Carbohydrates are given a bad rep in the health and fitness world. Many people believe that carbs are the main source of weight gain, and to be perfectly honest – this is just nonsense.
Carbohydrates are the lifeblood for performance and energy in everyday living.
Carbs fuel almost every movement you take in a day and assist in every conscious decision – through glycogen (fuel for muscle contractions) and blood glucose (fuel for the brain).
The idea that carbs are bad for you is one that has very little scientific support. In fact, most research has shown that a diet higher in carbohydrates optimizes muscular strength and power output. Check the research below for more information.
The goal for any athlete or individual who is looking to get stronger should always be to have a wide variety of nutrition in their diet – and this includes complex carbohydrates from whole-foods.
In this article, I will break down the main reasons why you should be consuming carbohydrates for the bulk of your calories. Let’s get started.
What are Carbohydrates?
The entire discussion of carbohydrates as fuel needs to start from the beginning. I always try to take an educational approach and enrich your knowledge of everything related to strength and fitness.
Here are three points you need to understand about carbohydrates:
- Carbohydrates are a macronutrient – meaning you need them in large amounts.
- Carbohydrates are the fuel source for many systems in the body, including muscular contractions (along with ATP), internal organs and even brain function (through blood glucose).
- Carbohydrates are not a particularly good fuel source in terms of total calories.
In fact, carbs have less than half the amount of calories as fat per gram.
At 4k/cal per gram, carbohydrates are not only low in calories, but they are also high in fiber (if you’re eating the right ones) and this means you will only absorb a fraction of what you intake – we’ll talk about this in a second.
Carbohydrates are broken down into three main areas:
Your first and perhaps the primary source of carbs are foods that are starch-rich. Starchy foods like potatoes, corn, wheat, rice, beans are the main sources of carbohydrates that are starch-rich.
These are the foods that grow civilizations. These are the foods that can be cultivated in very high amounts and sold at very low prices.
This isn’t particularly relevant to strength, but it is important to understand that starch-rich foods are a major driver of human evolution – it’s what helped us get out of the hunter-scavenger phase of our lives, and one could argue, helped us better use our time during the day.
This is a word that many people do not understand fully. When you think of sugar you are probably thinking of white sugar you’d put in coffee or find in soda.
Let me make one point very clear. Sugar is not bad for you. A certain amount of sugar from fruit can be a great addition to your diet.
Perhaps the most significant reason why you should have some sugar in your diet is that it is an effective fuel source – especially for power-based sports.
Sugar from fruit or even metabolized sugars from starchy carbs are very good sources of glycogen-rich fuel – which can enable the glycolysis cycle (energy system for intense exercise 30-120 seconds in duration) – which is where most sports fall.
I am definitely not saying to go eat a spoonful of white sugar before you exercise – that’s obviously not a good habit.
What I am saying is that some sugar from fruits and other whole grains can be a very effective fuel source – and vital to your performance.
The last category for carbohydrates is more or less a carry-over of starchy foods. Fibre is a source of carbohydrates that are indigestible – literally.
Fibre is an essential part of your diet that most people miss. Not only can a diet high in fibre help to lower cholesterol (essential for avoiding heart disease) but it can also help to lower your net carb intake.
What do we mean by “net carbs”?
Okay, take for example a piece of bread. Let’s say your bread contains 20g of carbohydrates and 5g of fibre. Since fibre is indigestible your body will only intake around 15g of carbs from that bread – and the calories that come with it.
If you are someone who is concerned about limiting your intake of carbs this is always a good idea. This is the primary reason why I really don’t have a problem with the Paleo diet. Although I do not see the value in eating excessive high-fat meats, the higher intake of fibre-rich carbohydrates is very beneficial for your health.
Fibre is broken down into even more depth as soluble and insoluble but we will leave this conversation for another article.
Complex vs. Simple Carbs
This is a term I would almost guarantee you have heard before. The general belief is that complex is the “good” carbs and that simple are the “bad” carbs.
I am not really a big fan of saying that any food is bad (unless it’s processed meats) so let’s try to break this down.
The main difference between these two carbs is the amount of time it takes for your body to break down and absorb the nutrients from the carbs. Complex carbohydrates are generally more fibre rich, starchy and will, therefore, take longer to break down – which the majority of absorption occurring in the intestines.
Complex carbs are foods like whole grains, rice, beans, bread and some fruit.
As a power athlete or any athlete in the real of strength training, this should be your bread and butter for carb intake.
Yep, you guessed it – they’re simple because they take far less time to absorb. Some simple carbs like sugars can even be mostly broken down and absorbed by the saliva in your mouth.
This is why when you chew on something that is highly processed and white you can almost taste the sweetness in it – the simple carbs are broken down by salivary amylase.
I would argue that simple carbs have a place in your diet. For example – supplementing with a simple carbohydrate like maltodextrin could help to decrease recovery time.
Eating foods like fruit (mostly simple carbs) before a sporting event can be a great way to get good sugar in your system for training.
