From all the low carbohydrate diets and weight loss products available, a visitor from Mars with no knowledge of human nutrition would probably assume that carbs are really unhealthy and should be avoided at all costs. As with so many aspects of nutrition, what the media presents as the truth is often actually a more complicated issue than good versus bad foods. By arming yourself with some straight forward common sense information, you’ll soon see that the media’s knee-jerk reaction against carbs is mistaken at best and just plain wrong at worst.
Carbohydrates supply energy for an active lifestyle. They are converted to glucose of which a small amount is used by your brain (around 150 grams per day) while the rest is used by your muscles to power high intensity physical effort. Any carbs that are surplus to those two major requirements are a) stored in your liver to provide a reservoir of energy for your brain, stored in your muscles for later use or converted to fat if you’ve eaten more than you need.
In simple terms, the less active you are, the less carbohydrate your body can effectively handle. If you train hard, are active during your day because you walk lots or perform strenuous physical activities then carbs are not only necessary, they are all but essential. If, however, you don’t train hard and are mostly sedentary, your body will, in the blink of an overweight eye, shunt many of those carbs into your fat cells. That is why so many people are “down” on carbs – the majority of the population simply aren’t active enough to be able to effectively process a moderate or high carb diet.
The key to staying on good terms with carbs is a concept I like to call “earning your carbs”. All I mean by this is that you should time your carb consumption around your activity periods. The best “windows of opportunity” for carb consumption are before and after physical activity: basically your pre and post exercise feedings.
Prior to exercise, it pays to have carbs “in your system” to provide rapid fuel to power you through your workouts. After exercise, when you have depleted your intramuscular stores of carbohydrate (called glycogen) you need to re-stock so your body is fuelled up and ready to go for your next workout. The rest of the day, your carb intake should reflect your activity levels so if you are predominately sedentary, lay off the pasta, rice, bread and potatoes and go for lots of cruciferous and leafy veggies instead.