Don't Belittle the Carbohydrate

The carbohydrate is an organic compound made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. There are three different types — starches, sugars, and fibers. These are classified into three groups — monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polysaccharides. Carbs (as I will call them here) contain four calories per gram.

They are the energy source that your brain and nervous system use. To contract your muscles you need a steady supply in the basic form of glucose. In addition, carbs help spare muscle protein from being used as energy, and some carbohydrate is needed to metabolize fat efficiently.

Carbohydrate rich foods supply us with beneficial fiber that neither protein nor fat provides. The minimum carbs needed daily to prevent deficiency is the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of 130 grams with an intake of 20 to 35 grams of fiber.

With the exception of lactose found in milk, nearly all carbs come from plant sources. Through a process in plants that absorbs energy from the sun, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen are converted to carbohydrates. Plants use it for energy and store it within themselves. When we eat plants we are eating carbohydrates.

The good and the bad

Carbs are classified by their chemical structure. Monosaccharides are single unit types. Disaccharides are two monosaccharides linked together. And polysaccharides are carbs with multiple single unit sugar molecules linked together to form one long-chain carbohydrate. In general, carbs are referred to as either simple (meaning one or two unit molecules) or complex (long-chain polymers).

With a few exceptions, simple carbs are usually sugars or sweeteners and complex carbs are starches or fibers. Good, healthful diets require that most carbs come from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean dairy products.

Limiting sugars and sweeteners (bad carbs) is recommended by several health organizations in an effort to curb obesity. The World Health Organization, for example, recommends no more than 10 percent of total calories from added sugars.

It is important to note that added sugars are not the same as sugars found naturally in foods.

Fuel for muscle building

Carbs provide the primary fuel for intense exercise, and you cannot go on a very low-carb diet without it compromising your exercise abilities. There is a theory that if you do go on a very low-carb diet, eventually your body adapts to it by oxidizing or burning fat more efficiently. But keep in mind that intramuscular carbs (glycogen) are the main fuel source during intense workouts, including weight training and intense cardio.

Strength athletes don’t require the same amount of carbs that endurance athletes need. But strength athletes who are too carb restrictive are working against building lean body mass. Both strength and endurance athletes should eat nutrient-dense carbs, such as whole grain bread, oats, and brown rice, and limit high-glycemic, nutrient-sparse carbs.

The Glycemic Index

The Glycemic Index, or GI as it is called, is a measure of how much a particular food raises your blood sugar as compared to white bread, which has a GI of 100. Dextrose scores a high 138! Brown rice is 81. And fructose (fruit sugar) is a low 31.

Somewhat surprisingly, not all simple sugars have a higher GI than complex carbs. But, in general, low-glycemic foods tend to be better carbohydrate choices, for the following reasons . . .

•Eating low-glycemic carbs about an hour to an hour-and-a-half before a workout may help your exercise performance.

•High-glycemic foods spike your blood glucose and insulin. When it drops sharply, you will get hungrier sooner. You will be more apt to overeat.

High-glycemic foods may increase the risk of coronary artery disease.

Carbohydrate loading

Carb loading (eating greater than usual amounts of carb foods, leading up to athletic events) became popular several years ago and advocates of loading remain today.

Unless you are an ultra-endurance athlete, carb loading has no place in your fitness program.

The Carb/Protein/Fat Dietary Ratio

What is the best ratio for muscle building? What is best for dieting and losing fat? Here is where controversy thrives. In my opinion, there is no one, single perfect ratio to fit all people in all situations. I will say that, in general, most weight training people like about 40 percent of their calories to come from carbs. Naturally, there are some who disagree with that percentage.

Of interest, a recent Kaiser Permanente study showed that overweight people who kept food diaries lost up to twice as many pounds as those who didn’t log every meal. “Keeping food diaries created an awareness of what you're eating,” according to the author of the study. "Keeping a food diary is like going to confession — it holds you accountable," remarked someone else at the study.

(Personally, I do not count calories and have never kept a food diary. I use a visual hand measurement method for portion control and to maintain a food ratio that works for me. -LF)

"The Bottom Line," as they say: For your well being, eat natural, unprocessed carbohydrates. Eliminate sugar, sugar foods, sugary drinks, and highly-processed foods. There is little controversy here.

Return from Carbohyrate to the Nutrition page.

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