You need them, you love them, but you need to use carbs right.
Bodybuilders and most other competitive athletes are always trying to get to the next level. Whether that be increased muscle mass, boosting athletic performance, or seeking a toned physique, faster gains are the common denominator. While pumping yourself full of protein is universally touted as the best way to get this done, another macronutrient is equally as important when used right. Carbs can make or break your quest for fat burning and muscle growth depending on how you use them. That love-hate relationship that comes with carbs is always the battle when deciding on the best route for your diet.
The issues many people face is the amount of carbs and the type of good carbs to incorporate in their diet mixed with any great source of protein. Carbs are the body’s primary source of fuel and spare protein from being used up for energy (1). As the most efficient energy source for intense workouts, carbs are a necessity for those looking to get to the next level. Simply put, protein needs carbs to work as efficiently as possible. But too many carbs, or too many of the wrong carbs, can really hurt your chances to get that fit, athletic physique we all strive for.
Since every day for us differs, it is important to understand how many carbs you need on a given day. Depending on the intensity of your workout or the physical stress of your daily life, carbs play an important role in providing you with energy needed to work at maximum capacity. To little, and you will feel sluggish and drained. Carb cycling is a great way to stay on track and is used by athletes looking to change their body composition or overall performance. It is not for everyone so knowing your body and how it reacts to changes in your diet is key, but carb cycling allows your body to adapt to metabolic changes and helps manage fat more effectively.
For bodybuilders looking to bulk up and lean out, carbs are a necessity. Using them to your advantage is key for working hard in the gym and living a healthy life. Knowing when to trust them as your best friend or loathe them as your worst enemy is vital for growth and understanding just how to properly use carbs to your advantage.
What Are Carbs?
Carbs, along with protein and fats, are one of the three main macronutrients that your body uses for energy and are the main source of energy. Macronutrients are important because they allow for your body to properly function and must be obtained through your diet. Carbs specifically provide fuel for your central nervous system and offer working energy for your muscles, as well as saving protein from being used as energy and assisting fat metabolism. Vital for cognitive function, they help your brain with memory, mood, and a host of other things (2).
Simple carbs are found mainly in candy, soda, and the other sweet treats we all love. They are basically empty calories and don’t provide much help for your growth. Complex carbs are what you find in starchy food and are absorbed much slower and provide for sustained energy, making complex carbs the go to choice for your overall health and performance.
Pros: Your Best Friend
We all love to train hard and watch our bodybuilding transformation unfold. Intense training is key for quick gains and carbs provide for that much needed fuel to keep us going strong and for longer. Protein builds muscle and having enough carbs in your diet is huge for the preservation of that muscle so it doesn’t break down and get used for fuel instead (3). Keep that muscle mass by saving your protein from being stolen away from your muscles. Since your body prefers carbs for fuel, give it what it wants and help light the metabolic fuse to keep your body burning fat and not muscle. Studies have been conducted around the idea that carbs help with the production of serotonin in the brain keeping you mentally healthy and away from anger and depression, thus improving cognitive health (4).
Cons: Your Worst Enemy
Eating the wrong types of carbs, or too any carbs, can actually prove to be a detriment in the long run. Carbs stimulate insulin secretion and while this may not be a bad thing for some people, for those struggling with metabolic competence, insulin levels may be elevated making it difficult for weight loss to occur (5). Processed carbs will really be your enemy as they could contain fillers and chemicals that will make you gain weight as well as lead to potential problems in the future. Containing “anti-nutrients”, like phytic acid, it could lead to poor absorption of certain vitamins and minerals you need only hurting your progress (6). Carbs are easy to abuse, and while the benefits are more than important for your overall performance, knowing how to handle them in moderation is key for getting you to where you need to be.
We all need carbs. Yet, they can come around and turn on us if we don’t manage them properly. Choosing slow-digesting carbs for most meals will help keep your insulin levels in check and will keep you full longer with less fatigue, leading to weight loss. Obtaining fast carbs, like a whey protein concentrate supplement, can help you recover faster during your post-workout regimen. If you plan on cardio, skip the carbs and go for whey protein or amino acids to really kick start fat loss and consider carb cycling as an alternative method if fat loss is something you are considering. Carbs are delicious and great for you when used right, so have confidence in your discipline and use this macronutrient to your advantage as your best friend.
*Images courtesy of Envato
- Jequier, E. (1994). “Carbohydrates as a source of energy”. (source)
- Hawkins, Misty A. W.; Keirns, Natalie G.; Helms, Zachary (2018). “Carbohydrates and cognitive function”. (source)
- Pasiakos, Stefan M.; McLellan, Tom M.; Lieberman, Harris R. (2015). “The effects of protein supplements on muscle mass, strength, and aerobic and anaerobic power in healthy adults: a systematic review”. (source)
- Brinkworth, Grant D.; Buckley, Jonathan D.; Noakes, Manny, et al. (2009). “Long-term Effects of a Very Low-Carbohydrate Diet and a Low-Fat Diet on Mood and Cognitive Function”. (source)
- Ludwig, David S.; Ebbeling, Cara B. (2018). “The Carbohydrate-Insulin Model of Obesity”. (source)
- Hurrell, R. F.; Juillerat, M. A.; Reddy, M. B.; Lynch, S. R.; Dassenko, S. A.; Cook, J. D. (1992). “Soy protein, phytate, and iron absorption in humans”. (source)