be necessary. The reason behind varying amounts of carbohydrate consumption? Studies have shown that most people have more than enough stored fat (body fat) to support exercise, but because of how the body uses carbohydrates we need to replenish glycogen (stored carbohydrates) (Poole, Wilborn, Taylor, & Kerksick, 2010).
Both strength and endurance athletes need an adequate amount of carbohydrates. So whether you’re lifting in the gym or are an active runner or marathoner, you may need more carbohydrates. Not only does this provide fuel to conduct the activity, it can help with preventing muscle loss by utilization of glycogen. Carbohydrates post-exercise also replenish depleted stores.
So what is adequate for an athlete? The higher end of the recommended intake for carbohydrates (45-65%) would probably be more adequate, but you need to listen to your body and how it feels on carbohydrates. Old research used to suggest over 65% of calories coming from carbohydrates, but newer studies show that isn’t necessary.
According to a study conducted in 2010 examining the role of protein and carbohydrates post-exercise found both protein and carbohydrate consumption were necessary to promote protein synthesis (the process to develop proteins i.e. muscle) and glycogen synthesis (process to replenish glycogen stores). They found that amount and timing can be impactful for synthesis, but more importantly the quality or kind of source for both nutrients played a huge role (Poole, Wilborn, Taylor, & Kerksick, 2010).
This doesn’t mean that you need to drink a protein shake immediately or you need to gobble up a cup of oats as soon as you take your shoes off.
While this post is about carbohydrates, it would be irresponsible to divide the research in protein or carbohydrates because they go hand-in-hand in this case.
Here’s what you should know:
- Protein consumption can happen within an hour of exercise for optimal protein synthesis.
- The kind of protein matters:
- Casein is slower digesting
- Whey is faster digesting
- Digestion happens in your stomach, which can result in some bloating if you do consume large quantities of protein – not a terrible thing, but can be uncomfortable.
- The amount of protein matters. This study showed positive results from only 20g of protein consumed post-exercise.
- Carbohydrate consumption post-exercise was found to be most effective in glycogen synthesis for up to two hours after exercise had ended.
- Combining the two may have the best results.
- “A small amount of whey protein in addition to carbohydrate consumption in the recovery phase of exercise is a more sufficient means of increasing protein synthesis (Poole, Wilborn, Taylor, & Kerksick, 2010).”
So go home, shower and make your food and grow.
So where can we find carbohydrates?
When we think of carbohydrates and when I hear people talk about carbohydrates they immediately think of this:
Or they think of this:
But really, carbohydrates can also mean this:
And it can mean this:
While I share the fun eating that I do and how it fits into my plan and lifestyle, I also have a large number of fruits and veggies in my daily diet that also make up my carbohydrate total.
Here’s what’s I eat:
- Brussels sprouts
- sweet potato
- English muffins
- bell peppers
- black beans
- navy beans
- romaine lettuce
- bananas apples
- spaghetti squash
In the previous carbohydrate post, we talked about simple and complex carbohydrates and the difference. It’s about the rates in which they breakdown. Fiber can help a food be more complex and slower digesting, which can help keep us fuller for a longer period of time. It also slows the increase in blood glucose levels, which is important for people who are diabetic.
When I talk to my clients about how they’re creating their meal plans for the week, we discuss how they’re combining food and how it makes them feel. I have one client who says that she feels great with oats and yogurt in the morning, but I have another client who says lunch has to be her carbohydrate dense meal because in the morning she’ll feel sluggish otherwise regardless of how much sleep she gets.
Like I mentioned when we talked about fat and the Ketogenic diet, I believe there’s no reason for elimination of food groups and nutritional sources for someone who has healthy functioning organs. The recommendations set by governing bodies are created from studying a healthy functioning body. Having an allergy or intolerance or autoimmune disorder/disease is a completely different story and should be controlled differently.
Eating for fat loss is about being in a deficit, which is what elimination diets assist with, but moderation of all food groups assists your body in getting everything is needs down to the micronutrient. If I’m going to be blunt – being in a deficit takes self-control, elimination diets don’t teach you how to have self-control around “normal” food or how to make better choices when going out to eat. They teach you to say “I’m allowed” or “I’m not allowed”. We learn to categorize things are “good” and “bad” – the conversation surrounding food becomes a reflection of ourselves…But that’s also a tangent for another time.
I believe that paying attention to the source of carbohydrate and how it makes you physically feel teaches us how to create a nutrition plan that fits our needs. I don’t like being bloated so I try to not eat broccoli and Brussels sprouts on the same day, unless I’m also taking a digestive enzyme. I know I feel better with moderate carbohydrates so I stay between 150 to 200g of carbohydrates.
I challenge you to think of carbohydrates in this way. Ask yourself:
- What carbohydrates you enjoy eating and how they make you feel?
- What foods are your surprised to learn are carbohydrates?
- Does your daily diet consist of simple and complex carbohydrates?
- Do you consume more simple or more complex carbohydrates?
- Could you be more balanced in how you create your daily plan so that you stay satisfied to stay on track and accomplish your nutritional goals whether they’re for fat loss, maintenance or building?
There are days I know I can be better and choose a piece of fruit over a piece of chocolate – we all have those days. But I also know that a piece of chocolate won’t hurt me just like one serving of fruit or vegetable won’t exactly help me. It takes a string of good days to add up to progress. Just like it takes a string of bad days to really make a detrimental impact.
Be kind to yourself. Don’t yell at the cookies when you walk by the snack aisle. Remember vegetables are carbohydrates too.
Institute of Medicine. (2005). Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein and Amino Acids. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.
Poole, C., Wilborn, C., Taylor, L., & Kerksick, C. (2010). The role of post-exercise nutrient administration on muscle protein synthesis and glycogen synthesis. Journal of Sports Science Medicine, 354-363.
Reece, J. B., Taylor, M. R., Simon, E. J., Dickey, J. L., & Hogan, K. (2015). Campbell Biology: Concepts and Connections. New York: Pearson Education.
Thompson, J., & Manore, M. (2015). Nutrition: An Applied Approach. San Francisco: Pearson Education.