The topic of carbohydrates is quite controversial these days. No matter what I write below, there are sure to be some of you who will want to bite my head off for it.
The fact is, carbs have built such a mixed reputation over the years because there is a lot of contradicting information out there. Even studies don’t always come to the same conclusion, which only serves to stoke the fire of debate.
Plus, add to the fact that ketogenic (low-carb) dieting has gained so much attention these days, and things have gotten more chaotic than ever.
Now, I’m all for having firm beliefs. But I also believe that we should look at things from all angles before concluding on something.
To that end, I’ve put together this article that looks at carbs from many essential angles so we can all make better and more informed choices when it comes to healthy nutrition for bodybuilding.
Bodybuilding requires energy and the truth is that carbs are the most readily available source of energy for our muscles. The right amount of carbs will give us the energy we need to grow and retain muscle.
The term ‘carbohydrates’ encompasses three types of saccharides, which collectively serve as the primary source of energy for the body.
Depending on the structure of the carb, it can be either simple or complex. Monosaccharides and disaccharides are both simple carbs as they either have one or two sugar molecules (linked together). Because of their structure, monosaccharides are not broken down further, and the body absorbs them rather quickly.
- Fructose. Most notably referred to as fruit sugar, fructose is primarily found in various fruits, root vegetables, and honey.
- Glucose. Most of the carbs we consume are broken down into glucose for use, which itself is the primary source of fuel for the brain. Glucose also provides energy for our cells, organs, and muscles (1).
- Galactose. This is a simple sugar, most commonly found in dairy products.
Disaccharides are mostly similar to monosaccharides with regards to digestion, but the body takes slightly longer because it needs to break them up before absorbing them.
Three common disaccharides:
- Lactose. Being a disaccharide, lactose is composed of a unit of galactose and glucose and is most commonly found in milk.
- Maltose. This disaccharide is formed when two units of glucose bind together. Whole grains and cereals are good sources of maltose.
- Sucrose. This disaccharide is composed when two monosaccharides bind together: glucose and fructose. Sucrose is commonly found in sugarcane and sugar beet.
Now, polysaccharides are the complex carbs you’ve undoubtedly heard of. As such, they have more than two monosaccharides linked together and take the body longer to break down for absorption.
Here are the three common polysaccharides:
- Glycogen. This complex form of carb is what we store within our muscles and liver as an energy reserve. When you perform physically-demanding tasks (like lifting weights), the affected muscles use their glycogen stores to keep functioning (2). This polysaccharide is also used as a regulator for blood sugar levels, thanks to a hormone called glucagon (3).
- Fiber. This complex type of carb is most commonly found in fruits and veggies, as well as grains, wheat, and nuts. Fiber is most commonly associated with healthy digestion, reduced risk of colon cancer, a healthy cardiovascular system, and a reduced risk of developing diabetes (4, 5, 6).
- Starch. This is what most folks think of when they hear ‘complex carbs.’ Starches are composed of long chains of sugars and are characterized by the fact that they digest more slowly and release energy at a steady pace. Good sources include potatoes, rice, pasta, beans, and grains.
Now, as you can imagine, depending on the type of carb you consume (and the kind of food it comes from), you can expect different effects on your body. Some of them include:
- How quickly it gets broken down and how much it raises your insulin levels following a meal.
- How it makes you feel afterward. Fast-digesting carbs (mainly junk food) tend to spike your energy for a bit and inevitably lead to a crash.
- What other effects they have on enzymes and hormones.
- What long-term health implications they might have.
Now, seeing as ketogenic dieting has gained so much attention in recent years, you might be wondering, “Wouldn’t it be better to skip carbs? This low-carb thing seems to work great!”
Check out this video from Layne Norton on carbs:
Why We Need Carbs
As I stated in the previous point, saccharides collectively serve as the primary source of energy for the body (7). This is true, but it’s also a grossly simplified way of looking at carbohydrates.
The fact is, carbs work on so many fronts in the body, including a role within complex processes like disease progression and metabolism (8). Simply cutting them out of your diet without having a solid reason to do so can do more harm than good.
As you consume a carb (be it a nice bowl of oatmeal or a candy bar), your body breaks it down to simple sugars which then travel to the liver to ‘top it off.’ The remaining sugars then enter the bloodstream, and the pancreas releases insulin to distribute them throughout the body.
So, not only do carbs serve to keep our energy reserves full, but they also offer immediate energy for the body’s cells. In the context of bodybuilding, there are two primary situations worth exploring here:
Carbs are essential for muscle growth for two reasons:
First, carbs provide us with energy to push through, do longer and more strenuous workouts, and recovery adequately after training.
Second, carbs replenish glycogen stores, which itself has been shown to play an important role in anabolic signaling and muscle protein synthesis (9).
With the rapid climb in popularity of low-carb dieting for fat loss, one would be crazy to say that eating carbs may be more beneficial if your goal is to get lean.
And yet, I’m stating precisely that.
