What if we told you that carbohydrates were one of the most important nutrients in an athlete’s diet and essential for achieving peak performance? From distance running and intermittent sports like soccer and basketball, to bodybuilding, carbs are critical for maximizing energy production and muscle growth.
Most people think of protein when it comes to building muscle, but carbs play an equally important role. Carbs, when compared to protein and dietary fat, are the most efficiently broken down and metabolized form of energy for the body. And, during periods of intense training, studies show that replenishing these carb stores can benefit performance by maintaining high levels of activity and delaying the onset of fatigue.
What Are Carbs?
To help you figure out how carbs can benefit your training and performance, we’ve laid out everything you need to know about carbs and how to incorporate them into your diet.
Carbohydrates are made up of sugar molecules, which your body breaks down into fuel, especially when you’re working hard. Sugars, starches, and fiber are all forms of carbohydrates.
There are two main types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. We could discuss fibrous carbs like green veggies, broccoli, sprouts, spinach, cauliflower, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, but let’s keep the focus on the carbohydrates that tend to cause the most confusion. Few people ever worry about eating too many vegetables, so let's not complicate the conversation.
But, it's worth reminding you: all vegetables have carbohydrates, and they are loaded with vital nutrients (it's why the base of Ladder Greens is loaded with ingredients like broccoli or spinach). And it's a big reason why the fear of carbs is greatly overstated.
Simple carbohydrates are the reason most people think carbs are bad. They include things such as table sugar, syrup, and soda. Most of the time, these carbs should be limited because -- unfortunately -- a diet built around candy, cake, beer, and cookies is not the foundation of a healthy lifestyle. (But, as you'll discover, they don't need to be avoided entirely, either.)
Complex carbohydrates are a combination of fibrous carbs and starch. They include options like oatmeal, apples, whole grains, brown rice, and vegetables.
For a long time, people believed that complex carbohydrates were the only carbs you should ever eat, but that isn’t always the case. You see, your body takes both complex and simple carbohydrates and tries to break them down into usable energy to fuel your muscles and organs.
The Myth of Good Carbs vs. Bad Carbs
Here's something most people don't know about carbs: your body prefers carbs so much that if you remove them completely from your diet, your body then converts other sources of food (like fat or protein) into carbs and simple sugars.
In other words, your body was designed to run on carbohydrates. So avoiding them isn't necessary; instead, you just need to make sure you don't go overboard and eat too many.
The cells in your body prefer to use carbs to fuel your day-to-day functions. Carbs can help fuel activities like lifting weights or running, and they are also used to power your brain, heart, and lungs.
Do You Need Carbs To Build Muscle?
Just like every other macronutrient, carbs play an essential role in body composition. As our body’s primary source for energy, we rely on carbs for sustained energy, preventing fatigue, and enhancing athletic performance and store these carbs as glycogen for later use.
Carbs are important for building muscle because they’re protein sparing, meaning the body looks to glycogen stores for energy instead of breaking down muscle tissue for energy. With the correct amount of carbs available to muscles, protein can be free to do its main job of repairing and rebuilding muscle tissue, which maximizes muscle gain.
To maximize muscle gain, it’s always important to incorporate a combination of strength training, intense exercise like high-intensity interval training, and replenishing your body post-workout with an optimal amount of complete protein.
Is The Glycemic Index The Answer?
For years, people thought that the glycemic index was the solution to carb control. The glycemic index (GI) attempts to classify foods by how quickly they break down and how much they boost blood sugar levels.
Many people argued that following a low-GI diet was a superior way of eating because it would keep your blood sugar under control. It’s a beautiful concept, but the glycemic index is an inexact science.
For instance, Twix bars and chocolate cake have a low glycemic index, which is a bit confusing if you're making choices based on GI alone.
Then, when researchers compared low-GI to higher-GI diets, they found that the low-GI approach did not lead to more weight loss.
If you want to drop carbs from your diet, that’s your choice, and it might be a good fit. But, it's not a guaranteed weight-loss plan.
Research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition compared a lower carb diet to a higher carb diet. When calories were equal, the scientists found that low-carb diets had no significant difference in fat loss, metabolism, or muscle retention.
