To eat carbs or not to eat carbs
By: Justin Levine, CFA Owner
Carbohydrates have been bastardized by the diet world as the evil cause of weight gain, erratic insulin levels and obesity in the country. As I am not prescribing you to eat endless amounts of carbohydrate rich foods, I am going to discuss why we do need the right carbohydrates for daily function and more important for sports performance. I would have to say that the most popular diet on the market right now is the Paleo Diet. This plan has some great principles to support healthier living. The main premise of this diet is to eat foods that mimic the hunter-gatherer ancestors’ lifestyle. Lean meats, fish and other animal products, low glycemic vegetables and fruits and heart healthy fats compose the foundational foods of this particular diet. It’s basically a low carbohydrate plan. In my opinion, these specific foods should be the foundation of any eating plan as they provide the body vital vitamins and nutrients we need for functionality. But now let’s talk about carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are the body’s first fuel source. Once consumed, “carbs” are readily available to be converted to glucose, which is transported and used by the body. We need healthy carbohydrates to maximize our energy. The more active someone is the more carbohydrates will be needed to support energy output. Complex carbohydrates are absorbed slowly into our system, keeping our blood sugars from spiking too high. Whole grains, fruits, vegetables and beans are the best carbohydrates to add to your diet. Simple carbohydrates are refined sugars that spike blood sugars quickly. These peaks and drops of insulin activity can cause inconsistent energy and progress to more serious health disease like diabetes. Pastries, sweets, soda and white flour products are carbohydrates you should limit in your diet. How many carbohydrates are right for you?
It’s a good question. First, let’s take lifestyle habits into consideration. Individuals who live a sedentary lifestyle (non-active job, minimal exercise, etc) should eat very minimal carbohydrates. Their main source should be vegetables and low glycemic fruit and limited whole grains and starch. Since activity levels are so low for these individuals, they will not utilize carbohydrates as efficiently as a very active person. Athletes who are training daily (or 2 workouts a day) absolutely will benefit from eating adequate carbohydrates throughout their day. If this athlete is on a low-carb diet, it will cause extreme muscle breakdown, lack of energy due to inadequate fueling and poor recovery after long workouts. Individuals who are in the middle (semi-active job, 2-3 workouts a week) should find the middle. Fruits and vegetables should be the main source and small amounts of whole grains and beans throughout the week will support their activity level.
I have read and studied the high fat/low carb literature. I have even followed this plan myself as a guinea pig experiment. As it works for some individuals, most athletes will benefit by consuming adequate carbs in their diet. I also want to point out that carbs fuel our brain. Glucose is the fuel used by brain cells. Brain neurons depend on the bloodstream to deliver a constant supply of this precious fuel to support brain function. You might need an increase in quality carbohydrates if you are having trouble focusing or losing your train of thought during the day.
In conclusion, most athletes need carbohydrate for peak performance. Sedentary individuals need to consume fewer carbohydrates to decrease their chances of health problems. Recognize your lifestyle needs and adjust accordingly. Extreme programs might work in the short run, but will they be sustainable? Always educate yourself and know the details of any plan that you decide to follow. Don’t just do it because it’s the popular thing on the market. If you want overall health and wellness, following an individualized and balanced plan is the key.