All bodies - and especially if you exercise...
Read on to find out what carbohydrates are, what they are used for and what happens when our bodies don't get this important macronutrient.
What are carbohydrates?
There is no doubt that carbs get a hard time when it comes to weight management and within the 'diet culture' space, but what exactly are they?
Carbohydrates are our body's preferred source of energy. During digestion, carbohydrate is broken down into glucose, which is the main source of fuel for our body's cells, tissues and organs. Literally our whole body requires carbohydrate to function well - yes, this includes our brain and heart, as well as the muscles that we use to train and move through our days. Pretty important really!
Where do we get carbohydrate from?
LOTS of places and there are different types. You may have heard of the terms 'simple' and 'complex' carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates are essentially sugars, they are easily broken down and utilised by the body. Complex carbs take longer to break down and therefore provide us with longer lasting energy.
In their simplest form within our diet, carbohydrates come from sugar (as well as the obvious white stuff - think honey, lollies, chocolate, syrups and fizzy drinks). This is also one of the easiest and fastest forms for our bodies to digest...Great for when you need a very quick burst of energy - pre or mid workout, or when being chased by a lion(?!). But this type of sugar is not so great when consumed regularly. With the spike in energy, soon comes the crash, which of course leads to the want or perceived need for more sugar - you see where we're going here?
More nutrient dense forms of carbohydrate, the ones we want to regularly include in our diet, include wholegrains like oats, quinoa, rice and starchy veg - such as potato, pumpkin, kumara and yams. Carbohydrate consumed in these forms is released into your body much slower, therefore not causing the energy spike and crash we get from more simple forms.
Pasta and bread are other fantastic, convenient forms of carbohydrate and are not to be feared! Add some protein, colour and healthy fat to your plate or sandwich and you've got one well balanced, satiating and sustaining meal right there.
What does our body use carbohydrate for?
Short answer - literally everything! As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, carbohydrate is our body's preferred source of fuel and our body needs fuel to be able to perform. When I say perform, I do not just mean in a training or exercise sense either - our bodies are working, building, breathing, thinking, pumping, growing whether we're moving or not. They need energy to do this! Yes, the body uses other sources of energy for fuel (fats and protein), they're just not nearly as efficient (a topic for another blog!).
The below extract is taken directly from the NZ Nutrition Foundation website:
"During digestion, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose which is then absorbed into your bloodstream. Glucose, also known as blood sugar is the main source of energy for your body’s cells, including your brain. Glucose can be used immediately or can be stored in the liver or muscle as glycogen."
For more information on how carbohydrates, proteins and fats make up a balanced diet, take a look at THIS previous blog post.
Carbohydrates and exercise
Fuelling correctly around your training can have a major impact on your session and recovery - carbohydrates are an important component of this. As we have covered already, carbs are our bodies preferred source of energy, hence why they form a key part in pre and post workout nutrition.
Having some form of carbohydrate before your session will fuel your muscles to enable you to perform to your potential. This will look different depending on the time of day you train and maybe the length/intensity of the session you intend to do.
The less time you have before your session (30 minutes or less), the more 'simple' your carbohydrate source should be - we wan't to get that fuel in there and able to be accessed quickly! Something as simple as a banana, or some jam or honey on white toast are great examples. For those of you that train early in the morning and think you couldn't possibly eat anything before, try having something small (even half a banana) and see if it makes a difference to your session.
If you have a little longer before you train (2-3 hours), the more 'complex' your carbohydrate source can be. Maybe it's your lunch which contains some wholegrain bread, baked potato, or a grain like brown rice or quinoa. You may need a little boost pre-training, that's where you could top up with one of the more simple options we've mentioned above.
Protein is often hailed as the post-training hero, but carbohydrates are equally as important - as well as hydration! Aim to have something rich in protein and carbs within 2 hours of training to help support your muscles in recovery. Sometimes this will be in the form of your next meal, but if that's a while away, prioritising a substantial balanced snack is a good idea. Great options include yoghurt and fruit and/or cereal, a smoothie packed with protein and colour as well as your carb source, peanut butter and banana on toast, egg on toast or even a nut and seed bar.
What happens if we don't get enough carbohydrate in our diet?
Our bodies communicate with us constantly, giving us signs or symptoms to tell us when something may not be quite right. This can be as obvious as a tummy rumble when it's been a little too long since your last meal, or more subtle hints like those that may be signs of a sub-optimal intake of carbohydrate.
Some signs to look out for include a lack of concentration (I know I definitely have trouble focusing if I haven't eaten for a while!), decreased energy or always feeling lethargic, having a short temper or mood swings and even bloating.
Listen to what your body is telling you and be honest with yourself about that information...Could you try adding a little more of the carbohydrate containing ingredients to your meals for a few days and see how you feel?
The bottom line is, there is no 'one size fits all' when it comes to nutrition. There are lots of factors involved when it comes to how a person chooses to eat as well as what works best for them. This blog is written with the intention of sharing information in the hope that those who read it may learn something from it...And maybe even quiet the noise surrounding the message that 'carbs are bad' - it's simply not the case.
Balance, eating predominantly whole foods from all of the food groups and enjoyment are really all that we are looking for when it comes to eating well. It doesn't need to be difficult, but the information is also available if you are wishing to really optimise your nutrition, training and recovery.
Here's to eating real pasta, the whole banana or sandwiches for lunch knowing that these foods are fuel for the full and happy life we want to live!