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Are Carbs the Enemy?

It's true that an overconsumption of processed carbohydrates causes weight gain and inflammation in the body leading to obesity and metabolic syndrome. What's tricky is we don't want the pendulum to swing the other way and eliminate or decrease carbohydrates to a level so low we aren't fueling our bodies.

From Flex Dieting 2.0 Krissy Mae Cagny:

Many people call them “The Devil”; I call them “Human Gasoline”, with each gram yielding 4 calories. I’m about to tell you something that may startle you. Are you sitting down?...

Life requires energy.

When we engage in activities that require energy (like living), carbs provide that energy. I said protein is the most important, but carbs are typically the macro that athletic people need the most of. If you are training hard, you need ample carbs in order to perform optimally, as they are the most readily used by the body. Anaerobic metabolism prefers to run on glucose, not on fat. If you have no glycogen to utilize during training, your body will automatically recruit amino acids as a back up. Combine this with intense, demanding training and the result will be muscle loss. Not to mention your workouts will blow. Low-carb diets usually mean that you have minimal glycogen needed to maintain strength, speed, agility, and other qualities necessary to optimal performance.

Moreover, long-term carb restriction damages a healthy, functioning metabolism, and is often the culprit for post-diet weight gain.Every tissue and cell in the body use glucose for energy. Our central nervous system, our heart, our brain, our muscles, and our organs are all dependent upon carbohydrates in order to function properly. We need them for intestinal health and proper waste elimination. Not only do we need carbs to perform physically, but also to perform mentally. Our brains need fuel, too, and it’s a very greedy bastard when it comes to glucose consumption. With that in mind, let’s talk about cognitive function. Sure, lowering carbs to dangerously low numbers will result in quick weight loss, but it carries unintended consequences. Research has shown that low-carb diets dramatically impair cognitive function. A study from Tufts University shows that when dieters eliminate carbohydrates from their diets, they perform poorly on memory-based tasks compared to dieters on a reduced-calorie diet with adequate carbohydrate consumption. When carbohydrates were reintroduced, cognitive skills normalized.

“While the brain uses glucose as its primary fuel, it has no way of storing it. Rather, the body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose, which is carried to the brain through the bloodstream and used immediately by nerve cells for energy. Reduced carb intake should thus reduce the brain’s source of energy. Therefore, researchers hypothesized that diets low in carbohydrates would affect cognitive skills.”

Whether you are an athlete, a parent, or student, you need to be cognitively functional for obvious reasons.

Carbs are also in charge of secreting insulin—an anabolic hormone that has profound effects on tissue growth. Now when I say tissue I mean muscle and fat. When we consume carbs, we use what is immediately needed as insulin binds to receptors on the surface of the muscle. Leftover carbs get stored in our liver and muscle as glycogen to be used later when energy is needed. It’s when we consume beyond what is needed that unwanted weight gain occurs. The goal is to find the “sweet spot” based on our individual needs. There is no magic number when it comes to carb prescriptions, and it’s not a “one size fits all” approach.

When we lower carbohydrates, we are lowering more than just calories. Water and carbs have a co-dependent relationship: carbohydrates bind to water, so a decrease in the former create a decrease in the latter. This drop in excess water weight, or “bloat”, as the ladies like to call it, is responsible for most of the initial weight loss that occurs after a massive slash in carbs.

Even if carbs are cut extremely low, it’s technically possible to produce glucose through gluconeogenesis. The issue here is that you are forcing your body to make glucose from protein opposed to carbs. When this occurs, a bulk of your daily protein consumption is reallocated to energy production rather than muscle growth and repair. If you work out regularly, this poses a problem.

What am I getting at? Eat carbs, please.

Carbs unfortunately, and undeservedly, have a very bad reputation. If you stay under your maintenance calories and are consuming the proper amount of protein, no amount of carb consumption that stays within your caloric range will make you gain weight. If you weight train and stay close to the correct amount of carbs you should be consuming each day, you can reasonably get away with eating the “fun carbs”, aka sugar.

Carbs are broken down into simple and complex forms. Simple carbs are fast digesting and easily broken down for immediate energy use. Simple carbs are more commonly known as sugar. Complex carbs are substantially more difficult for our bodies to digest. They are broken down gradually and released into the bloodstream at a slower place. We also have fiber to consider, a certain type of carbohydrate our body can’t digest (which is a good thing, because it’s the engine that drives the poop train).

Foods that are rich in fiber are typically not calorically dense. These foods will allow you to eat a large volume of food without consuming a lot of calories (think leafy greens and other veggies). Because fibrous foods are complex carbohydrates, they are slower digesting and will help you remain full, longer. Fiber also has health benefits for diabetics because it helps to regulate blood sugar. It can also lower cholesterol and help prevent certain types of cancers.

On the other hand, do not attempt to fill your entire carb intake for the day by eating a shit load of fiber (pun intended) in the form of green vegetables. They are extremely difficult for your body to break down and believe it or not, you will begin to feel sluggish because too much energy is going into breaking down your food. You will notice digestive discomfort and dysfunction if you are consuming an excess of fibrous vegetables. Excessive fiber intake can oftentimes be worse than not inadequate intake (there are countless articles you can find on this with a quick googles search). Aim for 25-40 grams depending on your size and carb intake. Take note that fiber is included in your total daily carbs allowance. You are not counting “net carbs”; you are counting your actual total carbohydrate intake, which is made up of fiber, sugar, and starch. Therefore, do not subtract your fiber from your total carbohydrate intake.

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