Carbs, carbs, carbs… love them or hate them they’re a topic to discuss because they’re massively misunderstood.
The biggest misconception amongst carbohydrates is that everything you hear about them is completely true and complete bullshit at the same exact time.
I know that doesn’t make sense, so let me explain.
Carbohydrates are one of the most individual nutrients that we consume as human beings and they ARE the most individual macronutrient we consume.
Protein is standard, get about 1g per pound of bodyweight and you’re set. Little less or little more, you’re still getting all the benefit and no risk either way.
Fat is also pretty standard, stay in the 0.3-0.4g per pound range or 20-35% of total calories and you’re getting enough to optimize hormones and not worry about any health risks. If calories are controlled, you can even push that up without any negative side effects like weight gain.
But carbs… carbs can be a tricky one.
Not enough carbs and you have health issues, nervous system issues, hormonal issues, performance declines, muscle loss, crankatitis (chronically cranky)….
Too many carbs and you begin to get bloated, cause gut stress, possibly cause insulin resistance, add unnecessary body fat, cause inflammation, and probably some other wild claims out there I’m forgetting to mention.
So there’s this fine line that we have to dance on to create a proper balance, because if we swing too far on either end of the pendulum, we’re likely to cause some kind of issues. Now obviously there’s the case to be made for keto, which is way on the other end of the pendulum, but the reality is that keto is very hard to adhere to and unless you can truly change your lifestyle to fit that style of eating – it’s not a smart way to eat. It’s an all or nothing type of diet.
Part of finding this balance, comes a lot of confusion for people.
Which is why I wanted to write this article for you. To show you some serious benefits to eating carbs that you may not want to neglect or miss out on. But also to open your eyes a bit, showing you that balance is most likely the best route in 99% of cases.
|Rather listen? We recorded a podcast on this, too. Check it out on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, or listen via the player below:|
So… let’s get started.
#1 – Carbs Enhance Hormonal Output
One hormone that MANY people have issues with is the thyroid gland.
In fact, “An estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease. Up to 60 percent of those with thyroid disease are unaware of their condition.”
THAT. IS. INSANE.
But what’s even more insane is that the thyroid affects nearly every other human cell in the body and every single hormone in the human body. Which means if you have a thyroid issue, you likely have other underlying issues manifesting as well. Whether that is cortisol issues, low testosterone levels, estrogen imbalances, or metabolic adaptation – there could be much more to the picture that you don’t even realize.
One thing many people gravitate towards when it comes to hormones in general, is that fats (lipids – macronutrient) positively impact them. This is very true and it’s a well-known fact that if we have fats below 20% of our daily total caloric intake, we’re likely to start seeing serious hormonal implications.
Because of this, that’s all people focus on and they tend to completely neglect that carbohydrates play a major role in thyroid health.
“If you don’t eat enough carbs, especially when you have a thyroid issue, you can lose that conversion of t4 to t3.” – Dr. Becky Campbell
T4, or Thyroxine, is the thyroid “storage hormone.” T3, or Triodothyronine, is the “energy hormone.” For the body to use T4, it must first convert it to the active hormone T3, giving energy to every cell in the body.
And as you can probably put together from that – if we do not have a functioning thyroid conversion process, the body will not store, nor use, energy (calories) properly. This can cause metabolic issues and the possible negative side effect of weight gain.
Adding to thyroid, carbs are essential for the hormones insulin, cortisol, testosterone, and the metabolism, as well. ALL which are also affected indirectly by the thyroid gland.
So as you can see, this is kind of like a big family tree of hormones. They’re all connected and can all be positively influenced by the proper carb consumption.
When looking to change our performance or body composition, we want to utilize insulin to manage storage of nutrients around our training. This is because when we train, our insulin sensitivity improves – allowing our body to shuttle more nutrients to the muscle, rather than store as body fat. But the nutrient it is shuttling into the muscle cell is almost primarily carbohydrates alone, which is also why carbs have the biggest impact on insulin.
When consuming carbs, we can bring cortisol down – the stress hormone – due to this impact on insulin. But I won’t go too deep here, because that’s #3. I’ll just say, it’s crucial in seeing physical success.
Both cortisol and insulin (as well as the thyroid) have an inverse relationship with testosterone and if we don’t manage both of these properly, our testosterone level, as men, takes a major dive. Testosterone is arguably the most important hormone for men to pay attention to because it gives us focus, motivation, muscle mass, and reproductive function.
