Time to discuss the third and final macronutrient – carbohydrates!
Carbs are the only macronutrient that is not essential for life. However, this does not mean they are not an important part of a healthy diet.
There are many different forms of carbs but, let’s look at the top 3 that make up most foods.
There are starchy carbs like potatoes and grains. These contain glucose which is stored as muscle glycogen and used as fuel. The brain needs a small amount of glucose (about 30 grams a day) but this can be converted from protein via gluconeogenesis. The body can store between 300 and 500 grams of glycogen in the muscles.
There are sugary carbs such as fruit and honey. These contain fructose which is stored as liver glycogen but can also be hepatotoxic in high amounts. This isn’t a problem when consuming a few pieces of fruit but, soda, loaded with high fructose corn syrup can overwhelm the liver. The sugar floods the blood stream, causes a sugar spike and crash, accompanied with fatigue and hunger, and is ultimately stored as body fat. For this reason, I avoid processed foods containing sugar and enjoy fruit as a desert or pre-workout snack.
Finally, there are fibrous carbs such as vegetables. These have much more fiber which regulates healthy digestive function and stabilizes blood sugar. Vegetables are one of the most nutrient dense food groups next to maybe mussels or offal. When I eliminated grains, I simply replaced them with extra veggies…adding more fiber, vitamins, minerals, and color to every meal!
Most plants contain a combination of these. For example, an orange is about 70% sugar, 10% starch, and 20% fiber. A white potato is about 5% sugar, 80% starch, and 15% fiber. A cup of spinach is about 10% sugar, 10% starch, and 80% fiber.
To determine carb intake level, let’s examine goals and activity levels.
When the heart rate rises above 65% of its max (a brisk walking pace) the body starts burning more carbs than fat…at 65% it burns a 50/50 mix. An hour of walking burns approximately 250 calories and carbs have 4 calories per gram, so, about 30g of carbs are burnt in that one hour.
You don’t have to do all these calculations but it’s clear that, unless you are an athlete, you won’t be emptying your glycogen stores regularly.
The government recommends 65% of your calories come from carbs. This means, if you eat 2000 calories a day, you should consume 325 grams of carbs – more than most people could possibly utilize in one day!
If you are an athlete or attempting to gain weight, maybe 40-50% of calories from carbs may be beneficial. When I am attempting to gain muscle, I have about a pound of potatoes in every meal (totaling 300-400g carbs a day) to stimulate an insulin release. Insulin is a good topic for another post but, simply put, it helps shuttle nutrients to different parts of the body. If you are eating clean and training hard, the nutrients will be sent to the muscles. However, if you’re eating processed foods and not creating an adequate stimulus to recover from, the insulin forces excess calories into fat stores.
If fat loss is the goal, less carbs will make this easier due to the satiating nature and blood sugar stabilizing effect of protein and healthy fats. Perhaps have a sweet potato or piece of fruit post workout but focus mostly on meat and vegetables.
If the prevention or reversal of blood pressure or blood sugar issues is a concern, low carb eating would be advisable. Also, the blood sugar spike from too many carbs causes an increase in triglyceride levels in the blood, contributing to unfavorable cholesterol levels.
There are certain conditions or diseases that are treated by lowering carb intake. Epileptics are often put on ketogenic diets, consuming less than 50 grams of carbs a day, to prevent seizures. Forms of cancer require glucose so patients may be advised to restrict carbs to literally starve their cancer.
At this point, I would like to reiterate, I am not a doctor. I am merely suggesting you do a little research to understand the science behind your condition and bring this information to your doctor so both of you can make an informed decision together.
It is my opinion that most Americans consume more carbs than they need and this, in part, causes many modern health issues. However, I want this blog to be objective and useful for everyone; regardless of what I believe is best. So, like everything else – experiment.
For a couple months every year, I consume zero carbs (besides vegetables) to prime my fat metabolism and lean out. Other times of the year, when local starches, fruits, and grass-fed dairy are available, I consume more carbs.
I feel that a moderate level of carbs (around 150 grams a day) is optimal for exercise recovery and weight maintenance; low carb is ideal for leanness, stable energy, and mood; and high carb is best for muscle gain or frequent high-intensity training. But, let me know what works best for you!
Well, that should do it for the 3 macronutrient groups. I tried to keep the info as simple as possible while still offering real-world application. As always, feel free to contact me directly for more specifics to satisfy your curiosity or to achieve your goals!
Going forward, I will continue to shoot for 1 post a week but will vary my topics more. If an interesting study is discussed in the news, I may dissect it. If one of my clients has remarkable success with a specific training protocol, I’ll talk about that. If I come up with a new recipe that is particularly tasty, I’ll share it with you…
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