Translation: calories are still king, so it's more important to choose a plan that helps you control calories, rather than assuming the removal of carbs will instantly make you drop weight and keep it off.
How Many Carbs Are Too Many?
Remember, carbohydrates are not inherently dangerous, but it can be hard to figure out how many you should eat. To simplify that process, it's good to do a quick assessment and determine if you have a "biological" risk or a "behavioral" risk. Here’s how to differentiate the two.
Biological Risk: Carbs are not bad, but if eating too many carbohydrates causes your blood sugar levels (and insulin) to rise -- and, more importantly, stay elevated -- then you might need to curb your carb intake. Or, if you have chronically high insulin levels (as determined by your doctor), eating carbohydrates can put you more at risk for weight gain or other health problems. To know this, it's best to get blood work done to determine if this applies to you. In these scenarios, eating a higher-carb diet is not ideal for your body.
Behavioral Risk: If the foods you select make you crave more of those same foods (think about how one cookie turns into an entire sleeve of cookies), then you’ll need to limit the carbs that trigger addictive-type behaviors. The behavioral risk of carbs are much more common because your body is able to tolerate carbs, but it's not able to handle the daily overload.
Solving for a behavioral risk is hard to fix but simple to diagnose: if you know that it’s difficult for you to limit how many sugary foods you eat, then you’ll want to manage how many simple carbs are a part of your diet (we know, easier said than done).
How Many Carbs Per Day To Build Muscle
Ultimately, personal preference, activity levels, and how your body reacts to carbs will determine how you structure your diet. There's no "hard rule," but there are guidelines that can make it easier to find out what amount of carbs works for you and how you choose to distribute your macronutrients.
In general, try to include 1-2 servings of vegetables at every meal, and then combine that with a palm-sized portion of starchy, healthy carbs. You can do this at every meal to assess your tolerance, and then adjust as you need based on your goal (whether you’re gaining or losing weight). Examples of starchy carbs include a medium-sized potato, a piece of fruit, 1-2 slices of bread, a 6-piece sushi roll, or about ½ cup of oatmeal or rice.
If you’re interested in knowing exactly how much carbs you can eat, you can use the formula below to count your macros. To determine the number of carbs that are right for you, you’ll need to set the amount of protein and fat in your diet.
Step 1: Figure out Goal Calories
We don’t believe you need to count calories to gain or lose weight, but it is a useful technique, or a helpful guide if you want to try it for a few days to get a better sense of portion sizes.
Here’s how to figure out how many calories you need to eat to maintain lean muscle and reach a goal weight.
- Do you workout 1-hour or less per week? If so, multiply your goal weight (say 180 pounds) by 10. Your total goal calories = 1,800
- Do you workout 2 hours per week? If so, multiply your goal weight (180 pounds) by 11. Your total goal calories = 1,980
- Do you workout 3 hours per week? If so, multiply your goal weight (180 pounds) by 12. Your total goal calories = 2,160
- For the sake of this example, let’s say you exercise 3 hours per week, for a total of 2,160 calories per day.
Step 2: Figure out Protein
Your goal: Eat 1 gram for every pound of your goal body weight. If you want to weigh 180 pounds, you'll eat 180 grams of protein. One gram of protein is about four calories. So to calculate the calories from protein, multiply the number of grams by 4. In this case, that's 720 calories.
Step 3: Figure out Fat
Your goal: Eat .3 to .5 grams for every pound of your goal body weight. (The variation allows you to decide if you want more or fewer carbs; the lower the number of fat, the more carbs you can enjoy.) If your goal is to weigh 180 pounds, that's 90 grams of fat. And since 1 gram of fat has nine calories, that's 810 calories from fat.
Step 4: Figure out Carbohydrates
Your goal: Add your calories from protein and fat, and subtract that total from your allotted daily calories. So if you have 2,160 calories per day, then after adding up your protein and fat (protein is four calories per gram and fat is nine calories per gram), you’d have 630 calories remaining. You’d then divide that by 4 (because carbs have four calories per gram), and you’d be left with 158 grams of carbohydrates per day to enjoy.