You see, fat loss requires a caloric deficit, and being in that state is inherently stressful. Take away carbs, and you can become even more tired and stressed out. And seeing as proper training is essential for fat loss and muscle maintenance, you need to provide your body with enough energy to sustain itself. Without carbs, you wouldn’t be able to train as hard or as long, and you would compromise your body’s ability to hold on to muscle and strength.
Finally, while many gurus out there like to claim that low-carb dieting leads to superior fat loss, no research has been able to back it up (10). So long as you train hard, eat enough protein, maintain a small to moderate deficit, and sleep enough, you should expect the same amount of fat loss.
What Is Muscle Glycogen And Why Is It Important?
We briefly went over glycogen in one of the above points, so I’d like to expand a bit more on it here and its importance for fitness success. But first, a brief primer:
Despite what many low-carb advocates claim, carbs are essential if you want to maximize your athletic performance (11). Much has been written on the topic of ketones, gluconeogenesis and high-fat dieting for athleticism, but most (if not all) of the claims lack any scientific backing, especially as it relates to athleticism.
The last several decades of scientific findings clearly suggest that a proper, high-carb diet is essential for fitness performance (11). And it’s not just that. Hundreds if not thousands of top-level athletes eat a metric ton of carbs every day to sustain themselves, recover between workouts, and improve over the months and years.
In his peak, Michael Phelps reportedly ate 7 – 8000 calories per day. Do you imagine he only ate low-carb veggies, fats, and lots of protein? Nope, his diet included tons of carbs because he wouldn’t otherwise be able to train for hours each day and, oh yeah, win 28 medals at the Olympics.
Now, a big reason why we need carbs for bodybuilding and general fitness has to do with glycogen, which is the primary source of energy for your body during exercise (12). For low-intensity activities like walking, the body can primarily use fats for ATP production (though there is always some mobilization of carbs). But, as exercise intensity increases, fat mobilization is no longer enough to produce enough energy, and the body turns to our glycogen stores.
Now you see why carb intake is of such importance. Fats cannot reliably provide us with enough energy to perform, especially when it comes to very demanding workouts. Furthermore, as glycogen in your active muscles becomes depleted, you experience fatigue. Your performance drops, and you are unable to keep performing at the same level as before (12).
And if that isn’t enough, your body preferentially uses all of the carbs you consume after training to replenish glycogen (12). But why would that be? Because your body knows that it needs glycogen to recover and perform physical tasks in the future.
Couple that with the fact that a low-glycogen state is unfavorable for growth and repair, and you’ve got a pretty clear message that carbs are essential (13).
But Is Plain Sugar Bad for Bodybuilding?
We touched on pure sugar at the start of the article and the fact that the human body absorbs it rather quickly because it doesn’t need to be broken down beforehand. But is this beneficial for our bodybuilding efforts or not? After all, it is a carb.
Well, we know that carb intake after a workout is beneficial (and quite necessary) primarily because it kickstarts the process of glycogen replenishment. This not only helps us recover the energy reserves we’ve lost during training, but it also appears to impact anabolic signaling and muscle growth (9).
But here’s the thing:
Sucrose, most commonly known as table sugar, is a disaccharide and is made of equal parts fructose and glucose. Meaning, if you ingested 20 grams of plain sugar, you would be getting 10 grams of fructose. The problem is, fructose doesn’t appear to be a good source for glycogen replenishment (14, 15).
The common idea of eating simple sugars after a workout to spike your insulin may prove to be a double-edged sword. In other words, having something like a candy bar after your workout and calling it a day isn’t the best option.
But what should we do instead then?
Why Complex Carbs Are a Better Choice
The statement, “A carb is a carb.” holds some truth, but, as you saw above, carbs can vary significantly in structure and impact on your body. In general, you should aim to get between 70 and 90 percent of your carbs from whole (complex) sources and leave the remaining 10 to 30 percent for fast-digesting sources, especially when it comes to processed foods.
Here are three solid reasons why complex carbs are a better choice in most situations, particularly after working out.
The steady release of energy without the dreaded sugar crashes.
Because complex carbs take longer for the body to break down to usable energy, you see a more gradual rise in insulin levels (as opposed to the typical spike with sugary foods) (16). The steady release of sugars in your bloodstream, coupled with the more conservative rises in insulin results in more stable energy levels.
Rather than feel a sudden rush of energy and then crash an hour later, you feel energized for hours after your meal.
This not only means that you can expect better gym performance, but your daily productivity and cognitive function also benefit greatly.
Possibly improved glycogen replenishment after training.
As we discussed above, fructose doesn’t appear to replenish glycogen after training as well as glucose does (14, 15). This means that complex carb sources like rice, potatoes, and pasta are a much better option after training than fruit, fructose-jammed syrups, and sweets.
May prove to be better for your health in the long-run.
For decades, research has been painting an exciting picture with regards to the type of carbs we eat:
When you eat, say, a candy bar, you can expect a sudden spike in insulin and a higher total release of the hormone. But if you swapped that with a bowl of oatmeal, you would see a much more gradual release of insulin (due to the slower breakdown of the carbs) and possibly a smaller overall release of the hormone (though that heavily depends on how big the meal/snack is).