Your best bet would be to have an 85/15 split. That is 85% complex carbs from foods like beans, whole grains, rice, vegetables and the remaining 15% from simple carbs like fruit.
Importance of Carbohydrates for Strength
Let’s delve into the main reason why you are here. Chances are if you read this website’s articles before you are involved in strength training and are already consuming some carbohydrates but here I will try to explain why carbohydrates are essential for strength.
Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source for muscular contractions. It has been shown time and time again that a diet high in carbs vs. a diet low in carbs will always help athletes recover faster.
This is because carbohydrates are the main fuel source of glycogen resynthesis.
Having a diet rich in complex carbs – predominantly starchy carbs can help you to resynthesize more glycogen to be stored in muscle and in the liver.
Research shows that carbs mainly get broken down into glucose (grains, beans, rice) are best for restoring muscle glycogen and carbs that get broken down into fructose (fruit, some syrups) are best for resorting liver glycogen.
Moral of the story? Eat more starchy carbohydrates because they can help you to recover faster.
Best Carbohydrates for Strength
Carbohydrate intake will always depend on your specific sport. A marathon runner should be eating a different diet than a powerlifter. For the purpose of this statement, I will assume you are the average dude who wants to put on muscle and is training for strength-based sports.
Here is a list of the best carbohydrates for strength
The king of all the foods in my opinion. If you are not eating oatmeal you better start. Oatmeal is truly a wonder for performance and strength. Loading with essential vitamins, minerals, fibre and contains a good amount of protein. Hands-down my #1 choice.
Apples sit right on the line when it comes to simple or complex. I would argue that it is more complex due to its high fibre content – which is also the primary reason I always recommend an apple a day to anyone looking to improve their health.
Not only are they loaded with vitamins and minerals but they also contain a good amount of healthy sugars which can be an effective way to get energy for a workout. In fact, one of my favourite pre-workouts is as simple as coffee and an apple.
3. Beans and Lentils (aka. Legumes)
There are dozens of beans you can eat and most, if not all of them will contain a wide variety of vitamins, minerals, fibre, complex carbs and a great spectrum of amino acids. If you are ever worried about your protein intake on a vegetarian diet you should do your best to consume a good amount of beans each day. In this way, you will have a very complete supply of protein.
One of those carbs that you should already know is super healthy for you. Loaded with vitamins, minerals, fibre and good protein doses you have a grain fit for fuel.
I am a big fan of pasta – but I always try to substitute grains like oatmeal and quinoa whenever I can – simply because they have a much more complete spectrum of nutrients to fuel your body.
I get really confused by those who say potatoes aren’t good for you. It really makes no sense. Especially if you are eating them in their most natural form they are loaded with nutrition.
TOP TIP: Sweet potatoes are the optimal choice due to their lower glycemic index and higher supply of amino acids.
Carbohydrate Intake: How Much to Eat
The last point I want to help you navigate is how much you should be eating. Most government health recommendations suggest around 50-60% of your calories to come from carbohydrates.
This would mean you could eat around 1000 calories from carbohydrate sources (depending on your body weight).
It is important to understand that your carb intake should be based on your energy expenditure. In other words; the more you train, the more carbs you should intake.
We discussed earlier how exercise requires glycogen (a metabolite of carbs). Especially if you are involved in power-based sports like sprinting, jumping, basketball, football and hockey the bulk of your calories should come from complex carbs like the ones listed above.
Perhaps the easiest way to calculate your dosage of carbs will be to stick to the equation of 5g/kg of body weight.
Example: 220-pound male (100kg) would consume about 500g of carbohydrates daily.
100kg x 5g of carbohydrates daily = 500g
In fact, if you want to be specific to what science we have today you should consume even more than that. Research shows that athletes involved in moderate-high intensity exercise on a regular basis should have about 8-12g/kg of body weight per day.
Keeping in mind this formula is based on an elite athlete who is training for about 4 hours per day. This would give them over 3500 calories just from carbs in one day.
If you’re the average dude who is trying to get in some strength, recover faster and build a better body – I would recommend 3-4g/kg of body weight.
This is assuming you train for about 1.5 hours 4-5x a week with moderate resistance.
Remember; carbohydrates are not your enemy. They provide your body with the main source of energy for all muscle contractions. A diet that lacks carbohydrates is an athlete who is not ready for competition.
Unless prescribed otherwise (by medical professionals) you should be eating at least half of your daily intake of calories from complex carbohydrates that are loaded with fibre, vitamins, minerals and many other important nutrients.
Carbohydrates are food for fuel. Period.
Looking to get stronger but need a fool-proof plan? Maybe you just want to increase your strength this year and hit a new PR – we can help. Check out our product section for more information on custom strength programs and complete whole-food nutrition guides.
Do you have any recipes for oatmeal? Sometimes they get boring with just plain oats and water.
Desmond – I always make my oats overnight. Not only is it easy but I find it tastes much better and is a huge time-saver. Here is a link to a couple tasty morning oat recipes: https://wholefully.com/8-classic-overnight-oats-recipes-you-should-try/
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