Carbohydrates: Friend or Foe – A Lean Perspective

There are a lot of opinions on the amount of carbohydrates we should be eating and how helpful they are to maintain a healthy diet. You might have also heard the term ‘good carbs and bad carbs’ so what does this actually mean and how should you be incorporating them in to your diet. As we look to adopt the lean approach, 80% of focus needs to be on food while the other 20% focusses on fitness to get the best bang for your bucks in effort. You may have heard that you cannot outrun a bad diet, therefore an understanding of what we know about food groups becomes incredibly important.

Whether you are beginning your Being Lean journey and focussing your efforts within the improvement mode and becoming less of a stranger to exercise, looking to build muscle. Or, you are well in to your way and have entered the maintenance mode continuing a healthy diet. Having a good understanding about carbohydrates and how you use them will help you achieve your individual diet goals. This alone, helps minimise wasted efforts through trial and error, or taking on advice that does not suit your circumstances.

However, before delving deeper it is important to understand where carbohydrates fit in to the bigger picture of nutrients. Along with fats and protein, carbohydrates make up a group of nutrients called macronutrients, which in turn enhance and maintain our ability to function through providing energy. In this article, our focus is on carbohydrate as it is commonly recommended that it makes up 45–65% of a diet, but look-out for following articles on fats and proteins.

What Are Carbohydrates?

A carbohydrate molecule is made up of atoms of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. In simple terms, the nutritionally significant carbohydrate molecules that we need to concern ourselves with is glucose. Glucose is found as a natural sugar in food or is formed when more complex carbohydrates are broken down in the body by digestion of food containing carbohydrates. Glucose is the molecule that gives us energy to move in everyday life.

What Do Carbohydrates Do?

After digestion of foods containing carbohydrates from a meal are broken down, glucose is absorbed by our small intestine and is then put to work by our bodies. The role of glucose includes:

  • Used by our cells for energy
  • Can be stored in our liver and muscles
  • Converted to fat as another energy source

This is the part where some confusion can occur over how much carbohydrate we should be eating. If for example we eat a meal full of carbohydrates and we do not use that energy it provides through exercise as an example then that carbohydrate will be converted to fat and stored. Therefore, eating too many foods high in carbohydrates without burning it off through exercise will convert to fat and that is how individuals may put on weight! Therefore, if you are not an active person be sure to control your carbohydrate intake or try to stick to low GI foods.

To make sense of this we can categorise carbohydrates into sectors using what is known as a Glycaemic index (GI), which is an indicator of different food’s (containing carbohydrates) ability to raise our blood sugar level. Gaining an understanding around this will enable us to take a leaner approach to the application of carbohydrates in our diet and reduce waste in processes where we need to count calories and are trying to shed excess body fat.

Following the lean approach of understanding the bigger picture before honing in on the details, allows you to become more aware of your eating habits and encourages accountability. Read Being Lean to learn more about how to apply Lean to get more for less in your Food & Fitness regime.

Sources Of Carbohydrate

There is usually a certain amount of carbohydrate in the majority of foods we eat and as mentioned above we use the GI index to determine the ability of these foods to raise our blood sugar level. Foods that contain high levels of carbohydrate are foods such as breads, pasta, potatoes as well as chocolate and sweets. It is important to note here that another group of foods that predominantly score high on the GI index is fruit. Although fruit is perceived as a healthy alternative to, let’s say sweets or chocolate, the natural sugar (fructose) in fruit can be detrimental to your fat loss goals.  These foods would tend to score high on the glycemic index and raise blood sugar levels quickly. This means that these types of foods in moderation would be ideal if you need ‘quick’ energy for exercise but too much of these types of foods when trying to lose weight are definitely your foe! Foods that tend to score moderately or lower on the glycaemic index are whole wheat products such as brown breads and brown pasta, beans and lentils, these foods are also usually high in fibre. These foods are ideal for slower releases of energy and usually keep you fuller for longer.

So How Much Carbohydrate Should We Be Eating?

This will highly depend on the type of person you are, obviously if you are a person who exercises regularly

whether this is to build muscle through weight training or just keeping fit through cardio exercise then you will need to be eating a higher carbohydrate diet in order to fuel your exercise. If you are one of those people you should be looking to eat between 200-300g of carbohydrate a day.

However, if you do not do a lot of exercise this should be significantly lower perhaps around 100-150g per day due to the fact these carbohydrates would not be burned off and therefore stored as fat.

Whether carbohydrates are your friend or foe depends on the individual and where you are on the health and fitness scale. Lean advocates flexibility and challenging of status quo. Go round the improvement (PDCA) cycle a few laps. From a macro view, carbs might be your foe under

circumstances when you need to lose fats, but it becomes a friend when you are toning up and sculpting those hard-earned muscles that come through when the fats melt away. From a micro view, it could be a friend on days when you do strength training and a foe on your non-training days. Carbohydrate control (increasing, decreasing or choices based on your goals) will ultimately allow you to speed up results and reduce waste, not only of your time but of your effort!