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De-Mystifiying Carbohydrates

The more I interact with fitness enthusiasts and gym goers, the more I come across misunderstandings about the macronutrients – carbohydrates, protein, fat and water. Some talk of only a specific scale or measurement as an ideal, others talk of a particular diet that serves as a weight loss panacea and still others argue about what is the best pre and post-work-out food. In this post, I want to take-up some basic concepts that will help clear the mist around carbs.

Let”s start with why we need carbohydrates – Carbohydrates give us both instant and sustained energy. Carbohydrates taken in through food are broken down by enzymes into glucose for storage in our bodies. This glycogen is stored both in the muscles and in blood to help us carry through all the sedate and exertive activities for the day.

Next, let us see how the body uses stored glycogen for energy generation – When you start to work out, body”s preferred choice for energy source is the glucose stored in muscles. However, muscles can store only 20 minutes worth of glucose for energy. Beyond this, the body picks on the glucose from the bloodstream, which can hold about an hour of glucose for energy.

How much carbohydrate is okay? – This is subject to body types, age, and activity level and of course specific body response to intake. However, on an average, carbohydrates should comprise 60% of our total food intake. Thus, for a 1500-calorie daily intake, 900 of those calories should be carbohydrates. Excess carb intake allows the body to store the extra glycogen in the form of fat in the adipose or fat cells. Check your age, activity level statistics and other conditions with your doctor before arriving at your carbohydrate requirement for the day.

Remember fiber is a form of carbohydrate. We should consume on an average 20 grams worth of fiber carbohydrate every day. As a rule of thumb, our carbohydrate preference should be simple carbohydrates (monosaccharide) for instant-energy requirements and complex carbohydrates (polysaccharide) for sustained energy requirements. By simple carbohydrates, I mean fruit options of glucose and fructose.

Some healthy examples of simple carbohydrates that will help you achieve your instant-energy requirement are apples, banana, kiwi, cherries, melons, pears, peaches, strawberries etc.

I do not recommend disaccharides such as sugar (or sucrose) that comes from non-fruit intake. Avoid disaccharides such as table sugar and foods that contain them as much as possible, such as, cakes, candies, chocolates, puddings, pies etc. If you cannot do without sugar, make sure you are using Demerara or cane, unprocessed sugar in small quantities instead of the white processed crystal sugar.

Of your total carbohydrate requirement, a bulk should come from complex carbohydrate, which enables slow but sustained energy release through the day. They also stabilise the insulin release and thereby the blood sugar levels in our bodies. Some examples of complex carbohydrates are spinach, Brussel sprouts, okra, zucchini, broccoli, barley, buckwheat, oat, brown rice, multi-grain breads, soy milk, low fat yoghurt, potatoes, most lentils and beans etc.

In the next post, I shall be talking about carbohydrate loading, carbohydrate stacking for athletes and why consuming large amounts of sugar-based drinks prior to a workout can actually inhibit performance. Until then, take good care of yourself.

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