Carbohydrates for Your Fitness
Carbohydrates are used by the body for energy and for high-intensity exercises; they are our body’s premium fuel; although our body also uses fats for fuel, they do not burn as efficiently.
The body’s most efficient energy source is carbohydrates, which is why a diet that calls for restricted carbohydrate intake ultimately lowers an individual’s energy and performance levels.
The body stores carbohydrates as the main energy source and fat as a backup energy reserve. For low intensity, long duration exercises, an individual’s energy is derived from fat while for high intensity exercises, glycogen (carbohydrate) is used as the main fuel.
Since carbohydrates are the more efficient fuel source compared to fat, they are the limiting factor in athletic performance. Strenuous physical activity quickly uses up muscle glycogen for fuel and if you fail to replace it by eating high carbohydrate foods daily, the body’s glycogen stores quickly diminishes.
In doing weight training and high intensity exercises, glycogen is the primary energy source of the body. This explains why your energy levels are low when you don’t eat enough carbohydrates.
Types of Carbohydrates
Eating the right type of carbohydrate is very important for our health. There are two basic types of carbohydrates – simple and complex carbohydrates which are further broken down into starchy and fibrous carbohydrates, refined and natural carbohydrates, high glycemic and low glycemic carbohydrates.
Just like proteins and fats, there are also types of carbohydrates that can either be beneficial or disadvantageous to health. Knowing the differences between the two and making the right choice and eating them in the right amounts at the right times is very important to achieving a healthy lifestyle.
Simple carbohydrates are composed of monosaccharides and disaccharides; monosaccharides include fructose (fruit sugar), glucose (blood sugar) and galactose. On the other hand, disaccharides are formed by the combination of two monosaccharide molecules such as the combination of fructose and glucose (table sugar) and lactose galactose and glucose (lactose).
Due to their simple molecular structure, simple carbohydrates are very quickly digested and cause a rapid rise in blood sugar levels.
Simple Carbohydrates Increase Blood Sugar and Insulin Levels
Excessive intake of simple carbohydrates inevitably cause high levels of blood sugar and insulin in the body which activates the body’s fat storage enzymes and promotes transfer of fat from the bloodstream into fat cells for storage.
In addition, high insulin levels in the blood inhibit enzymes that helps break down stored body fat. Although insulin is not necessarily unhealthy, complications and problems arise when there’s too much insulin produced by eating excessive simple and refined carbohydrates. When the body has high blood sugar and insulin levels, calories are not burned but are stored as fat!
Not all simple carbohydrates are bad, there are simple carbohydrates which are healthy like fructose (found in fruits) and lactose (found in dairy products) as long as they are eaten in moderation. It is the refined (processed) simple carbohydrates that are bad for weight and fat loss (refined sugar and refined flour products).
Dairy products are healthy foods and should be included in any balanced diets.
They are a good source of high quality protein, calcium and Vitamin D and contain lactose. For lactose intolerant individuals, there are low fat milk, sour cream, mayonnaise and yogurt and non-cheese cottage cheese and cream cheese. Keep in mind however that dairy products should not the primary source of proteins or carbohydrates. They are simple carbohydrates.
Fructose is the other naturally occurring simple type of sugar and is found in fruits.
Fruit sugar is considerably healthier than refined sugar (sucrose). Fruits also contain large amounts of antioxidants, vitamins, phytochemicals and fiber but getting a large percentage of your daily carbohydrates requirements from fruit is not efficient for fat loss. All simple carbohydrates should be eaten in moderation during a weight loss program with the balance coming from green fibrous carbohydrates and complex starchy carbohydrates.
Complex carbohydrates are known as polysaccharides and are formed when thousands of sugar molecules are linked together and form long chains which take longer to digest than simple carbohydrates. There are two types of complex carbohydrates – starchy and fibrous.
Aside from the simple and complex classifications of carbohydrates, there are also fibrous and starchy carbohydrates, natural and refined carbohydrates, high glycemic and low glycemic carbohydrates.
Starchy Complex Carbohydrates
Starch is the storage form of energy in plants, much like glycogen is an energy storage form in human muscle. Starchy carbohydrates are found in potatoes, cereals, grains, bread, pasta, rice, oats, wheat and beans. Your body is able to completely absorb and digest all the caloric energy in starches, therefore the calorie density of starch is higher than fibrous carbohydrates.
Fibrous Complex Carbohydrates
On the other hand, fiber is the indigestible portion of a plant which passes straight through your digestive tract without all the caloric energy being absorbed. It gives bulk to intestinal contents, promotes healthy digestion and bowel movement and provides protection from gastrointestinal diseases and colon cancer.
Eating fibrous carbohydrates is important and plays a major role in a reducing body fat because they do not contain as much calories as other types of nutrients and have low calorie density. Due to their low calorie density property, fibrous carbohydrates play a very important role in body fat reduction since they make you feel full without exceeding your calorie limits.
