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Carbohydrates: Friend or Foe?

How to make carbohydrates your friend

Carbohydrates have always been a hot topic because there are so many misconceptions surrounding this macronutrient. As with most controversial topics you typically only hear one side. Before I dive into my standpoint, I want to pose both sides of the carb debate and discuss the how to individualize this information to your unique lifestyle.

The Case for Carbs

Carbs enhance hormonal output, boost muscle growth, reduce stress, improve sleep, and are a very efficient source of energy. They are also very helpful in improving performance in the gym or in a sport while maintaining key hormones associated with fat loss.

The Case Against Carbs

Depending on the individual, excessive carb intake can cause bloating, gut stress, inflammation, possible insulin resistance, negative hormonal effects, and alter nutrient absorption.

Studies have shown both sides to be true so you can see where confusion comes into play. Before we dissect, it is important to remember that many nutrition studies are biased in order to create a powerful position. Keep that in mind when you see studies or other people claim absolute truths.

The reality of the situation is... "it depends". Human beings are extremely complex multi-dimensional organisms. It is almost impossible to claim absolutes when it comes to individualized factors. For the most part, protein and fat intake can be agreed upon. We have pretty accurate generalizations that work for most people. Protein, generally floating around .7-1.0 gram per pound of body weight. Fat, generally floating around 25-35% of daily caloric intake. Carbohydrates therefore should be tailored towards each individuals genetics, DNA, exercise history, gut health, body type, metabolism, body fat levels, age, allergies, intolerances, and medical conditions. The amount of carbs that are beneficial for you ultimately depends on these factors.

However, stay away from anything that preaches complete elimination of any macronutrients. A macronutrient by definition is a type of food that is beneficially in moderate to large amounts. Macronutrients all have benefits and to demonize any one macronutrient (protein, fats, and/or carbs) creates a host of negative effects (both psychologically and physiologically). There is no definitive research that supports that carbohydrates are inherently bad for you. Any research you have seen or heard about is usually presented in a biased study with other outlying factors. It is the bigger picture of caloric quantity as well as quality that creates fat gain and negative health effects. Furthermore, carbohydrates can allow you to lose weight in a sustainable manner while building healthy relationships with food along the way.

My advice is to create your calorie target range (depending on your goal), set your protein target at >.7 grams per lb of bodyweight, and dial in your fats around 25% of total caloric intake (this will allow carbohydrates to filter in everything else). From there pay attention to your biofeedback. How do you feel? How is your stress? How is your energy? How is your performance? How is your sleep? How is your mood? If your biofeedback is off then increase your fats 3-5% as this will decrease carbohydrate intake as a byproduct. Continue this process until your find a level of fat/carb intake that reacts well with your body. Different things work for different people. Some people will do better with higher carbohydrate intake and some will do better with lower carbohydrate intake. Some people (like myself) also enjoy being able to adjust carb intake depending on the day. On days that I'm a little more stagnant I typically enjoy more fats. On days that I'm more active or have social outings planned, I typically enjoy more carbohydrates. As long as calories and protein are accounted for, you have the main movers for fat loss/muscle gain working in your favor. You also have the freedom to adjust fat and carbohydrate intake based on your lifestyle, preferences, and individual factors. Just make sure you aren't completely eliminating them from your diet.

The next question becomes which sources of carbohydrates are beneficial for me? There are multiple studies that have shown carbohydrate sources and the effects on blood sugar are individualized as well. However, for the most part, fitness professionals will agree to these recommendations: 80% of your carbohydrate sources should come from unprocessed, natural, whole sources. These sources have the most micro-nutrients and provide ideal blood sugar levels. Blood sugar is a big deal in regards to the carbohydrate topic because chronically elevated blood sugar can be correlated to diabetes (insulin resistance), cardiovascular diseases, inflammation, and biological stress. This is the pathway to a host of diseases. So the logic is to choose carb sources that control blood sugar and thus the Glycemic Index was born. The Glycemic Index (GI) is a chart that shows the relationship between certain carb sources and blood sugar levels. The higher on the GI means the higher blood sugar levels are raised when said source is ingested. The general advice was to eat low on the GI which allows for unprocessed, natural carb sources at least 80% of the time. However, a new metric has come into play over the last decade called the Glycemic Load (GL). This is the relationship between your entire meal and your blood sugar levels. When you pair a carbohydrate with a protein and/or fat source it actually helps decrease or control the blood sugar level effect due to the chemistry combination. So what does this mean moving forward? Here are some simple practical application points you can put into your lifestyle

  1. Eat Protein with every meal

    1. This will help alter the Glycemic Load of your meal and put your blood sugar in favorable levels for wellness benefits.

  2. Exercise Regularly

    1. Consistent exercise has been shown to increase carbohydrate sensitivity. Essentially, this is an adaptation where your body becomes more efficient at utilizing carbohydrate sources (aka you can handle and enjoy more carbohydrates.. who doesn't want that).

  3. Eat 80% unprocessed, nutrient dense, whole carbohydrates sources

    1. This allows for maximal physiological benefits such as gut health and energy efficiency. This also allows you to enjoy 20% from the carbohydrate sources that you really enjoy while still reaching your goals.

  4. Create consistency with protein, and calories

    1. create consistent data points with your protein and calorie targets which will allow you to adjust fats and carbohydrate intake based on biofeedback and/or lifestyle preferences.

  5. DO NOT fear carbohydrates

    1. Carbohydrates have benefits for your body. They can help you reach your goals while still enjoying life along the way.

Remember there is no universal approach to wellness. We follow universal principles but how those principles apply to your individual lifestyle are endless. Find a simple, sustainable, and enjoyable system that works for you and remember your best is yet to come!

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