In fact, “Testosterone concentrations were consistently higher in healthy males following 10 days of high-carbohydrate compared to low-carbohydrate consumption, despite the fact that these diets were equal in total calories.”
So as you can see, the endocrine system (hormones) is pretty important and very influential on our body composition and performance – but also on our quality of life. Carbs play a major role in optimizing this system. Now, that doesn’t mean the other nutrients don’t play a major role too – we’re all about balance here and not neglecting any one nutrient.
#2 – Carbs Boost Muscle Growth
First thing to point out on carbs and muscle growth is that carbs are a protein-sparing nutrient. What this means, is that in absence of protein – your body will make due by using carbs to get the job done.
“Protein sparing (amino acid sparing) is the process by which the body derives energy from sources other than protein. Protein sparing conserves muscle tissue without specifically using protein as a nutrient.”
This is a VERY important aspect of nutritional strategies for muscle growth, because it solidifies the need for carbohydrates as a back up nutrient for further gains OR muscle tissue maintenance when on a cut. Which is my next major point here…
When we’re on a cut, we’re actively putting our body into a scarce mode of survival. Sounds a lot more harsh when we put it in those terms, but the reality is that our body is not designed to diet and get shredded for the sheer purpose of looking aesthetic.
When we’re in this cut, or scarce mode, our body will not perform optimally. How can it? We’re depriving it of fuel and forcing it to use what has already been stored, which can lead to the issues of muscle loss if your macros are not dialed in accordingly. This is a major reason why we see so many bodybuilders getting absolutely shredded, yet keeping a lot of muscle mass during the process. Their diets are almost always carb heavy – because carbs will help performance AND are a protein sparing nutrient, which are the two definitive ways to hold onto muscle while losing body fat (training and protein ingestion).
So we know that a.) we need carbs because they’re protein sparing and b.) because they’re the predominant fuel source to improve performance in the gym, which is an obvious key to building or maintaining muscle.
Anything else carbs do to build muscle?
Carbs are also a part of the process to activate and produce ATP. In fact, as much as 80% of ATP production is derived from glycolysis (glucose production). ATP is a major component in anaerobic training – which is a major component in getting stronger and building muscle! This means that if we’re looking to maximally stimulate results through strength training, carbohydrates are a necessity.
Research is limited, but there is also some evidence that leans towards the combination of protein and carbohydrates positively impacting muscle protein synthesis. MPS is the anabolic signal our body creates when we ingest protein as a nutrient or when we partake in resistance training. This is a major player in the game of building muscle and although the research is limited, many believe carbs DO play a role in boosting that affect rather than just carbs alone or just protein alone. If this were true, it’d be another very beneficial reason to have carbs inside your diet when the goal is to build muscle.
One study that pushed us to believe this AND that proved intra-workout supplementation to be a great addition into a hypertrophy based nutrition plan, titled “Independent and combined effects of liquid carbohydrate/essential amino acid ingestion on hormonal and muscular adaptations following resistance training in untrained men”, actually gave evidence of literal muscle growth and cortisol mitigation when consuming carbs and essential aminos (protein) during training.
→ Intra-workout nutrition suppresses cortisol levels – Bird et al, 2006
→ Intra-workout carbs + protein suppresses muscle protein breakdown – Bird et al, 2006b
→ Intra-workout protein + carbs increases muscle fiber cross-sectional area, a measure of muscle growth. Bird et al, 2006 (c)
These are all quoted statements from studies. What do they mean? They mean that carbohydrates induced more muscle growth and better recovery.
#3 – Carbs Reduce Stress (Mental and Physical)
Carbohydrates spike insulin and during that process, they blunt a cortisol response in the body. Cortisol is a stress hormone that rises, as stress is high.
THIS IS GOOD! At the right times…
If we have cortisol spiking at the wrong times, like when we’re trying to go to bed, or chronically spiking so that we never come down from a stressful state – we’re in trouble. But if we have cortisol spike at the right times, like in the morning when we need it to wake us up or when we want to go harder in the gym – we’re going to be more alert and see better results.
And since we know that carbs can help us control and lower this stress response, we now have a tool that can allow us to lower stress levels and improve recovery.
When stress is high and cortisol is up, we’re in a sympathetic nervous system “mode”. This is our fight or flight response, which means GO – RUN – LIFT. But it doesn’t mean, REST – RECOVERY – REPLENISH – DIGEST. This becomes an issue because if we do not know how to properly shift out of sympathetic and into parasympathetic, which is the rest and recovery side of our nervous system, we end up in a vicious cycle of stress overload.
