Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Carbohydrates - Friend, Foe, or Frenemy?

I got lost once. In a shopping mall. Well not so much that I got lost, I knew exactly where I was going. My mother, on the other hand, did not, and so proceeded to recruit all of the available shopping mall employees and half of the people in the small town I grew up in to look for me, not to mention announcing over the PA system that a young boy wearing a Lady and the Tramp T-shirt had gone missing. They eventually found me with my greasy little cheeks pressed up against the glass windows of the nearby donut shop, eyeing off all of the options, unsure of which one to choose, just like Madonna at a third world country orphanage.

You see, even since I was a young child I've had a soft spot for carbs. A soft spot right on my hips that is. Whether you love to dig into a big bowl of bolognese pasta, scoff down a plate of blueberry pancakes, or in my case inhale a box of chocolate donuts in one sitting, we all love some carbs now and then, yet we have been told by numerous health and diet gurus that if you want to lose weight, that we have to cut these favorite past times out of our lives faster than you can delete a clingy ex's phone number. But is that really the case? Well not exactly. You see I have discovered that carbs don't have to be your foe, but can actually be your friend and help you in your fat loss and muscle building efforts. Its just a matter of eating the right carbohydrates, at the right times, and knowing how to use them to your advantage.

What are the "right" carbs? Well to understand the difference between the good and the bad, we need to look into a little more detail about what about what happens in and to our bodies when we consume either, the hormonal processes that occur, and the consequential effect on those love handles you have been trying to cycle off in those grueling spin classes.

So, what is a carbohydrate exactly? Well, they are essentially molecules of food that once digested by your body, form glucose that gets sucked up by your bloodstream for you to use as energy. Your pancreas then releases a hormone known as Insulin, and he is the little guy that carries all that glucose from your blood and into your cells like your muscles and liver where it can be used. When there is too much glucose in your blood - due to the fact that you ate too many carbohydrates, or the carbohydrates you ate were too refined because you just couldn't resist the urge to munch on that chocolate chip muffin - your body has to release more insulin. And here in lies the problem. You see your liver and muscles can only hold a certain amount of glucose at any one time, and fill up pretty quickly, so your little friend insulin still has all that glucose to get rid of. So where does he take it? To your fat cells! Yes, those things that form to create a spare tire around your waist, those lovely cellulite dimples on your thighs, and the reason those Jenny Craig ads are seeming so appealing lately. 

Now this process was ideal for our ancestors and actually helped them survive when they weren't sure where there next meal was coming from. When they went a certain amount of time without eating, their fat cells would release all that stored glucose so it could be used for energy and they could survive. Their metabolism would also slow down ensuring that their body was only using the minimum amount of energy as possible. But the problem is that in today's world, we know exactly where our next meal is coming from; its around the corner in that super-sized value meal at Burger King, or in that chocolate brownie as your pick up your sugar soaked latte at Starbucks in the morning. So as a result, our fat cells never have to release any of that glucose. And as we continue to over indulge in all those carbohydrates meal after meal, our fat cells keep taking all that glucose and keep growing faster and larger then the egos of the cast of The Jersey Shore.

Well that sucks doesn't it? How can we still eat carbs and not get fat? I mean nearly every meal you eat these days has some amount in or around it. That breadbasket that was giving me the evil eye across that table at the Italian restaurant I went to last night springs to mind. But it doesn't have to suck. You see not all carbohydrates create such large amount of glucose and consequently insulin production. The bad ones that do, are known as simple carbohydrates and the ones that don't are known as complex.

Simple Carbohydrates are carbohydrates that are processed, striped of all nutritional value, and should basically be avoided at all costs. These include white bread, white pasta, white rice, all sugars, and obviously any candy or chocolate bars. Out of curiosity, just how do they get that bread, pasta and rice white? They bleach it. Yep, the same stuff your throw in your washing machine to strip away the vodka cranberry stain that drunken valley girl spilt on your new summer v-neck at the bar last night, is that same stuff food companies throw in your food to make the product more fluffy, extend shelf life, and ward off any pests and insects. Oh and by the way, it wards them off because animals know their food and they wouldn't be silly enough to eat bleach. So when you order that poppy seed bagel for breakfast morning ask yourself whether would you like a side of chlorine or benzoyl peroxide with that.

Complex Carbohydrates on the other hand are pretty close if not untouched from their original state. These are natural occurring carbohydrates that are, or have been made with, whole ingredients. They include whole wheat and whole grain breads and pastas, brown rice, fruits and vegetables. They retain their large amounts of fiber and other beneficial ingredients that once eaten form a large mass in the stomach that takes longer to digest. This slower digestion process creates a steady release of glucose into the bloodstream, a consequential slower release of insulin, which in turn provides you with long lasting steady flow of energy that wont see you crashing at 3pm in the afternoon, and wont see what you just ate looking back at you from your hips the following day.

