When we start talking about carbohydrates, I see two crowds: the “veggies are carbs” crowd and the people that hate the “veggies are carbs” crowd. I am not really going to pick sides on this one; obviously veggies are carbs! The question we should be asking is “Do veggies yield usable carbs? Are they an optimal carb source for fueling athletic performance?”
The answer, in most cases, is no. You need to incorporate starches into your nutrition if you want to reach peak performance. This isn’t a new concept, and we’re not alone in our support of a moderate carbohydrate diet based around glucose-dense foods. Let me give you a few examples.
In “World Class Fitness in 100 Words”, starches and fruits are listed as acceptable workout fuel. The Level 1 Certification used to teach “The Zone” diet, which is interesting because it teaches you that 40% of your diet should come from carbs. I know what you’re saying now…“But what about Paleo? Cave men didn’t eat carbs!” Well, Paleo isn’t inherently low carb, and in the book “The Paleo Diet for Athletes” Loren Cordain (author of “The Paleo Diet”) specifically mentions some very un-Paleo foods that fuel athletic performance. In a nutshell, you need carbs to fuel high intensity activity – very few experts in sports nutrition will argue otherwise.NOTE: Just to be clear, I don’t care what diet you decide to follow (or if you follow one at all) as long as it helps you achieve your goals as an athlete. In my opinion, that is the path of least resistance if you want to lose fat, build muscle, and finding the best version of “you.”
But What About Inflammation?
Very low carb (VLC) advocates often maintain the position that carbohydrates cause a level of inflammation in the body. To process and store carbohydrates, you need plenty of water. (3-4g for every 1g of carbohydrate.) If you are a sedentary individual eating a lot of processed carbs and a lot of starches, your body struggles to get rid of that inflammation and it can lead to serious health issues. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease – all of which are linked to chronic inflammation – can oftentimes be combated by simply reducing carbohydrate intake. Where the argument for low carbing (and relying upon vegetables for glucose) breaks down, however, is when you look at athletic populations. This is especially true for weightlifters and folks who perform high intensity work (sound familiar?).
Why Starches and Glucose are Important
I often make the argument for allowing white rice into your diet (and so do many other authors that advocate Paleo for their athletes). The reason is simple: Your brain and your muscles run BEST on glucose. The argument from the VLC crowd is that when your body needs glucose, it will make it. This is certainly true (the process is called gluconeogenesis). Another common argument is that the brain can run on ketones (which are a byproduct of fat metabolism). This is also true. Both of these measures kick in when you low carb. You can make up for a shortfall of glucose by adding more protein and fats, and the theory goes that you have solved the inflammation problem.
Not so Fast!
Where “the body can produce glucose” argument falls short is when it comes to high intensity athletes. These people need glucose available quickly and unfortunately, gluconeogenesis is a slow process. Even more problematic is the fact that your body will break down protein to create glucose – protein that could have been used to repair/grow muscle tissue. You don’t get an adequate rate of protein turnover and it’s pretty difficult to become stronger and better at exercise.
Depriving yourself of glucose is extremely stressful, both physiologically and psychologically. This will often lead to headaches and grumpiness, but more importantly, your workouts are going to suck as your body attempts to merely “keep up.” As your stress levels increase due to inadequate dietary carbohydrate (which often leads to inadequate calorie consumption), the end result is that your body will hold onto or even store more fat, your performance will decrease, and you’ll walk around in a bad mood because your brain is literally running at half capacity. Although the low carb concept seemed promising, it’s full of holes. Intentionally starving yourself of carbohydrate is not the answer.
In our book, “Metabolic Flexibility for Fat Loss”, we outline a strategy for keeping inflammation under control while simultaneously fueling high intensity training. Here’s the one-sentence version of Met Flex: Use fats at rest and carbs around your workouts. That’s the simplest way to look at it. If you consume carbs around your workouts (specifically pre-workout), you stimulates insulin production, letting your body know it’s time to use carbs for energy. In a way, carbs are like an “ON” switch for performance. You can use the Eat To Perform TDEE calculator to come up with what might work best for you, but here are some basic things you should know.
- As a rule of thumb, your basic glucose requirements (which are obviously very different from individual to individual) are about 100g, or 400 calories, of carbs.
- So let’s say that you perform a high intensity workout. That might require another 500 calories, but only a percentage of that energy comes from carbs (for example, 80%). That’s another 100g of carbs.
- What this means is that if your body is using the carbs, there is no accumulated inflammation. You can even make the argument that more carbs than that are easily processed by the body.
- Let’s say an average-sized male ate 250g to 300g of carbs throughout a training day. That’s only 50-100g of carbs leftover to store. Their body would not have difficulty processing that level of inflammation.
So What IS the Answer?
In the end, the answer should sound pretty familiar:
Eat adequate amounts of protein and fat throughout the day. Consume a moderate amount of carbs to fuel your athletic pursuits and keep your brain happy. As a result, you will not be dealing with chronic inflammation. Don’t let anyone scare you into believing that CHRONIC INFLAMMATION is going to get you because you had a sweet potato before bed. That is a myth. Now, am I arguing in favor of carb loading with processed foods at every meal? No I am not. You will have to figure out which foods make you look, perform, and feel your best, but you need to understand that carbs are not the problem and they never were. Not knowing how the food that you put into your body works was the real problem. That is why this site exists and why we wrote our book.