Nutrition 101: Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the body’s primary and most easily available source of energy. All carbs are sugars; molecules containing carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen synthesized by plants through the process of photosynthesis or by animals through the process of glycogen synthesis. Some nice science words in that last sentence right? When I say carbs are sugars I don’t mean table sugar that you would put in coffee or on cereal. Carbs may be the most important part of your diet when you want to burn off excess fat. Some people believe that cutting carbs completely out of your diet will give you the results you want. While in some cases this will work, chances are if you don’t know when carbs are most useful and why they are useful, once you start to eat them again you’ll gain the fat right back.

There are three basic categories of carbohydrates…

  1. Monosaccharides– includes glucose (blood sugar), fructose (fruit sugar), galactose (a kind of milk sugar)
  2. Oligosaccharides– includes sucrose (table sugar), lactose (milk sugar), maltose (malt sugar)
  3. Polysaccharides– includes plant polysaccharides (starch and cellulose), animal polysaccharides (glycogen)

IMPORTANT- How quickly carbs are metabolized is measured by what is called a glycemic index (GI). A high GI means the carbohydrates are metabolized quickly; a low GI means they are metabolized more slowly or differently. In more simple terms, let’s use the terms simple and complex carbs. Simple carbs are those categorized with a high glycemic index (fruits, processed sugar), and complex carbs are characterized by a low glycemic index (starches, cellulose). Carbs with a low GI provide their energy over a period of time, and therefore have a kind of time-release effect. Therefore, if you are a couch potato and eat a ton of carbs with low GI chances are you won’t be burning fat because you aren’t using up enough energy from those slow release carbs which causes them to store as fat. To get more information on a foods GI, you have to look them up individually. Rice you find in chinese restaurants have a high GI while brown rice or wild rice has a low GI.

If you workout and are looking to gain muscle while burning fat it is important for you to have a high intake of carbs on training days because you want your body to use the carbs for energy and not protein. When carbs are ingested they turn into glucose, which circulates in the bloodstream and fuels muscular contraction, and glycogen, which is stored in the muscles and the live for future use. Muscle size is increased when the body stores glycogen and water in individual muscle cells. The carbohydrate glucose is the main source of energy that fuels the functions of the brain, and deprivation of this glucose can have severe effects on mood, mental, and physical abilities.

The key to taking in carbs to BURN FAT is to know when to have them. For breakfast you typically want to include a decent amount of carbs, especially if you plan on working out soon after. You’ll need the carbs to provide energy during your workout and your body will burn them off during the workout plus excess calories. Typically, your diet revolves around your workout. If you don’t want to lift weights then make sure you run or do some other type of activities to get your blood pumping and your metabolism going. You want to take in the majority of your carbs anywhere from 1-6 hours AFTER your workout. This is the time when your metabolism is at its’ peak and it will burn off the carbs as ENERGY and NOT STORE them as FAT. You’ll want to have a small meal about 30 minutes after your workout. This meal would include a protein shake, and either a cup of Gatorade or a banana because both contain a large amount of carbs with a high GI which means they burn quickly. When I say cup of Gatorade I mean 1 cup, not 1 giant bottle. Your next meal comes 1-2 hours after workout. This meal should include the low GI carbs such as a sweet potato or brown rice. Your third meal after your workout will be 3-4 hours after (usually dinner), and this meal will also include low GI carbs such as a sweet potato or brown rice. Typically by this point there should be only 1 meal left for anywhere from 4-6 hours after workout, and that should be another protein shake with fruit (high GI again).

Healthy foods containing carbs that you should incorporate into your diet are…

  1. Vegetables (all kinds)
  2. Fruits (all kinds)
  3. Oats and oatmeal (high GI, good before workout)
  4. Brown rice
  5. Sweet potato
  6. Whole grain bread (low GI)
  7. Whole grain pasta (low GI)
  8. Yams
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