Why Everything You Think About Carbohydrates Is Wrong
I know you’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating (and bold formatting).
There is no such thing as a good or a bad food.
Sure, you probably shouldn’t eat a tray full of brownies, but food isn’t inherently positive or negative — everything has its place (and too much of anything is bad). So called “experts” frequently make blanket assumptions about what we should or shouldn’t put in our bodies. But this only skews public perception toward believing in quick fixes or fads that don’t really consider the specific goals or body types of each individual.
One common victim of these assumptions is the carbohydrate.
During my nutritional consulting sessions, I often hear the belief that carbs are bad. “If only I ate less carbs, I’d be closer to losing x pounds.”
I don’t blame people for this misunderstanding. It is such a common narrative in the fitness/nutrition industry that it’s only natural that the fad would start to stick.
But when it comes to long-term health, quick fixes aren’t the answer. Many fads, like that carbohydrates are bad, are often based on the results of research conducted on one type of person in a controlled environment. Or the research is sound, but the conclusion is exaggerated by third-parties to make a point that the study itself actually doesn’t prove or assert.
Carbohydrates are in fact a crucial part of your diet as they are the body’s most efficiently utilized energy source. Carbohydrates break down to become sugar in the body (mostly glucose). This glucose is something that is either stored in your muscles or liver. It is utilized to create a compound called ATP (Adenosine Tri-Phosphate). This molecule is the primary source of our “energy”. Eating carbs is the easiest and most efficient way to create ATP.
You can go without carbohydrates and be fine. Your body will ultimately create what it needs from proteins and fats, however this is not efficient for your body. There are people in the world that may for whatever reason need to go “carbless” (sheds one lonely tear). However, if you do not NEED to cut them out, I do not recommend it.
Cutting out carbs will only deprive your body of a valuable energy source that it needs to function at its best. To choose the best source and quantity of carbohydrates for your fitness goals, consult the glycemic index.
The Glycemic Index
The glycemic index is a rating system used for carbohydrates and their effect on an individual’s blood glucose levels or blood sugar levels. The reference point of this scale is a 100 (a piece of white bread).
The way the glycemic index works is the number assigned to said carbohydrate will be the blood glucose level of the individual consuming it after two hours. The more fiber a carb has, the less impact it will have on your blood glucose level over two hours, and the lower the glycemic index will be. The less fiber, the higher the impact it has on your glucose, and the higher the index.
This allows you to begin to understand what carbs are the best to consume at what time and in what quantity. This is all relevant because as you consume more sugar/high glycemic foods your blood becomes saturated with glucose which inherently causes you to produce more insulin. If this happens often your body can become desensitized to insulin creating what’s called insulin resistance. This is no good, as it is a potential precursor to conditions like diabetes and can make weight loss very difficult for even the most strict dieters.
There is another part of the glycemic index called the glycemic load. It takes the food you are measuring and multiplies the glycemic index by the relative amount of carbohydrate found in the given food. This is a fancy way of saying some foods have a high glycemic index but not a lot of carbohydrates, so they won’t increase your blood glucose too much in small quantities. All carbs increase blood glucose, however the amount in which your blood glucose is increased changes from carb to carb. Using the glycemic index and the concept of glycemic load we can derive the portions of carbohydrates that fit our unique and specific goals.
Example of Glycemic load:
Glycemic Load (GL) is a measure of both the quality (the GI value) and quantity (grams per serve) of a carbohydrate in a meal. A food’s glycemic load is determined by multiplying its glycemic index by the amount of carbohydrate the food contains in each serve and dividing by 100.
Glycemic Load = GI x Carbohydrate (g) content per portion ÷ 100.
Using an apple as an example: GI value = 38; Carbohydrate per serve = 15g
GL= 38 x 15
The GL of a typical apple is 6
Similar to the glycemic index, the glycemic load of a food can be classified as low, medium, or high:
- Low: 10 or less
- Medium: 11 – 19
- High: 20 or more
It is important to note that not everyone has the same sensitivity to insulin. If you are overweight, you are less likely to handle glucose efficiently. So while using the glycemic index is far better than making the assumption that all carbs are bad, your body still is a big variable.
People come in all shapes, sizes, types. We all have different lifestyles. Some people are elite athletes, some are weekend warriors, and some play pickup basketball once or twice a month. Others, well they just don’t do shit. All of these people will function at different metabolic and hormonal efficiencies and handle macronutrients in different ways and widely different efficiencies.
The long and short of this is that your carbohydrate intake, and food choices in general, are all just lifestyle choices. Moderation is such a helicopter word that I hate to use but find is necessary.
Listen to your body, and don’t be an extremist.
Contact a professional who knows what they are talking about (not a fad alarmist) and have them help you understand what makes sense for you nutritionally.
As for what good carbs are “good” or “bad”, I have attached a glycemic index chart with some notes on food selection to help you better understand what choices are better than others as far as timing and portions go.
For additional information on this please look up literally anything by Dr. Layne Norton. He is highly respected in the fitness and nutrition world and on top of that he is not only brilliant but he is very straightforward and not afraid to say how it is.
Higher Gi= 70+
Lower GI= 55 and below
Contact us if you’re interested in discussing your nutrition in greater detail. DAC PT offers nutritional counseling, meal plans and macronutrient calculations.