Advantages of Complex Carbohydrates
Compared to simple carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates take longer to digest and absorb. They provide us with a constant supply of energy unlike the irregular highs and lows of blood sugar and energy levels caused by eating simple carbohydrates.
The fiber content of complex carbohydrates helps regulate blood sugar and insulin production because they take longer to digest and absorb. In addition, natural complex carbohydrates are the most nutrient dense type of carbohydrates you can eat.
Generally, it is best to divide your daily carbohydrate intake using the following guideline: ≥70% Complex Carbohydrates: ≤30% Simple Carbohydrates.
The Glycemic Index
The glycemic index (GI) is a measurement of how quickly a carbohydrate food is broken down into glucose.
It was developed as a tool to help diabetics keep their blood glucose under control and is derived from eating carbohydrates alone. In choosing the types of carbohydrates you should eat, the GI is only one of several factors that you should consider but it should not be the main consideration.
When carbohydrates are eaten together with proteins and fat, the GI property of the carbohydrate source loses significance because the combination of protein and fat slows down the absorption of carbohydrates.
Although it is a good factor to consider in making your choice of which carbohydrates to eat, using a carbohydrate’s GI property as the only criteria for making a choice is a mistake. If it were the only important factor, then logically, we can all eat ice cream and processed foods like sausages like they are going out of style and still lose weight!
Natural Carbohydrates vs. Refined Carbohydrates
The most significant indicator of a good carbohydrate is whether it is natural or refined.
Refined carbohydrates loses their complexity when they are processed and refined. Products made from refined carbohydrates like flour and sugar are not a recommended addition to your nutrition program because it does not have the important nutrients anymore which have been sacrificed for the sake of aesthetic appeal.
An example of a food item you have to be on the lookout for are fat free foods. Although the best way to lose weight is to reduce fat and sugar intake, fat free foods do not fulfill this role. Many fat-free foods are almost 100% refined sugar. Refined sugars are considered as bad carbohydrates, worse than fat!
Any type of processed food is bad news! They are the number cause of poor health and obesity than any other single factor.
Beware of Refined Sugars
Not all low fat or fat free food is good for your health because there is a very high possibility that it contains high quantity of refined sugars. It is improbable to completely eliminate refined sugar from your nutrition program because there are small amounts of refined sugar like nonfat salad dressings, sauces, cold cuts including whole wheat bread and whole grain cereals.
The better option is to cut down as much as possible on your refined sugar intake by eliminating obvious sources such as candy, chocolate, ice cream, pastries, cookies and cakes.
To make sure the foods you eat (especially supermarket foods) do not contain refined sugar, always check the ingredients list. Keep note however that refined sugar can also be listed as high fructose corn syrup, rice syrup, sucrose, glucose syrup, brown sugar or invert sugar.
Always check out a product’s ingredient list verify the different ingredients it contains since product labeling laws require that ingredients be listed in the order of their precedence.
Calorie and Nutrient Densities of Carbohydrates
Calorie and nutrient density are the two important criteria in making your choice of carbohydrates for your nutrition program.
To achieve a successful fat/weight loss program and gain muscle at the same time, choose foods wisely. Make your food choice based on low calorie density but with high nutrient density.
When it comes to carbohydrates, the rule of thumb is that refined carbohydrates contain more calories than natural complex carbohydrates.
The milling, grinding, bleaching and enriching process ultimately decreases the properties of complex carbohydrates, ultimately removes the nutritional content while increasing the particle size and the calorie density. They then become easier to digest and metabolize just like simple carbohydrates but less the natural nutrients if they were unprocessed.
Although refined complex carbohydrates need not be totally eliminated, you should eat them in moderation because of their high calorie content.
The refining process renders carbohydrates with little or no nutritional value – no vitamins, no minerals, no proteins, simply calories which are stored easily as fat.
Remember, the ultimate goal of the program is not just to lessen calorie intake but also to make sure that what you eat has the necessary nutritional value to keep you healthy and fit.
Baseline Carbohydrate Intake
If everything were equal (metabolism, body type, physical activity and genetic factors) between individuals, the baseline guide of 55% Carbohydrate of total daily calorie intake as recommended by almost all nutrition and medical organization worldwide would be sufficient.
However, due to individual differences and requirements there are those who can do with less (or more as the case may be) and still maintain a healthy lifestyle. Establishing the 55% Carbohydrate intake as a baseline from which to proceed after getting weekly results is therefore the best way to establish optimal carbohydrate intake in order to achieve your goals.
Based on your initial 2 week results and according to your goals (fat/weight loss or weight maintenance), you can make the necessary adjustments to your carbohydrate intake based on your results. If your aerobic/workout/exercise regimen is such that you do them daily, then definitely you will require more carbohydrates than the baseline guide and the reverse if you are only starting out with a twice weekly or 3 times weekly intense physical activity.
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