What are healthy carbs? This is a question that haunts not only the fitness world, but society in general. Low carb diets, high carb diets, and everything in between has been recommended for weight loss. This article will cut through the crap and give you an education in carbs. All you have to do is take the knowledge, define your goal, and get rolling!
Macro Recipe Ebook
What Are Carbs?
Carbohydrates are “any group of chemical compounds including sugars, starches and fiber, containing carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen with a 2:1 hydrogen-to-oxygen atom ratio.”- Frederick Hatfield, PhD.
This definition is pretty technical, but the gist of carbohydrates is that they are made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen and they come from foods such as potatoes, fruits, honey, vegetables, grains, etc. Fruits and vegetables are carbs. Quinoa and brown rice are carbs. Pasta and baked potatoes are carbs.
So are all carbs the same? Let’s take a look at the three main categories that carbohydrates fall into.
The Different Types of Carbs
Carbs are placed into three categories: monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polysaccharides.
Monosaccharides, mono meaning one, are simple carbohydrates. Monosaccharides consist of glucose, galactose, and fructose. This particular type of carbohydrate is primarily found in cow’s milk and fruit. Monosaccharides are excellent about 30-90 minutes before a workout and immediately post-workout because they hit your bloodstream quickly and replenish muscle glycogen lost in exercise.
Disaccharides, di meaning two, are also simple carbohydrates. Disaccharides include sucrose and lactose, each of which is made up of two monosaccharides. Sucrose is essentially table sugar; you know the stuff you dump in your coffee every morning. Lactose is a milk sugar, which is primarily found in cow’s milk or other dairy products. Disaccharides are also a good pre and post-workout choice because the sugars will hit the bloodstream quickly and replenish lost glycogen.
Polysaccharides, poly meaning many, are complex carbohydrates. Polysaccharides consist of starch and fiber. These complex carbohydrates are found in substances like brown rice, sweet potato, whole wheat bread, etc. Polysaccharides are good 90-120 minutes before exercise and 60-90 minutes after exercise to really help with fuel and recovery.
Why Do We Need Carbs?
So why exactly do we need carbs? Our bodies NEED healthy carbs because they are our primary source of energy. Our bodies want to use carbohydrates as a source of energy first and foremost. The body only turns to burning fats and proteins as energy after it has burned through the carb stores. So lower carbs means more fat burn then! WRONG. Your body will chew up fats and then your next source of energy is that hard-earned muscle.
Carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram. This is 4 units of energy per gram of carbohydrate. Since carbohydrates are not a calorie dense food like fats, you can consume more of them. More carbs, but not an overload of carbs, will lead to kick ass energy levels and that hard body you have been sweating for.
The Glycemic Index Broken Down
The glycemic index is the relative degree that the blood sugar increases after the consumption of food. High glycemic index foods raise blood sugar very quickly after being consumed. Low glycemic index foods do not significantly raise blood sugar after eating. Foods that rank below 55 on the glycemic index scale are considered, generally, to be low glycemic index foods. Those foods that score 55 to 70 are considered medium glycemic index foods. Lastly, those foods that score between 70 and 100 are high glycemic index foods. Straight glucose scores a 100. Hummus scores a 6.
The issue that surrounds the glycemic index is that many people believe that all high glycemic index foods are bad for you, while all low glycemic index foods are good for you. Most of the time, low glycemic index carbs will be good for you. These include foods such as oatmeal, grapefruit, yogurt, apples, peanuts, etc. However, high glycemic index foods are not necessarily unhealthy. Although items like doughnuts and french fries fall into the high glycemic index category, foods such as parsnips, wild rice, whole wheat bread, and rice cakes are also high glycemic index foods. Long grain white rice is a low glycemic food while wild rice is a high glycemic food.
The moral of this story is that you should not be basing your selection of carbs entirely on their glycemic index. I would recommend eating higher glycemic foods around your workout to give you the energy you need, while sticking to lower glycemic foods the rest of the day. However, I prefer wild rice to white rice, so I will eat the wild rice all the time. While the glycemic index of foods is a good aspect to know about, it is not one that should heavily shape your carb choices.
All About Fiber
Fiber occurs only in plant foods. There is no fiber in animal foods such as meats. Fiber is a undigestable complex carbohydrate that is beneficial in keeping your body regular. There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. soluble fiber dissolves in water, while insoluble fiber does not. insoluble fiber is the substance that creates the full feeling you experience after eating certain foods. Many American eat only 12 grams of fiber per day. A good rule of thumb is to eat 25-30 gram of fiber per day! Be slow while adding fiber into your diet however, unless you don’t mind feeling bloated and making frequent trips to the bathroom!
If you are counting your carbs, such as doing IIFYM, then I would recommend using the total amount of carbs consumed per day. Net carbs is the carb total minus the amount of fiber in a food. Using net carbs instead of total carbs is not necessarily a bad thing. However, to make life easier for yourself get your 25 grams of fiber in per day and just count your total carbs instead of your net carbs.
What Are Healthy Carbs?
This is where the going really gets tough! Healthy carbs are a misunderstood concept for many reasons. We have all heard that brown rice is better for you than white rice and sweet potato is better than white potato. What healthy carbs really come down to is what they do for your body. Healthy carbs come from whole food sources. These whole food sources include things like white rice and white potatoes. Unhealthy carbs come from processed crap like candy, many granola bars, concentrated fruit products, etc. If you stick to whole grains, fresh fruits, and fresh veggies, your healthy carbs are all accounted for.
The moral of this story is that if you prefer white potatoes over sweet potatoes, eat the damn white potatoes. The key is to not smother your food in unnecessary and processed extras. Stick to whole food sources of carbs and you are golden.
Healthy Carb Swaps
How Many Carbs Should You Eat?
There is a lot that goes into deciding how many carbs you should eat. However, if you are just looking to be healthy, have energy, and maintain a fit body, then there are a few rule of thumb rules that we can use. If your goal is fat loss, look to eat 0.5-0.75g of carbs per pound of bodyweight. This amount of carbs should not be long-term. I would not recommend eating a fat loss carb level for more than 2-3 weeks, 4 at most. Your body gets use to this amount of carbs and adapts, therefore making a prolonged period of time in this carb level useless.
For maintenance, I recommend eating between 1-1.5g of carbs per pound of bodyweight. If you are eating 1 gram per pound of bodyweight and still losing weight, bump it up to 1.5g per pound of bodyweight.
In order to gain muscle, I recommend eating 2-3g of carbs per pound of bodyweight. These carbs should still come from whole food sources primarily. You want to create that toned and tight physique, not a bloated one.
When it comes to determining your carb levels, first look at your goal. Once you have determined your goal, go by the rule of thumb levels above. It is really going to come down to you experimenting with the levels of healthy carbs that you eat. Everybody is different. If you have any questions at all on this or want a person there to help you tweak your carbs and take the guesswork out, please shoot me an email at email@example.com! I have limited open nutrition coaching spots available!
There you have it! We just talked about a lot of information on healthy carbs. This is truly a cliff notes version of carbohydrates and their functions and uses. However, I hope that you have learned something from this article and that you might understand healthy carbs a little bit better now. What is your main question about healthy carbs? Drop it in the comments so we can chat!