Too much of a good thing can still be bad for you however, and if you eat too many carbs at one sitting, even the good ones, your body still gets a large amount of glucose and your muscles and liver will still fill up. So how much should we eat at one meal? It depends on what your goals are, what your caloric intake is per day, your activity level and amount of exercise you do, your height and weight, and how many meals you eat per day. If you are trying to lose fat, eating 6 meals a day, then you need to reduce the total amount of carbohydrates you eat at one sitting to around 10 - 15 grams of carbs per meal. If you are trying to build muscle then you would need to eat more than this and have a higher caloric intake.

Some people also see benefits of eating the majority of carbohydrates at certain meals and at certain times of the day. Carbohydrates should always be consumed at breakfast, after sleeping for 8 hours your body starts to go into a slight fasting mode, so you need to provide it with carbohydrates in the morning to maintain a fast moving metabolism, a regular moving digestive system, and to provide you with energy to get through that boring mid-morning company meeting that you are trying to find an excuse to so desperately get out of. If you are a gym bunny and trying to build pecs that can bounce up and down in the mirror to the sound of a French overture, then you will need to also eat carbohydrates an hour before going to the gym and straight after you finish to replenish the energy stores in your muscles that get used to pump all that iron.

None of these are set in stone however, and everyone has a different tolerance level to carbohydrates. My advice is to experiment with it and see what works for you. Another option is to try cycling your carbohydrate intake. This is where for a short period of time, say up to two or three days, you would consume low amounts of carbs, followed by a day or two of moderate amounts of carbs. Bodybuilders often use this approach when trying to lose fat before a contest, whilst still maintaining muscle size. The constant changing confuses your body, leaving your metabolism high, and doesn't see you doing low carbs for weeks on end that will leave you with no energy and deflated muscles.  

Finally another popular option is not to consume too many carbohydrates in the evening. Your body tends not to exert that much energy at night, so the need for carbohydrates is minimal. Just replace that bowl of pasta for dinner with some lean protein and some vegetables, and avoid that tub of cookie dough ice cream calling your name from the freezer late at night and you should see some great improvements in your fat loss efforts.

Whatever you choose, and whatever you decide works best for you, never cut out carbohydrates completely. I've done that before and it left me as about as miserable as Lindsay Lohan at a paparazzi convention. Your body needs carbohydrates for proper bodily function like thinking and breathing, proper hormone production, and of course for energy. Just make sure you are avoiding simple carbohydrates, especially sugar. Now I'm not saying you can never have a cookie again, lord knows if you said I could never have a chocolate donut again I would grab one of my Nike gym shoes and knock you over the head with it. Just make sure you don't eat them that often, or that Jenny Craig number you have been contemplating calling will end up on your speed dial.

Healthy Boy x


  1. Thanx man,that's a great article.

  2. Coming from the West I'm already sold on the problems with the overly prevalent refined carbohydrates. Unfortunately, living in Japan it's virtually impossible to find whole grains(although probably acquirable in Tokyo). People here, in the most literal sense, eat white rice and bread for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Yet obesity here is considerably less prevalent than in the States (although creeping up with the invasion of Western fast-food chains.)

    There's got to be a little more to the equation than the carbs themselves because people here believe white rice is really nutritional and consume with reckless abandon.

    If you're in a position such as myself where it's incredibly difficult to not consume refined carbs without abstaining from all carbs altogether, is there a way to compensate or counter their affect on our bodies?

  3. Wow, great question Jonathan. I was aware that Japanese and also chinese do consume large amounts of white rice. I wasnt aware however that they didnt have access to whole grain brown rice.

    Japanese traditionally have lower amounts of body fat and a higher life expectancy than the western world. This is mainly due to their consumption of healthy omega-3 fish such as salmon. japanese also tend to eat smaller portions and finish eating when their are satisfied. Unlike most of us in the Western world. Although in saying that, with the introduction of Western food chains in the east, this is slowly chainging with the upcoming generations.

    White rice is till going to be better for you than a burger. My advice is to eat it when you have to and just balance it by eating healthy fish or a lean protein like chicken and keep the portions small. Also jump online and search your local supermarket to see whether you can buy your own brown rice which you can cook at home yourself.

    Hope this helps.

    Healthy Boy x

  4. Thanks! You're right, I think the large amounts of fish and vegetables consumed here is a big part of what compensates for the heavy rice consumption. Portions as well. When I eat with my students I often see them reduce their portions by dividing unwanted food out amongst other classmates. It's a practice that I can't really imagine Western(American) students performing. I did a double-take the first time I saw it. I think we tend to eat whatever we're given in its entirety.

    I've never seen whole grain bread here but one can find a bag of brown rice in a given store if they search hard enough. Anecdotal evidence suggests it's not very popular because white rice tastes much better(it's always eaten plain with no butter or salt with a few exceptions which isn't brown rice's strong suit) and people here don't think it's the least bit unhealthy. I guess we have to skillfully play the cards we're dealt.

    Thanks again, looking forward to future posts.


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