If there is one idea that best describes the general dietary trends of the last decade or so, it’s the notion that carbohydrates can make you fatter than Jabba the Hutt and should be avoided if you want to build a hard, muscular body. Is that really true, though? Will eating carbs REALLY make you fat?
The funny thing is that carbs were seen as the cure-all for our health and fitness woes for a couple of decades before the current low-carb plans became the craze, so it’s not surprising that many lifters are confused on the subject.
Let’s take a look at the facts and find out what’s right for you.
How Carbs Can Be Good
Part of the issue with any discussion of carbohydrates is that the term spans a wide range of foods. From simple sugars to candy to fruits and vegetables to breads and cereals, “carbohydrates” can mean many different things depending on the context.
In general, carbs can be divided into simple and complex varieties, and you can make even further distinctions within those two groups. In basic terms, simple carbs are “sugars” that don’t need much digestion in order to reach your blood stream, while complex carbs are built from longer, more complex molecules that require a good deal of digestive work before they make their way into your bloodstream as sugar, or glucose.
For lifters, carbohydrates are important because they are the food sources most readily converted to glucose, which can then be stored in your muscles as glycogen. And glycogen, it turns out, is the preferred energy source for your muscles.
At a very base level, then, carbs are the fuel that make your muscles — and your brain — perform at the highest level.
How Carbs Can Be Bad
The problems with eating carbs come into play when you overdo them, either by eating too many carbs in total or by eating too many simple carbs.
Because simple carbs enter your blood stream quickly, they can cause a spike in blood sugar. Your body wants to maintain your blood sugar at a certain level, so it usually releases a flood of insulin to counteract that spike. Insulin helps to shuttle nutrients, including sugar, into your cells.
Unfortunately, that also includes fat cells, so any excess nutrients that can’t be used by your muscles, brain, or other “active” tissues will be partitioned toward your adipose tissue, and you’ll store fat. Repeat this cycle on a continual basis over a period of years, and your muscles (and other body tissues) can become insulin resistant, which leaves your blood sugar chronically high and puts you at serious risk for diabetes.
Even though this scenario applies to simple carbohydrates, it can also true for excess complex carbs. Though it may take a little longer, complex carbs eventually break down to simple sugars, too, and too much of even good carbs — oatmeal, potatoes, fruit — can cause problems.
What You Should Do?
So does this mean that the low-carb gurus are right, and that you should avoid carbohydrates?
In fact, for most hard-training lifters, carbohydrates are an invaluable source of energy and can be a tremendous recovery aid. In the absence of carbohydrates, it’s true that your body will burn fat for energy, but it will also burn protein, and that can mean a loss of muscle. Carbohydrates, then, impart a protein-sparing effect and can help you get bigger, faster.
For most healthy trainees, carbs will be a suitable and desirable energy source. If you have known carb sensitivities or a family history of diabetes, then you might need to opt for a low-carb approach. In any case, you should limit your intake of simple carbs to occasional treats and the window around your workout when you’re trying to force more amino acids and glycogen into your muscles.
Before you make any decisions about your diet, and carbs in particular, it’s vital that you see your doctor for a complete physical. Discuss your eating plan with him and then work together to make an intelligent, tailored decision.
In the end, and for most people, carbohydrates are not evil and can be very helpful in reaching your fitness goals.