In recent years, while the rest of the world continued to live in fear of fat, the fitness community totally embraced it. Carbohydrates became the target of our frustrations; we blamed them for making us fat, compromising our immune function, keeping us inflamed, and generally ruining our lives. We’ve learned our lesson now and carbs have had their reputation restored. It’s really about time, considering the role that carbohydrates play in exercise.
NOTE: This article discusses a few theoretical concepts that have been tested and shown great results in numerous real-world applications. It’s important to understand the difference because an interpretation of the way things work on a micro level may not always be accurate as research evolves, and it may not make that much of a difference in the great scheme of things. If you’re already doing everything right and you’re looking for a way to tweak things to get an extra few percent-worth of muscle growth, fat loss, or performance, this is the article for you.
Which Carb Sources Are Best?
Without a doubt, one of the hardest things to tell someone that’s seeking improved performance and body composition is that fruit should not be the primary source of carbohydrates in your diet. Hold on though – I am in NO WAY implying you shouldn’t eat fruit. It’s just not the easiest, most efficient way to fuel your body. One last tme; FRUIT IS GOOD. EAT PLENTY OF IT!
As valuable source of vitamins, minerals and fiber, fruits have definitely got their place in a balanced approach to nutrition. The issue with eating fruit to get all your carbs is that it’s got relatively little energy in it per gram! Aside from bananas, you’d have to eat a lot (and I mean a lot) of fruit to satisfy your carbohydrate/Calorie requirements; it’s just not optimal (or in some cases, feasible) to rely upon fruit as an energy source. Thankfully, there are other natural sources of carbohydrate available that are positively brimming with glucose as well as important micronutrients.
Starches are an Athlete’s Best Friend – Even If They Eat Paleo
Starch is a glucose polymer found in most plants that is chemically similar to our endogenous glycogen; it’s literally just a long chain of glucose molecules bonded together. Although humans have a tough time digesting the stuff raw, cooking breaks it down into pure glucose ready for utilization as a substrate to produce cellular energy throughout your body. Of course, whatever you don’t use can be stored, preferably in your biceps, quadriceps or abdominals. While some of the most widely-consumed sources of starch (and thus glucose) are grains, like corn, wheat and rye, plenty of Paleo-friendly alternatives exist if that’s your thing.
At the forefront, we have good ol’ fashioned tubers, like potatoes and carrots, as well as rice (preferably white), but let us not forget chestnuts and acorns that are rich in starchy energy. Squash, peppers, zucchini and cauliflower round everything out and give you a wide palette of flavors to choose from.
You’ll notice that I’m not including foods like broccoli, kale, and tomatoes in this list. That’s because per weight, these sources provide very little in the way of carbs for your body to use. Like fruits, they’re a great source of micronutrients and fiber. Leafy greens and veggies are an important part of a healthy diet and you should absolutely include them in your meals, but they’re not high-powered workout fuel.
The most important take-away here is that you need to consume rich sources of dietary glucose to effectively replenish muscle glycogen and maximize performance/recovery. You can’t rely on fat and protein, and you can’t just get your carbs from veggies.
Fast vs. Slow Carbs and Glycemic Index
Glycemic index or GI refers to the rate at which a food consumed in isolation will raise blood sugar. Higher GI foods are typically called fast carbs because they raise blood sugar more quickly and lower GI foods are slow carbs because they raise blood sugar less quickly. A great example is brown rice (50 GI, making it a slower carb) compared to white rice which has a GI of 67 making it a fast carb. This difference is commonly attributed to the fiber content of the intact germ of brown rice, but when it comes down to it there’s barely any more fiber per gram in white rice compared to brown rice.
Take a quick look at this chart from Harvard University’s health website and get a feel for where your favorite foods fall along the continuum of fast and slow carbs.
With that lesson out of the way, you probably want to know whether or not it matters if you eat fast or slow carbs. For healthy, athletic people, it’s not that big of a big deal. In fact, your response to carbohydrates may be different than mine. To further complicate the application of this information, mixing foods and the volume of the food you eat in a meal can totally change the GI of a carb. White vs. brown rice need not be a battle that ensues in your pantry. Sure, it’s potentially dvantageous to have faster carbs in situations where you need to shoot for rapid replenishment of glycogen (like when you train twice a day). For the rest of us – folks who’re in the gym for 1-2 hours a few times a week with plenty of time in between sessions – we can select our rice and potatoes based on taste!
If you’re really looking to optimize your carbohydrate strategy, you can take things a step further and get into supplementation through a few different means.
Carbohydrate Supplementation and Liquid Nutrition
Whole, natural foods should absolutely comprise the foundation of your nutrition. I won’t argue against that, but I do think that there are a few unique situations where integrating supplements into your plan can really bring your performance to the next level. One of the most important times to ensure you have adequate energy available is before and after training. By prioritizing carbohydrate intake around your workouts with liquid nutrition, you can make a dramatic impact on your energy levels and recovery (if it’s formulated properly). You have a plethora of options available should you go this route.
On one end of the spectrum, you could throw a potato into a food processor along with some light coconut milk, and wind up with one of the most interesting-yet-effective workout drinks known to man. Alternatively, a mottled banana with some dark chocolate in a light coconut milk base may be slightly more appetizing (and socially acceptable!). Add teaspoon of sea salt to either of these concoctions and you’ve got the perfect storm in terms of quick gastric emptying and nutrient absorption at the small intestine.
If pureed foods aren’t quite your style, you can go the more traditional route and purchase a commercially available supplement. At this avenue, your best bet is to go with modified starches like Vitargo, maltodextrin, dextrose and waxy maize; not only are they typically very affordable (especially if you buy in bulk), but they’ll blend right in with your favorite protein powder and provide you with exactly what you need to begin restoring glycogen within your muscles as soon as possible. 50-100g of maltodextrin or waxy maize will do the job but you can experiment with more or less based upon training intensity, duration, and the amount of muscle mass you carry around.
As far as taste is concerned, dextrose is very sweet, whereas waxy maize and maltodextrin are generally bland and flavorless unless you use A LOT at once. This is worth considering, especially if you’d like to use a supplement as a means to beef up the carb content of an existing protein shake that you’re already incorporating post-workout. You probably won’t want to add any dextrose under these circumstances, but if you’re starting completely from scratch, a little bit can go a long way towards making the maltodextrin/waxy maize palatable. In addition, a bit of sodium to your post-workout nutrition can increase the rate of absorption of whatever other nutrients you’re ingesting, so throwing dextrose into the mix may be even more important (unless you grew up drinking salt water.)
Hopefully this information will help you make more optimal decisions in regards to where you get your carbs from. It really doesn’t make sense to exclude any one source, but the majority of your carbohydrates should come from starches and vegetables like potatoes, squash, quinoa and rice. This will keep your muscles full and give you the energy you need to perform. Fruit should be approached as a means to supplement your micronutrients and round out your carbohydrate intake. To top it all off and make the most of your training, you should also consider implementing a liquid nutrition strategy post-workout.
- For a time, carbohydrates have been demonized, but they’re a great source of energy and an integral part of any nutrition plan that’s aimed at keeping performance at peak (or improving it).
- Fruits are not necessarily the best choice as an energy source – it’s just not dense enough.
- Still, fruits are packed with vitamins and minerals and are absolutely a part of a great nutrition plan.
- Starches are your best friend. Rice, potatoes, ripe bananas and oats are additions you might consider. Make sure that you eat plenty of these in the evening to replenish muscle glycogen.
- Liquid nutrition in the form of pureed foods and supplements like maltodextrin powder can be consumed before, during, and after training; this can help you maintain performance during long training sessions or events.