Importance of Carbohydratesby Chris and Eric Martinez on October 10, 2014
Let’s face it; we are pretty sure we can all come to an agreement that the main purpose of Carbohydrates is to provide energy and fuel for the human body. Carbohydrates have probably gotten the worst reputation of the macronutrients due to eating excessive amounts leads to excess adipose tissue.
Some people are very “carb happy,” meaning they can burn through carbohydrates and not gain a pound of fat and then there’s those that are “carb sensitive,” meaning there body has a hard time burning carbs and thus leading to fat storage.
Carbs are very important for providing the body with energy and essential for gaining muscle mass. Ever try going into the gym and smashing a PR without any carbs in you? We sure hope you don’t.
Now, we also have to take into consideration our goals and sport specificity when utilizing carbs as well as understanding the importance of Carbohydrate Metabolism itself. Also there are different types of carbs sources so you must understand how to utilize certain carbs sources though proper meal frequency, satiety levels, and nutrient timing.
Keep in mind that all carbs are not created equally and it is important to find out which types tailor your body best and how much. In this article we will be discussing all of these important variables when it comes to carbohydrates and how this can be a huge game changer for you and your overall goals.
Carbs are the most anabolic stimulating nutrient we consume and the most metabolically enhancing thing we consume. They are also the body’s preferred source of energy. Because they require the least amount of energy to break down, carbs are the easiest of the macronutrients to digest and be converted to “glucose”.
What is “glucose” you ask? Glucose is the smallest sugar molecule possible; it is the form of sugar that the human body uses for energy. Whatever form of carbohydrate you consume, the end result of digestion is glucose. (1)
There are, however, many forms of carbs, and pathway of digestion that leads to glucose is what can affect our energy levels, mental acuity, physical functioning, and even performance. (2) Carbs are digested as follows: Digestion occurs in the stomach, the amount of time required partly depends on the complexity of the carb source (simple or complex). From there absorption occurs in the small intestine once the carbs have been converted to glucose. If you are going to train within 1-2 hours after consuming carbs then your body will immediately use that glucose as energy.
On the contrary if you train later on in the day then your body will store this glucose into either “Muscle or Liver Glycogen Stores.” Now, worst case scenario would be to not use these stored carbs at all. What would happen then is these constant insulin spikes from each meal triggers the conversion of glucose to body fat. In order it would play out as follows: Glucose/Insulin to Liver to Triglyceride then convert to body fat. So no matter what you want to find a way to utilize carbs and not let them be stored as body fat.
So by understanding what is going on with carbohydrate metabolism and the different types of carb sources you get a crystal clear image as to what your body is doing with these lovely carbs. It also goes back to what we said earlier about not all carbs are created equal.
Why Carbohydrates are Important
We know that out of the three macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, fats), carbs are not essential, meaning our bodies don’t need them for survival. (3) Now, in the context of survival, sure we could get away with eating protein and fats, no problem. But if we remember correctly, Mountain Dog readers aren’t trying to just survive, they’re trying to build muscle and lose fat.
If you want to build muscle and lose fat optimally, then you will need to have carbohydrates in your diet and they will need to be manipulated around the individual’s insulin sensitivity, total calorie intake, training, and their goals.
So why are carbs so important for building muscle and losing fat?
The main purpose of carbohydrates is to provide energy and fuel for the body. (3) As we mentioned above some people are very “carb happy,” meaning they can burn through carbohydrates and not gain a pound of fat and then there’s those that are “carb sensitive, “ meaning their body has a hard time burning carbs and thus leading to fat storage. Those that burn through carbs at a faster rate usually have higher insulin sensitivity, meaning their bodies can clear glucose from carbs out of the blood stream in a more efficient manner. The others that look at a carb and store fat have lower insulin sensitivity.
Carbohydrates are the most anabolic food source we consume once minimum protein requirements are met. They’re also the most metabolic macronutrient we consume. The lower the carbs are dropped, the more muscle is lost and the lower the metabolism falls. It should be everyone’s goal to eat the most carbs possible and still meet the goal, but that’s the issue: how much do you have to lose and in how much time?
