Last week, one of my friends saw my pics from my most recent competition in June and immediately said, “Wow, how long did you have to go without carbs??” This is by far the number one question I get about my competition diet… people almost always assume that I eat absolutely NO carbs to during competition prep. This is so not true. In reality, as I get closer to show time, the number of servings of carbs/starches I eat every day decreases, but they’re only completely eliminated just a few days before the show. However, keep in mind that the goal of reducing carbs in this case is to achieve a physique that is temporary and not consistent with real life:
GOOD CARBS, BAD CARBS, HIGH CARBS...NO CARBS????
Over the past decade or so, there has been confusing and conflicting information that has caused rampant carbophobia. Like most people, I LOVE carbs…but I, too, have been stricken by carbophobia from time to time. It started with the Atkins Diet back in 2001, when I ate only meat, veggies and more meat for 2 weeks. I lost about 12 pounds but I was so weak that I couldn’t even walk on a treadmill for 15 minutes and my brain was always “cloudy”. Eventually, the carb-lover in me emerged and I began to consume large amounts of bread, sugar and potatoes (in the form of French fries) and I welcomed back those 12 pounds and then some. For the next 10 years, I was always confused about the "what, when, why and how much" of carb consumption.
I was finally able to break the cycle of confusion when I started eating healthfully and educated myself on proper nutrition. Like it or not, the human body NEEDS carbohydrates…just not in the excess quantities and crappy quality that tend to be part of an average American diet.
WHAT IS A “CARB” AND WHY DO YOU NEED IT?
- A carbohydrate is one of the 3 macronutrients (protein and fats are the other two). The word "macronutrient" literally means something that is needed in relatively large quantities for normal growth and development.
- Sugar, starch and fiber are all forms of dietary carbohydrates.
- Carbs are found in fruits, veggies, nuts, beans, grains, dairy products and sweeteners (sugar, honey, agave, etc).
- Carbohydrates are the body's preferred source of energy. In fact, the brain relies on carbohydrates exclusively for energy (hmmm, this explains the inability to think straight when I was on my no carb diet).
EATING CARBS SHOULD BE SIMPLE, BUT WE MAKE IT SO COMPLEX
There are two major categories of carbohydrates:
- Simple carbohydrates include sugars found naturally in fruit and dairy products; these simple carbohydrates CAN be part of a healthy diet. However, refined or processed simple carbohydrates that are in candy, soda and table sugar (and most packaged, "convenience" foods) have little to no nutritional value and should be kept to a minimum.
- Complex carbohydrates are ideal in clean eating because they have high nutritional value (they're rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals). Starch and dietary fiber are the two types of complex carbs. Whole grains (ex: quinoa, brown rice, barley) some fruits, and “starchy” vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, squash) are all considered complex carbohydrates.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE EAT CARBS?
Carbs make me (and most people) feel very happy, which is why we tend to eat them in excess. Haven’t you ever just wanted to cuddle up with a big plate of French fries to make all the bad feelings go away?? Well, I have. Unfortunately, the flip side of that warm, happy feeling is the feeling of bloat and puffiness when you go overboard. But you probably know that already.
What you may not know is that carbohydrates are absorbed into the bloodstream which causes an increase in blood glucose (or blood sugar). When your blood sugar gets too high, insulin is produced to help move the excess glucose into liver and muscle cells, where it’s stored as glycogen (short-term energy storage). Complex carbohydrates from whole grains, fruits and vegetables take longer to digest than simple carbohydrates, so they keep you full longer, provide you with energy and have a more stable effect on your blood sugar levels. These are all things that help to keep you healthy AND happy.
When you consume more carbs (especially the simple ones) than your body can use immediately for energy or store as glycogen, they get converted to fat for long-term storage. This is how the combination of eating too much bread and sugar and not getting enough exercise can result in all those extra layers of chub.
WHEN AND HOW MUCH SHOULD YOU BE EATING?
Tosca Reno's Eat-Clean Diet suggests about 2 to 4 servings of complex carbs a day depending on your fitness goals (weight loss vs. muscle/weight gain). Everyone is different, but in my regular life (non-competition prep) I usually have about 4 servings of grains or other starches (1/4 to 1/2 cup) per day and 3 to 4 servings of fruit each day. I usually limit my starch consumption to my first 4 meals of the day, but there’s nothing wrong with enjoying complex carbs in the evening at dinner. To keep from getting hungry too soon, I always eat a meal that contains a protein along with my starch (proteins keep you fuller longer). If you can’t tolerate or don’t like grains (rice, bread, barley), beans, sweet potatoes and starchy vegetables are very good and filling alternatives.
SO, WHAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE?
By no means am I an expert in nutrition or carbohydrate metabolism. There’s so much more to this topic, but I like to keep things simple and easy to understand. I just wanted to share with you some of basics behind the effects of carbohydrates on the body to help you make good decisions about how and when to incorporate carbs into your daily nutrition. Some people feel like they have to severely restrict or completely eliminate carbs to lose weight…my own personal experience has taught me that significant and lasting fat loss is possible with carbs. In my opinion, a low-carb diet is neither healthy nor necessary AND most importantly, it’s not sustainable. It's the quickest way to trigger out-of-control cravings, which can cause a MAJOR set back in achieving your fitness goals. However, nutrition is not one-size-fits-all so you should do what works for you and what makes you happy. :-D
Stay tuned for future posts about carbohydrates and how they fit into a healthy lifestyle. As I learn more, I'll share it with all of you!