The Truth About Working Out and Eating Carbs

The War on Carbs

For as long as can be remembered, there has been a ban on bread. Providing more calories and little nutrition, white, starchy carbohydrates have been tied to weight gain. But not all carbs are created equal! While some research would suggest cutting them out all together, carbohydrates are a very important part of a balanced nutritional regimen. It’s particularly challenging to imagine intensive exercise without a store of carbohydrates to burn through. So, the question remains: what’s real and what isn’t?

To begin…

They differ
Carbohydrates are your body’s main energy source and should make up 45-65% of your daily caloric intake. They make up 1 of the 3 core macronutrients, and while they are the sugars, starches and fibres you find in fruits, grains, veggies and dairy products, carbohydrates can be divided into two major groups: simple and complex.

Down to the science

  • Simple carbohydrates
    Simple carbohydrates are ones that your body can break down quickly to be re-purposed as energy. Comprised primarily of sugars, it is found as easily in foods like fruit, dairy and dairy products as they are in candy, granulated sugar and syrups. As you may gather, not all simple carbs are created equal. To get down to it, since it needs it to thrive, your body is more concerned with the source it receives them from than anything else.
     
  • Complex carbohydrates
    Also known as “slow carbs,” complex carbs, found in legumes like lentils, grains like quinoa and nightshade vegetables like sweet potatoes, are typically more nutrient-dense than “fast carbs”. Considered more stable than their simpler counterparts, complex carbs contain a longer chain of sugar molecules. These are converted into glucose, and then used for energy. Combining them with fibre, protein and fat helps to slow both digestion and absorption and keep you fuller longer, so if you’ve got a workout ahead of you, try pairing it with fibrous foods like whole fruits and veggies, grains and beans. Just make sure to give plenty of time for your body to digest them before exercise!

Carbs and exercise
When it comes to working out, every macro has a role. Carbohydrates help your body work through its glycogen stores, helping fuel short, high-intensity exercise, and fat helps with longevity. Protein keeps an eye on your muscle and hydration, also necessary as you perspire. When you eat carbs, they’re broken down into glucose and are either used for immediate energy or kept in your liver and muscles for later use. Through this your body also releases insulin, regulating your blood sugar overall. The way that sugar is broken down depends on the kind of carb we’re talking about. Simple, fast carbohydrates give you a sudden but short-lived burst in energy, while more complex ones give you a longer, steadier and more sustained boost. That’s why they’re the ones that should be fueling your workout.

But when, you ask?
A commonly posed question is whether you should be having carbs before or after a workout. The answer is: it depends. During shorter, more intense workouts, carbohydrates may be the only source of energy available to your muscles.

Before and after a workout, nutrition is critical in obtaining, and improving, results. It will increase energy and endurance throughout and encourage recovery afterward. The key here is to choose foods that will go easy on your digestive system so that the process doesn’t interrupt your workout. Pre-workout nutrition should include foods high in carbohydrates that will give you energy, like a fruit smoothie. Post-workout, aim for foods high in protein and glycogen to help repair muscle and energy stores, like a protein shake or chicken with veggies.

Pro tip:

Simple carbohydrates, like a banana, can help replenish lost glycogen stores after intense exercise. Ingesting a simple carbohydrate will help initiate the recovery process after exercise. Don’t forget a protein source is crucial as well! This will help not only the recovery process but also initiate MPS (muscle protein synthesis) which is essentially the process to building lean muscle tissue.

Though some carbs are more nutritious than others, getting enough is important for your fitness goals. Diet is 80% of the battle, so a healthy balance is critical to achieving your fitness goals.

Sources

  • Carbohydrates and the Glycemic Index: “Slow” Carbs vs. “Fast” Carbs. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.kumc.edu/Documents/cray/Glycemic Index.pdf.

  • Vinoy, S., Laville, M., & Feskens, E. J. M. (2016, July 4). Slow-release carbohydrates: growing evidence on metabolic responses and public health interest. Summary of the symposium held at the 12th European Nutrition Conference (FENS 2015). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4933791/.

  • Gollnick, P. D., & Matoba, H. (1984, July). Role of carbohydrate in exercise. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6571232.

  • Gillaspy, R. The Importance of Carbohydrates: Functions & Impact of Deficiency. Retrieved from https://study.com/academy/lesson/the-importance-of-carbohydrates-functions-impact-of-deficiency.html.

  • The truth about carbs: Healthy weight. (2018, December 19). Retrieved from https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-weight/why-we-need-to-eat-carbs/.

  • Kandola, A., & Marengo , K. (2019, May 14). Simple carbs vs. complex carbs: What's the difference? Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325171.php.