Carbs are very important for providing the body with energy, keeping it in an anabolic state and essential for maintaining and gaining muscle mass. Keep in mind that all carbs are not created equally and it is important to find out which types tailor your body best and how much. We will talk about these carb sources in the latter part if this article.
Different Carbohydrates Sources
There are 2 types of carbohydrates: High glycemic-fast acting carbs (usually known as simple carbs) that provide the body with a quick energy source and low glycemic-slow acting carbs (usually known as complex carbs) that are slower digesting carbs and provide for longer periods of energy. (3)
Here are some examples of complex and simple carb sources:
- Sweet potatoes
- Low fat popcorn
- Whole wheat
- Brown rice
- Bran cereals
- Whole wheat pastas
- Fruits (limit 2-3 servings per day)
- Pop tarts
Now that you have an understanding of the two types of carb sources you’re probably asking which ones I need.
To answer the above question, this will depend on a lot of factors such as the individual’s insulin sensitivity, total calorie intake, training, and their goals.
For example, let’s compare a fat loss phase for a high level bodybuilder to an average everyday gym goer that just wants to look and feel good.
The bodybuilder’s main goal is to come in as conditioned and as lean as possible to the stage all while retaining as much muscle mass as possible and keeping their metabolism from suppressing. They will need to diet on as many carbohydrates as possible to aid in training performance, keep fat loss stimulated, and to keep the metabolism from plummeting. So their best bets as far as carb sources are going to be complex carb sources because they’re higher In fiber and thus more satiating compared to simple carbs that enter the blood stream at a much faster rate, elevate blood sugars quickly, and fall back down in a short time period leaving the bodybuilder feeling hungry, tired, and lethargic.
The average gym goer’s main goal is to just drop some body fat, show off some muscles, and feel good. The average gym goer still needs to diet on as many carbs as possible for the same reasons as the bodybuilder, but the difference here is the average gym goer may not need to get so aggressive with dropping calories and getting to 3% body fat so they won’t experience such chronic hunger pangs and they can get away with having a mix of complex and simple carbs. Of course complex carbs will be more optimal, but they can have a combination of both because their goals are different.
Another example is it depends on how many calories you have to diet with.
Subject (A) has 2000 calories and Subject (B) has 1300 calories. Subject (A) can get away with having the majority of their diet consisting of complex carbs and the leisure of having some pop tarts because they may have 200g of carbs to work with throughout the day. Subject (B) may only have 100g of carbs so if they eat a couple of pop tarts that is 70g of carbs with no fiber or satiating effects. Subject (B) will be hungry, tired, and cranky all day.
So the answer always depends on many factors, hopefully the above examples gave your some good insights on starting points
Importance of Insulin Sensitivity
Insulin sensitivity refers to how much insulin it takes to clear a certain amount of glucose (carbs). Let’s use being in a caloric surplus as an example. During a caloric surplus, it’s imperative that you take advantage of insulin sensitivity in the a.m. at breakfast, pre workout and post workout. These are the times that your body is most insulin sensitive and can best tolerate carbs.
For example, we recommend breakfast because the majority of the population goes through a 6-8 hour fast during their sleep, so their bodies are desperately craving nutrients in the a.m. Pre and post workout; your body can best assimilate a high amount of carbs into your muscle tissues because your body is most insulin sensitive at these times. (4) What does the increased insulin do you ask?
Well, increased insulin will serve to shuttle all of the nutrients required by the body while also stimulating the release of insulin growth factors because your muscle cells are volatized and need nutrients to repair. Also, when you are working out, you cause an acute catabolic situation and your muscle does not become anabolic again until you consume sufficient nutrients.
You also get an increase in insulin sensitivity by working out so you can more effectively tolerate and utilize carbohydrates post workout so it also makes sense to put more carbs post workout as compared to other times of the day. (5)
Take home, partition the majority of your daily carbs at breakfast and at pre and post workout to utilize insulin sensitivity best as well as letting your body regulate glucose.
Carbohydrates and Training Performance
Now that you know why carbs are important, how they breakdown metabolically and the different types of carb sources, we want to hit on carbs and training performance. Now keep in mind the amount of carbs you will need for training performance again depends on many factors such as your training goal outcome, total calorie intake, and training style or program.
