We’re continuing our deeper dive into nutrition this week and chatting all about carbs (carbohydrates)! We tackled protein last week and we may as well keep it goin’, right?
I gave a general overview of carbohydrates in the article What is “Counting Macros” Anyway but today we’re going into more detail and covering…
- The role carbohydrates play in your body
- Carb classification
- How many carbs your body needs
- Tips to get more high-volume carbs into your routine
Let’s do this thing.
*Quick note: I know it isn’t shiny or sexy but I’m all about a generally “balanced” intake of macronutrients based on personal preferences and goals. So, in the interest of keepin’ it simpler, I’m not going to dive into very low carb/ketogenic diets. For more info on ketogenic diets, you can explore one of my favorite resources HERE. Make sure to chat with a doctor before making any dramatic shifts to your diet!
What are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients that your body utilizes to not only survive but thrive as well.
They are the fuel to your fire. The digestive system breaks down the carbs you eat into glucose and uses it to energize cells, tissues, and organs.
Out of the three macros, carbs can be used most quickly for energy – in your workouts, walking (or chasing) your dog, cleaning, thinking, completing day-to-day tasks…you name it.
Outside of energy carbs play a role in…
- Providing fiber which keeps your digestive system happy and movin’
- Muscle maintenance and recovery (especially for high-intensity exercise!)
- Hormone secretion and balance
- Body composition
You’ve likely heard terms like “simple” or “complex” carbs. These classifications are based on their structure.
Simple carbs (ex: fruits, honey/maple syrup, quick oats, sweet potato, white rice) hit your bloodstream quickly so they’re GREAT right before and/or after a training session.
They provide your body with the quick fuel it needs to crush a workout, intense yoga flow or work through a heavy strength set. If you eat them right after you train, you replenish your glycogen stores as quickly as possible.
Glycogen is the storage form of carbohydrates in your muscles. This keeps you feeling strong, recovered and able to crush it a few days in a row.
Because they can cause more blood sugar spikes, simple carbs eaten alone typically don’t keep you feeling full for long and when eaten farther from training, they may cause more blood sugar spikes and falls and increase cravings.
Simple carbs are usually “low volume”. This means that there are more carbohydrates (and thus, calories) per gram and they may add up more quickly.
Complex carbs (salad veggies, cauliflower rice, broccoli, zucchini, wild rice) take more time for your body to break down and don’t spike your blood sugar as quickly.
These carb sources are typically “high-volume” which means there are fewer carbs (and therefore, calories) per gram. This means they’re really great go-to’s when hunger is high!
Utilizing these carbohydrate sources farther from your training session keeps blood sugar (and energy!) levels more stable.
Fiber Crash Course
There are two types of fiber and they are differentiated by their structure and the role they play in your body: soluble fiber and insoluble fiber.
Soluble fiber creates sticky, jello-like substances in your body, keeps you feeling full and ensures you’re getting the most out of your food.
Insoluble fiber does not combine with water and it helps bulk up stool volume, speeds up the digestion of your food and aids in a healthy digestive system.
Fiber “feeds” the good bacteria in your gut which play a HUGE role in mood, appetite, and body weight regulation. High fiber foods are also generally high in other vitamins and minerals that play a role in overall health.
Like most of nutrition, there is no “good”, “bad”, “better” “right” or “wrong”. It comes down to your goals and what works best for YOUR body.
That being said, most people can improve health and carb quality by focusing on more complex carbohydrates (packed with more fiber!).
Speaking of individuality…
How Many Carbs do You Need?
Carbohydrate requirements differ between individuals based on factors like:
- Goals (ex: muscle gain? weight loss? weight maintenance?)
- Training style, frequency, and intensity
- Carb tolerance (genetics)
Carb intake also depends on preference. As long as you’re gettin’ enough protein and your calorie intake is in line with your personal goals, the amount of carbs and fats you eat can differ based on the foods you prefer and your training style/goals.
In general, those with more lean muscle and who engage in regular high-intensity exercise have higher carbohydrate needs.
Those with less lean muscle and lower exercise intensity/frequency need fewer.
Where Can You Get Carbs?
- What I love to call “salad veggies” (cucumber, celery, onion, peppers, carrots)
- Cruciferous veggies (kale, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, bok choi)
- Other veggies (zucchini, mushrooms, asparagus, artichoke etc.)
- Whole grain (brown/wild rice, quinoa, whole oats)
- Berries (blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries)
- Legumes (beans, chickpeas)
- Refined grains (white rice, quick oats, cereal)
- Tropical fruits (pineapples, bananas, mangos)
- Root vegetables (parsnip, turnips, potato, beets)
- Sugary drinks and sweets
- Natural sweeteners (honey, maple syrup, sugar)
There are so many out there! Download this cheat sheet so you have it in a pinch.
There are some quick and easy ways to switch up some of your go-to “low-volume” veggies with higher-volume options. This will help keep you feeling fuller and let’s be real, no one likes being hungry!
- Mix shredded zucchini or cauliflower rice in with oatmeal.
- Add frozen peppers, onions, spinach and mushrooms into eggs in the morning (heat them up before adding the egg whites and scramble them all together)
- Roast carrot/zucchini strips as “fries”
- Utilize zucchini noodles or spaghetti squash instead of pasta
- If you want rice, opt for cauliflower rice instead or use 1/2 the amount of regular rice and add extra cauliflower rice to get a good mix
- Pre-cut carrots, celery, cucumber, sweet peppers and then grab some snap peas and cherry tomatoes to separate into grab-and-go “snack pack”. Having these pre-cut in your fridge will also make it easier to grab ’em when you’re hungry!
- Add kale, spinach or other veggies to a fruit and protein smoothie
- Add veggies to soups, skewers on the grill or mix em’ into burgers (mushroom & onion!)
- Utilize veggies from the “high-volume” veggie list above
Here are a few options to put this into practice:
Option 1: Ask yourself if there are any meals that you’re eating right now that are packed with mostly simple carbs. Then, use some tips from the high-volume hacks section to bump up the volume and get in more veggies.
Option 2: Make a cup with your hands (the same way you would if you were drinking water without a cup!). In at least 2 meals a day, try getting at LEAST a cupped handful portion of high-volume veggies on your plate.