Eating lots of fast-digesting carbs over the years can cause more stress to your pancreas, which often leads to the development of metabolic problems like type 2 diabetes.
In this video, John Meadows shares his top carb choices:
Examples of Complex Carbs For Your Shopping List
There’s a saying that goes a lot like, “If the label of your food looks more like a chemistry lesson, you’re better off without it.”
With that, here is a short list of healthy complex carbs for your grocery list:
Oats are an incredible food, not just for bodybuilders, but for everyone who wants to add a complex and nutritious carb source into their diets.
Oats are filled with complex carbs (including a hefty dose of fiber), have a decent amount of protein in each serving, and provide us with manganese, magnesium, copper, iron, zinc, B-vitamins, and more (19).
Just about all types of potatoes are quite healthy for us. They not only provide us with starchy carbs, but also offer numerous other nutrients, including vitamins C and B6, as well as minerals like manganese, potassium, phosphorus, and magnesium (20).
Both white and brown rice offer unique benefits to us, and including them in your diet is a great idea. For starters, they provide us with complex carbohydrates and fiber, as well as a bit of high-quality protein. Rice is also rich in vitamins and minerals, including calcium, iron, potassium, and some B vitamins (21).
Whole wheat bread and pasta
Whole wheat foods are quite healthy because the various components in each wheat kernel are left intact and no nutrients are stripped. So, these foods not only digest more slowly (they have a lower glycemic index) but also offer plenty of good nutrients (22, 23).
Beans and lentils
You really can’t go wrong with this food group. Beans and lentils cover a whole host of foods, all of which offer high-quality protein, starchy carbs, fiber, and lots of micronutrients (24).
If you prefer to buy them canned, make sure to watch out for the sodium content.
Quinoa truly is a superfood because it offers a good deal of complete proteins (having all nine essential amino acids) per serving (about 8 grams), starchy carbs, fiber, and micronutrients like potassium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, vitamin E, and B vitamins (25).
Fruit (apples, bananas, peaches, kiwi, plums, pears, etc.)
Despite not being the best post-workout food (due to their high fructose content), fruits are among the healthiest foods out there. They are jam-packed with nutrients, offer plenty of fiber, and don’t add many calories to your daily intake.
Are Vegetables Rich In Carbs?
When most people think about vegetables, they rarely think or worry about carbohydrates. Yes, prevailing wisdom suggests that veggies aren’t particularly rich in carbs. And, for the most part, that is the case.
Take, for example, cucumbers – one of the most widely-spread vegetables around the world. One serving of 100 grams has only 15 calories and roughly 3 grams of carbohydrates (26). Another good example is tomatoes. A 100-gram serving has 16 calories and about 2.5 grams of carbs (27).
There are countless other examples of extremely low carb veggies out there – bell peppers, asparagus, zucchini, broccoli, spinach, lettuce, and more.
But what does that mean? Should we disregard vegetables? Let me put it this way:
If you’re a human being who is interested in optimizing and maintaining good health, you absolutely should consume vegetables. Daily.
Veggies are excellent sources of many vital nutrients, including dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Plus, there are also some moderate to high-carb vegetables you should pay attention to:
- One cup of chopped carrots has 12 grams of carbs (28).
- A cup of chopped white or sweet potato has 27 grams of carbs (29).
- A cup of corn has nearly 30 grams of carbs (30).
- Most bean varieties clock in a staggering 100 grams of carbs per cup (24).
Is Fruit Bad for Bodybuilding?
In general, we used to be under the impression that fruits are healthy for us. But recently, we’ve seen a steady rise in popularity of the idea that fruit (or simply fructose) is bad for fitness and bodybuilding.
There are plenty of arguments on the topic, ranging from minor things to outrageous claims such as:
“Fruit spikes your insulin and can lead to, like, metabolic disease… bro.”
So you’re telling me that, fruit, yes fruit is the cause of widespread metabolic problems and obesity? Not sugary sodas? Not the many highly-processed junk foods? Not the chronic intake of thousands of calories worth of fast-digesting and highly-processed trans fats and sugar?
Beware the apple! It causes type 2 diabetes!
Granted, some research does suggest that incredibly large amounts of fructose can be harmful for us (31). But we’re talking about doses so ridiculous that you would have to eat absurd amounts of fruit every day.
With that said, the only actual downside of fruit for bodybuilding is that it doesn’t make for the best post-workout snack. As we covered above, fructose isn’t the best saccharide you can ingest to replenish your glycogen stores (14, 15).
But, that doesn’t at all mean that fruit is bad for bodybuilding. Let’s not forget that fruit delivers plenty of nutrients. Plus, thanks to the quick uptake of fructose into the bloodstream, fruit makes for an excellent pre-workout snack.
So, no. Fruit isn’t bad for bodybuilding or fitness in general. It doesn’t ruin your progress, it doesn’t cause health problems, and it certainly doesn’t make us fat. If anything, fruit is an integral part of any healthy diet, and you should try to consume at least two to four servings per day.
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