It’s no wonder most people are confused by carbs – there is a ton of conflicting information out there, with various opinions, fad diets, and theories piled on top of it all.
Good carb, bad carb, low carb, no carb – it’s A LOT to take in.
The truth is, the only thing that’s complicated about carbohydrates is sorting through that pile to pull out the relevant facts.
Today, we’ll navigate these little nuggets of pure body fuel together, including what a carbohydrate is, how your body uses them, when to eat carbs, and what the best kinds of carbs are to eat.
Plus, lists of healthy carbs so you always know the right way to fuel your body and brain!
What Are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are organic compounds found in food that break down to the body and brain’s preferred energy source, which is a single unit of sugar: glucose.
Carbs in our food are made up of fiber, starch, and sugar. The quality of a carbohydrate food depends on how much of each of these it contains.
Simple carbohydrates consist of only one or two sugars and include foods like white flour, boxed cereals, and soda. The simpler a carb is, the faster it will be digested and taken into your bloodstream.
Complex carbohydrates, such as sweet potatoes, apples, lentils, (sometimes called “starches”) are fiber-rich, and consist of three or more sugars. The more complex a carb is, the more slowly it is digested and absorbed by the body, leading to steadier energy and greater fat loss.
This is why your best bet is to go for complex carbs that are higher in fiber – not only will they be more filling, but they’ll also keep you satisfied longer, which means they’re a good option whether you’re focused on fat loss or maintenance.
How Does the Body Use Carbs?
When you eat carbs, two things can happen.
The carbs are either:
- broken down into glucose and used for energy immediately, or
- stored in the muscle tissue and liver as glycogen for energy later.
Your body can only store about a half-day supply of glycogen, which means you need a relatively steady supply of carbs to keep your body functioning at peak energy.
Keep in mind that exercise builds muscle, and the more muscle you build, the greater your glycogen-storing capacity becomes, which is why highly active people (such as professional athletes) have greater carbohydrate needs when they’re training.
But if you max out your body’s capacity for glycogen storage – easy to do with today’s rampant availability of empty calories from sugar-heavy carb sources like soda, candy, and processed food – then the extra glucose from the carbs is stored as fat instead.
Consider this – if the gas tank on your car can hold 15 gallons of gas, but you try to put 20 gallons in, the gas is going to spill out everywhere. Not ideal. Similarly, if you fill your body with all the carbs it can possibly handle at one time and then you try to add more, it’s also going to spill over and most likely be stored as body fat.
Why Do I Get Cravings?
Cravings (specifically for carbs and sugar), are often caused by a lack of adequate energy stores in the body. Your body needs those nutrients to function, and if your reserves are low you’re going to get “hangry.”
When we eat those simple, processed carb foods, it causes our blood sugar to spike, and our metabolism eventually gets used to the short bursts of sudden energy those foods deliver. But just as quickly as that energy arrives, it disappears, and when our blood sugar takes the inevitable crash, our bodies start frantically searching for the next hit. That’s when you experience cravings and often times mood swings, too.
If you find that you constantly get cravings, check in with your food intake. Are you eating enough protein? Enough fiber-rich greens? How about healthy fat? Those nutrients are very satisfying, and deliver a slow, lasting energy to the body just like complex whole-food carbohydrates do. Don’t skip those vital nutrients.
Skipping meals and going low carb or no carb day after day can wreck your metabolism, prevent you from shedding unwanted body fat and cause uncontrollable cravings. Curb these by eating the RIGHT carbs at the RIGHT time.
When Should I Eat Carbs?
So on days you workout, you can generally eat more carbs than you eat on your rest or active recovery days. Strategically eating carbs to match your energy output for the day ensures you’ll have adequate reserves and stable energy. Eating this way will keep your metabolism working efficiently to burn fat, provide you with energy and keep you in a peak state.
If your goal is to GET AND STAY LEAN, the best times to eat optimal carbs are:
Your body is looking for energy and glucose after fasting all night during sleep. It’s gone through its stored glycogen. When you eat carbs first thing in the morning, your body uses them right away to replenish what you used overnight. Those carbs do not get stored as fat.
My breakfast always includes carbs like overnight steel cut oatmeal, eggs with a sprouted grain or gluten-free toast, or a protein pancake topped with fruit. It’s always best to consume protein along with your carbs.
2: Before your workout
“Pre-workout” supplements are not necessary, though they’re fine if you’re into them. I focus on eating normally prior to working out and I make sure I included carbs in the meal I had prior to exercise. Plus, your body needs some energy to burn and use during the workout so that you perform awesomely and have a killer workout!
3: Post workout
No need to complicate this, just be sure you eat carbs along with protein at your post-exercise meal, for the same reason you want to eat them in the morning. You use your muscle’s stored glycogen when you train hard, so be sure to replenish it with carbs after your workout.
It’s optimal to get those nutrients in your system within the hour, which is why it can be convenient to have something like a green smoothie or a healthy protein bar (homemade or a high-quality store-bought one) if you’re on the go, or hours away from a full meal. Carbs help deliver glucose to the muscle cells, which speeds up the delivery of nutrients (like protein) to the broken down muscle tissue.
Don’t skip eating your post-workout carbs if you want to see the results of your workout sessions. If you skip, your body won’t recover as quickly, you’ll be sorer, and over time you may even lose muscle tissue. Remember, after a hard workout, your body is like a sponge, soaking up the energy those carbs provide!
Keep in mind, it’s the muscle tissue we carry that burns more calories at rest, keeps our metabolism working optimally, and gives our body both its tone and shape. The best way to get into optimal “burn fat mode” and have maximum energy is to provide your body with all the nutrients, vitamins, and fiber it needs by eating the right combination of whole food sources of both simple and complex carbohydrates.