Your body can best assimilate a high amount of carbs into your muscle tissues pre and post workout because your body is most insulin sensitive at these times. Only before and after a workout is it beneficial to increase insulin levels significantly when the body is not interested in storing body fat but recuperating. The increased insulin will serve to shuttle all of the nutrients required by the body while also stimulating the release of insulin growth factors because your muscle cells are volumized and need nutrients to repair.
(6) There’s research to support exercise training induces several adaptations at the muscular level that may contribute to increased insulin sensitivity, including: Increased GLUT-4 content (7), improved insulin signaling, and increased blood flow. (8) All these adaptations would favor glucose uptake and could possibly lead to increased muscle glycogen synthesis. (9)
As you can see when you work out you cause an acute catabolic situation and your muscle does not become anabolic again until you consume sufficient protein. You also get an increase in insulin sensitivity by working out so you can more effectively tolerate and utilize carbohydrates post workout so it also makes sense to put more carbs post workout as compared to other times of the day.
This is why we recommend having trainees partition the majority of their carbs pre and post workout.
For example, if you are a high level bodybuilder and your training program demands a lot of energy to be used such as a high volume training session or two workouts in one day, say you have 200g of carbs, maybe try partitioning 60-70g pre and post workout to take advantage of the increased insulin sensitivity, replenish broken down glycogen stores, and for some extra energy.
Or if you’re an average gym goer and you don’t have an advanced training program, then you may not need to partition more carbs around pre and post workouts, as long as you eat some protein and carbs you should be okay.
Another example is it depends on how many calories you have to work with.
Subject (A) has 2000 calories and Subject (B) has 1300 calories. Subject (A) can get away with partitioning the majority of their carbs pre and post workouts since they have more caloric cushion and most likely a higher carb allotment to work with. Subject (B) has less caloric cushion so they may not want to partition their carbs pre and post workouts because they may not have any more carbs to work with throughout the day and thus they will be left hungry, tired, and pissed.
With carbohydrate intake and performance, once again it’s never a black and white answer; it’s always shades of grey and always depends on certain factors. But we think you have a good idea now on how to best utilize carbs for optimal training performance.
Carbohydrates are the most anabolic food source we consume once minimum protein requirements are met. They’re also the most metabolic macronutrient we consume. The lower the carbs are dropped, the more muscle is lost, and the lower the metabolism falls along with performance.
As we mentioned earlier in the article, not all carbs are created equal. Some people are very “carb happy,” meaning they can burn through carbohydrates and not gain a pound of fat and then there’s those that are “carb sensitive,” meaning there body has a hard time burning carbs and thus leading to fat storage.
Now that you have a good understanding of the different carb types and how the human body metabolizes them along with insulin sensitivity then the next step is to just put it all together. What we mean by this is to utilize your carbohydrate intake based off your daily activity, nutrient timing, whether you are in a caloric surplus or deficit, and overall goals. With that said, never cut out carbs completely, we promise you that you will thank us for this!
- Brosnan JT. “Comments on metabolic needs for glucose and the role of gluconeogenesis.” Eur J Clin Nutr. 1999
- Klemczewski, Joe et al. “Metabolic Manual.” 2012
- Antonio, Jose et al. “Essentials of sports nutrition and supplements.” 2008
- Dyck DJ, Heigenhauser GJ, Bruce CR. “The role of adipokines as regulators of skeletal muscle fatty acid metabolism and insulin sensitivity.” Acta Physiol (Oxf). 2006
- Schliess F, Haussinger D. “Cell volume and insulin signaling.” Int Rev Cytol 2003;225:187-228
- Goodyear 1998, Borghouts 2000, Ebeling 1993, Hardin 1995
- Gulve 1995, Host 1998, Philips 1996
- Houmard 1999, Kirwan 2000
- Jentjens & Jeukendrup 2003; pg. 133
About The Authors:
Chris and Eric Martinez, CISSN, CSCS, CPT, BA, also known as the “Dynamic Duo” operate a world class online training and nutrition consulting business “Dynamic Duo Training.” They’re also fitness and nutrition writers, Diet Doc permanent weight loss coaches, current ISSN Diploma Post Grad Degree Students, and exclusive Team K Peaking Directors that love helping people reach their goals. Their philosophy is “No excuses, only solutions.”