During that process, our body begins to breakdown in multiple areas because it just simply cannot recover. It needs the ability to shift into a parasympathetic nervous system mode in order to fully recover. AND it needs to fully recover in order to fully adapt (the process of literally creating the changes we want to see).
So… now that we understand that recovery is key, our nervous systems basically control the ability to facilitate our recovery, and that carbs play a big role in shifting into that recovery mode…. How do we use this knowledge to our benefit?
Time carbs according to when we need recovery most.
→ Post workout carbohydrates are massively important in blunting the cortisol response training gives us and allowing our body to tap into parasympathetic mode.
→ Evening carbohydrates can be critical in allowing our body to unwind and get a restful night’s sleep.
→ Pre workout carbs can be key for those who are already cortisol dominant and who live in a higher state of stress, because it balances the cortisol level prior to training.
→ Intra-workout carbs can play a role in controlling the cortisol, allowing better muscle repair and growth – also leading to better stress levels post training.
→ Frequent carb feedings (evenly distributed throughout daily meals) can be an intelligent way to help high stress/anxiety individuals keep cortisol levels lower throughout the day, controlling that stress and anxiety they face.
→ Carbohydrates in general can help trigger tryptophan, which converts into serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in us that helps positively boost our mood and increases sleep quality.
#4 – Carbs Before Bed Helps Sleep
As mentioned in #3, carbohydrates consumed in the evening can help us lower stress levels and unwind prior to bed – allowing for a more restful sleep. This is because carbs can help us trigger serotonin – a neurotransmitter that’s been proven to enhance mood and improve sleep quality.
This fact alone is enough to prove the “Don’t eat carbs at night” myth completely busted.
But let’s add to this serotonin fact that’s massively beneficial for good sleep. Carbohydrates can help shift us into a parasympathetic state within our nervous system, the exact opposite of the state that keeps us awake, ready and alert.
As most of you know, you can’t go to sleep if you’re wired. Often times we see clients who suffer with what we call, “Tired and Wired”. This is a state of being where your nervous system may be negatively adapted and you may have some issues with not only cortisol, but also your circadian rhythm. It feels like you’re really tired and need rest, but you just can’t because you’re abnormally wired at the same time.
Well… proper carb consumption may be able to shift you out of this state and actually help you get into that parasympathetic state, which is absolutely crucial in proper sleep and recovery.
#5 – Carbs Are Harder To Store As Body Fat
Let me first start by prefacing this… Carbs can be stored as body fat. And by no way am I claiming that to be false here, because the reality of fat gain is simple; it’s an equation of calories in vs. calories out.
If you have too many calories coming in and not enough going out, you’ll gain body fat. Excluding protein (mostly, this is proven by studies as well), it almost doesn’t matter where those extra calories are coming from – i.e. pop tarts vs. sweet potatoes – because if you’re over your caloric balance, you will gain weight.
That being said… there is a lot of evidence to show that carbs may be harder for your body to store as body fat.
Carbs are a non-essential nutrient, meaning we don’t technically need them to live but I would argue that we do need them in order to perform at our absolute highest and hardest intensity.
We also know based on what we’ve gone over in this article thus far, that you need them in order to maximize muscle growth potential.
In fact, even ketogenic athletes who are participating in endurance-based sports will commonly use carbs at the last minute or during the event in order to produce a super compensation-like effect that pushes their performance higher. The thought process here is that being very low carb or keto for an extended period of time produced better insulin sensitivity and their bodies will hyper respond when carbs are introduced. Therefore they bring them in when they’re needed most, competition day.
This just solidifies the fact that carbs are essential for performance. The literature shows it and the experiences proves it, they simply work.
Fats on the other hand, are better used for hormonal production, brain fuel, inflammation, some other health markers, and storage. Yes, that’s right – storage.
See fats are a great nutrient to store because they can fuel our bodily functions, such as hormonal and neurological function, and provide some low intensity energy to fuel our daily tasks, like walking or simply moving around as normal.
That’s also why unless you’re a genetically gifted athlete, when you get super lean your NEAT (Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) goes down, you move less, and you’re just all around slower.
Again, they’re an essential nutrient, which means our bodies will prioritize storing them in order to survive day to day. Carbs on the other hand will be prioritized as a fuel source, which also means they are more likely to be burned off when it comes to using your muscular system or performing anything above a low intensity effort.
So to bring this one to a conclusion and give some practical application on carbs storing as fat:
→ Carbs are predominantly used as fuel for training and repairing/building muscle tissue.