NOT ALL CARBS ARE CREATED EQUAL: A Word on “Good” and “Bad” Carbs
While it’s true that carbs can provide you with a stored energy pool AND deliver consistent, lasting energy to your body, not all carbs are created equal, and it’s important to eat the right kinds.
There’s a lot of talk out there labeling carbs as either “good” or “bad,” but I prefer to keep that kind of moral judgment out of my relationship with food. As long as you’re eating intentionally, you can maintain space for any food you choose for special occasions or a weekend treat.
That said, there ARE certain kinds of carbs that will serve you and your healthy eating lifestyle better than others. I prefer to think of these distinct groups as “Optimal” and “Suboptimal” carbs.
So, how do you know the difference between Optimal and Suboptimal Carbs?
Simply put, how much has the carbohydrate food been processed? If it’s been altered from its natural, whole-food state in any way, it’s probably a sub-optimal choice (or perhaps just better left to an NSA day).
A lot of “health” food carbs that come in a box or bag – like breakfast cereal, instant oatmeal, white or whole wheat breads/tortillas, most condiments, and many snack foods – are all a processed version of a whole food, and the processing alters the nutritional density of that food.
In most cases, the fiber content is lower, the available micro and macronutrients are lower, the sugar content is high, and the potential to irritate your gut is even higher. All of this equates to the carbs’ increased ability to increase fat storage.
Remember – carbs are made up of fiber, starch, and sugar – and the processed carbs contain more sugar than anything else. Dumping excess sugar into our body beyond what we can use or store causes fat storage.
I think about this like “nickel and diming” your daily sugar intake away. The American Heart Association’s recommended daily sugar intake for women is 20 grams, for men 36 grams, and for children, 12 grams.
These numbers might vary depending on your energy output (how active you are) but as a point of reference, a store-bought granola bar has on average 21g of sugar, 20 of which are added. Fruit-flavored yogurt has an average of 15-20 grams of sugar, at least 10 of which are added.
If any of the pre-made foods you buy have any sugar added to them, you could be unintentionally eating sugar all day long – and by the time you get to that evening glass of wine or want a little dessert on purpose, you’re already way over the amount of sugar your body can use for energy.
This is why so many people simply cannot lose the extra body fat, no matter how much they exercise.
My remedy for this starts with AWARENESS. Read food labels, avoid foods with added sugar, buy whole foods, eat and enjoy treats ON PURPOSE, and include carbs at optimal times so you can keep your body running like the efficient machine it was designed to be.
Pro Tip! Avoid foods with labels that claim “low-fat” or “fat-free,” like peanut butter or yogurt. In both cases, the manufacturer strips out the healthy fat your body would actually be able to use and adds in sugar and/or salt to make the food taste better. As we know, it’sreally, really easy to overeat sugar, and as we’ve learned, it goes straight to fat storage when the amount exceeds your ability to store or use it. This means that in your efforts to avoid storing fat on your body by buying a fat-free product, you actually *increase* the likelihood of extra flab happening. #knowledgeispower
This brings us to optimal carbs, which come from whole food sources. Eating optimal carbs from whole food sources ensures you’ll have the fuel you need for your workouts, as well as steady energy and a healthy metabolism so you can burn off extra fat while supporting a healthy, fit physique.
What are Healthy Carbohydrate Options?
Soaking, sprouting, or fermenting grains is always the best preparation method – it breaks down the protective outer coating of the grain as well as the gluten protein, which allows your body to get their full nutritional benefit without potential irritants.
- Gluten-free grains: Amaranth, buckwheat, millet, montina (Indian rice grass), quinoa, rice (all varieties, but especially wild, long-grain, and brown), sorghum, teff, oats, corn (higher in sugar, but fine on occasion)
- Grains that contain gluten: Wheat, barley, rye, spelt, kamut, triticale (a hybrid grain produced by crossing wheat and rye primarily used as a fodder crop)
Legumes are actually a great source of both carbs and protein.
- Beans: adzuki beans, black beans, white beans, soybeans, anasazi beans, fava beans, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), kidney beans and lima beans, and more
- Lentils: yellow, orange, green, brown or black
- Peas: split peas and black-eyed peas
These fiber-rich, nutrient dense, leafy greens and colorful vegetables contain multiple health benefits, including vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and more. You can eat them in abundance on a daily basis.
- Kale, celeriac, spinach, endive, fennel, radicchio, chard, watercress, romaine, arugula, carrots, brussel sprouts, cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbage, peppers, onions, artichoke, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, collards, eggplant, garlic, leeks, radishes
Starchier vegetables will simply fill you up more quickly than the vegetables above, so you won’t need as much of them. They are also a nutrient-dense carbohydrate source and provide sustainable energy. As it pertains to blood glucose levels, cooking them changes their starch into sugars that are absorbed by your body faster, raising blood sugar levels faster than they would raw. If you’re eating a balanced diet, this won’t be a problem ― it’s just good to know.
- Sweet potatoes, beets, parsnips, pumpkin, squash, yams
All fruits contain fructose, a simple sugar that your body uses for energy. Fructose is slightly different from glucose and is processed in your liver. Eating too much fructose can cause fat storage, spike your insulin, and have similar effects to eating too much of any sugar.
- Low sugar fruits: Apples, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, grapefruit, prunes, plums, peaches, pears, oranges, grapes, apricots
- Medium sugar fruits: Bananas (higher in sugar when very ripe), kiwi, mango, figs, raisins, cantaloupe, papaya, pineapple
- High sugar fruits: Dates, watermelon