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Carbohydrates, Explained

Carbohydrates and fat seem to be at the forefront of the nutrition debates these days. Best friend to some, mortal enemy to others. This blog post will explain the basics of carbs and make some recommendations for eating the right amount of the right type of carbohydrates to achieve your goals.

But before I tell you all about them, I must address one of my biggest pet peeves and one of the biggest myth that seems to be floating around – the idea that you can “give up carbs”. Let me just say definitively that you cannot. Why? Because they are in everything that is good for you. Fruits. Vegetables. Even whole dairy. Because, you see, “carbs” are not the same thing as/just pasta, rice, and baked goods. “Carbs” is simply a shortening of the word carbohydrates, which are the body’s main source of energy. So, you can give up grains. You can give up starchy carbohydrates. You can give up fruit (although I wouldn’t recommend it). But you can’t really give up ALL carbohydrates. Because you would die.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled blog post.

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are molecules made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, and can be found in simple or complex structures. This is where you get “simple carbohydrates” and “complex carbohydrates.” They provide fuel and are the body’s most readily available source of energy.

Why do you need them?

When you eat carbohydrates, the body breaks them down into the simple sugar glucose, which is then transported throughout the body to provide energy, fuel important reactions, and maintain blood sugar levels. Any glucose not used is stored in your liver as glycogen, or as fat. During quick bouts of exercise, like a 100 meter sprint, the body uses glucose as the main source of fuel. When it needs additional energy during longer exercises – say an 800 meter run –  it will draw on its glycogen stores. And when energy is needed for longer than 2 minutes, stored fat will be tapped for energy.

Energy Pathways

As you can see, glycogen is still tapped for energy even as fat stores make up the majority of fuel during longer sessions. So, having enough glycogen stored up for the body to use will allow you to perform at your best, both in competition and training. On the other hand, not getting enough carbohydrates and energy to meet your needs over an extended period of time can impact recovery, weakening your immune system – and meaning you could get sick more often – and making you feel less energetic.

Where do you find them?

Carbohydrates come from a variety of sources, and some are better than others. Some of the better sources of carbohydrates include fruits and vegetables, starches like sweet potato, and some whole grains (quinoa, oats, barley, farro). Fruits and vegetables are the most nutritious sources of carbohydrates because they have more fiber and other nutrients like vitamins and minerals (that occur naturally, not through fortification). Which carbohydrates you choose will depend on your goals (I’ll get to that in a minute).

The carbohydrates to avoid include baked goods, simple sugars (like table sugar and syrups), and overly processed foods (tortilla chips, white rice, etc).

How many should you be eating?

How much carbohydrate you need depends on the intensity and volume of training, gender, and type of sport. Research indicates that elite (college and professional) athletes need 6-12 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight (weight in kilograms = weight in pounds divided by 2.2). Women and less active athletes will be on the lower end of that range, while men or endurance athletes will be on the higher end. However, most recreational athletes  will need fewer carbohydrates, as they are not training over 2 hours per day as those athletes do. For most people I recommend 3-6 grams/kg of body weight, depending on your training. For example, someone running 3-4 times a week who does CrossFit twice a week and is trying to maintain weight will want to eat more carbohydrates (and overall energy) than someone who does CrossFit 3-4 times a week and is trying to lose weight.

The thing about carbohydrates is there is not enough evidence to recommend exact levels to everyone. How much you need depends on your training, weight, and goals, but also on your subjective feelings. Two people might eat the same proportion of carbohydrates, and while one person feels fantastic, the other feels low energy and lethargic. All things considered, if you can’t focus at work and it’s not because of a food coma, you may need to eat more carbohydrates.


Should You Be Giving Up Grains?

Many in CrossFit follow or try to follow a paleo diet, which staunchly eschews grains. And while I’ve said before that the paleo diet is a good kickstart, you may want to introduce grains back into the diet afterword or manage them in your diet now. A few tips:

  • Keep your weight goals in mind. If you’re trying to lose weight, keeping grains mostly out of your diet  – while allowing yourself greater liberation in other areas like fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats – is a good way to cut out unnecessary, easy to over-consume calories. If you’re trying to gain weight (or have trouble maintaining it), it is much harder to get enough calories and carbohydrates without grains. It’s possible, but far more difficult (and expensive).
  • Keep your fitness goals in mind: Endurance/aerobic sports will require more carbohydrates than anaerobic sports (like CrossFit).
  • Keep the grains healthy. Even if you do add back in grains, don’t add in the Eggo waffles, Oreos, and white grains. Add things like Ezekiel bread, brown rice, farro, quinoa, etc.

Image 1 c/o Aran Burton Image 2 c/o CrossFit Journal: “What Is Fitness”


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