→ Fats are predominantly used for health, neurological function, hormonal regulation, anti-inflammatory processes, and some other health benefits.
→ When carbs are extremely scarce, to the point of non-existence for an extended period of time, your body will begin to use fat for fuel by creating ketones. But this takes time to transition.
→ Our body turns carbohydrates into glucose and stores them as glycogen in either our liver (smaller storage) or muscle glycogen (much larger storage, which grows with muscle accumulation).
→ Our body will only store calories as fat if we’re in a caloric surplus (over-fed) or our hormonal balance is creating imbalances causing weight gain.
→ If we are in a caloric surplus, assuming we are training hard, our body will prioritize carbohydrates as fuel and glycogen storage, NOT fat storage. Therefore it may be advantageous to have a higher carb protocol when chasing muscle mass (studies have shown this, as well).
→ At a maintenance level caloric intake, it still may be advantageous to have a higher ratio of carbohydrates to fuel performance and avoid fat storage.
#6 – Carbs Are Hiding Nutrients From You
There are a lot of nutrients inside the carbs we eat, which is why I do not prefer a ketogenic style diet. I believe that we’ll be missing out on many nutrients inside of carbohydrates that we may not be able to get through fats.
I also know for a fact, that during a higher carb diet we can still get all the nutrients we need from fats if prescribed properly. Because inside that type of diet, we’re not neglecting or excluding fats – we’re just limiting the total quantity consumed daily.
At the end of the day, the reason this point made the list is simply because a balanced approach is always going to be more advantageous because we don’t need to worry about missing out on nutrients or becoming deficient in any one specific thing.
Inside a high fat, low carb approach, it can be difficult to get enough:
Now, these things can all be supplemented. So even though they may be lower or more difficult to get inside a keto or low carb approach – it’s by no means impossible.
But one thing to remember is that vitamins and minerals are typically better absorbed via whole foods because micronutrients are often shuttled to the cell via macronutrients. What that means is that in order to get a micro to work, we need a macro to be present. Vitamin-D, for example, is fat soluble and will not be properly absorbed without the presence of some form of fats being consumed along with it.
Plus… who wants to spend more and more money on supplements when you could eat real food?!
#7 – Carbs Are The Most Efficient Fuel Source
Do I really need to explain this one again? I think I beat this statement to death already by accident, as I was going over each and every other topic.
At the end of the day it’s pretty simple.
Our muscles thrive and run off glycogen, which is glucose – which are carbohydrates stored inside our muscle cells.
The other place we need glycogen is within our liver, which comes from fructose – fruit predominantly in this situation. But it’s at a much lower storage rate, meaning it doesn’t take much to fill up your liver glycogen stores – 1-2 servings a day is enough for 90% or more of people.
Our liver provides us with neurological functions, detoxification, and so many other important health properties – so without fuel for it, we’re in bad shape.
If you give the human body the choice of fats or carbs and ask it to perform hard, it will choose carbs 9 times out of 10. Probably 10 times out of 10, to be honest. Only exception would be if you’ve been practicing keto for months and months and have become fully fat adapted.
BUT even in those cases, we’ve seen these fat adapted athletes jam massive amounts of carbs in their body right before a high performance situation and excel tremendously because they provided the body with fuel. This means the body chose carbohydrates to perform, even though it was fat adapted.
From my experience working with bodybuilders, general population looking to train hard, strength athletes, professional athletes, competitive CrossFitters, and even myself – the garage athlete, I like to say – carbs simply fuel hard training and optimal recovery, best.
My goal with this article is to bring awareness to carbs and help people understand that they’re not the bad guys here; in fact they’re the good guys in disguise. We need them if we want to thrive and especially if we want to build the best body possible.
But I’m also not here to tell you that fats are bad, we quite literally need them to exist. Period. And I’m a big proponent of balance, making sure my clients get both in adequate amounts to fuel performance but also a healthy body that lives a long life.
So take this article, create balance, find your happy medium, and begin to optimize both macronutrients in order to see better results.
And if you struggle with exactly how to do that (like most people do), click here now and jump on a free strategy call with someone from my team. We’ll make sure you leave the call with more knowledge.
Cody McBroom is owner and head coach of Boom Boom Performance. He’s a Strength Coach and Nutrition Expert located in Seattle WA. He coaches people in person and online, now internationally. His passion is helping individuals changing their lives through body composition transformation, as well as creating content across all platforms to help individuals and other coaches learn more about training and nutrition. Click Here Now to Apply For Coaching with Cody.