Being in good physical shape is a game of numbers. In order to achieve the desired muscle gain, fat loss and improved strength, you have to count the calorie intake, measure your muscles, track the pounds you lift and repetitions you’ve made.
Numbers become pivotal companion to your training. Learning how to operate them, in terms of calories, nutrients, meals, weights – will help you improve faster, and expedite the muscle gaining process.
Many people in sports and specifically in bodybuilding/fitness become, at one time or another, aware of the importance of counting carbohydrates. They are essential for producing the energy needed for training and growth. However, if you are trying to achieve leaner figure and decrease your waistline, they can become your enemy.
For example, a 200 lb athlete who tries to cut fat, can get to a daily intake of 80-130 grams of carbohydrates. If we consider that each gram contains 4 calories, you can calculate that you consume 320 to 520 calories per day from carbs. This figure is considerably higher in athletes who try to bulk up. Also, people with lean figure need a higher intake of carbohydrates, while those with heavier figure should increase their proteins and fats, while decreasing the carbs. So how many carbs a day should you eat ?
How many carbs a day do you need ?
The amount of carbs you need to eat in a given day depends on several factors like the size of your body, how physically active you are, your fitness goals and last but not least, your genetics. The prevailing suggestion among nutritionists is that approximately 50% of the calories you ingest every day should come from carbs. The majority of professional bodybuilders get around 50% of their total calories from carbs while the advocates of low-carb diets suggest consuming maximum 10-15%.
Carbohydrates are actually a non-essential nutrient, which means they are not necessary for our survival. Having said that, striving to eat a low amount of calories is unnecessary to achieve your fitness and health goals.
The best method to calculate how many carbs you need to eat each day is to first calculate how many grams of fat and protein you need to eat, with the rest of your calories coming from carbs.
For example, if you want to lose some fat and keep your hard-earned muscle at the same time, you can consume 1 gram of protein and 0.5 grams of fat per pound of body weight, and the rest will be carbohydrates.
For a person who weighs 180 pounds, that translates to 180 grams of protein and 90 grams of fat. If we assume he needs to ingest a maximum of 2000 calories per day, it means he has 200 grams of carbs left over (one gram of protein or carbs has four calories, and one gram of fat has nine calories). The macro-nutrient ratio in this example is approximately 35% protein, 45% carbs, and 20% fat.
A general rule would be to ingest something in the range of 40-50% carbs, 25-30% protein and 20-30% fat if you intend to be on a cutting diet. Of course, you can always play around with the percentages and increase or decrease the carb or fat level and see what’s the best ratio for you.
When should you eat your carbs ?
Immediately post-workout is the most optimal time to consume a relatively high amount of carbohydrates, especially fast-digesting simple carbs. In this instance, they can be quite anabolic since they increase blood sugar levels, which then triggers the release of insulin.
This hormone has gotten a lot of bad rap over the years, because of its tendency to increase the fat storage, but you can also turn it into a powerful ally by helping the muscles get more protein.
After a training session, consuming carbs with protein in 2:1 ratio has been proven to help the body use up the protein more effectively.
Consuming more carbs when you’re preparing for an endurance race or any kind of competition can also be quite beneficial. “Carb loading” or eating high quantities of carbs to saturate the sugar storage deposits, like the muscles and the liver, before a competition can greatly improve your performance.
There’s no need to eliminate carbs completely, however eating them in excess should be avoided. So, if you weigh 180lbs, you train a few days a week and work a sedentary job, circa 200 grams of carbs should be enough fuel for your essential bodily functions, as well as your training sessions without wasting the excess and turning it into fat. For every additional hour you spend in the gym exercising, you can add around 50-100 grams of carbs. As a reference point, endurance athletes consume up to 300-400 grams of carbs a day.
How about carb cycling ?
“Carb cycling” is a diet framework, which can vary depending on your goals, whether losing fat or building muscle. The most popular variation is eating a low amount of carbs for 3 subsequent days and then a high amount on the 4th day. You need to take a lot of factors into consideration like body size in order to calculate the upper carb limit and base your percentages off of that.
However if you want to simplify things, eat one gram of carbs per pound of lean body weight, calculated with the equation:
[(body weight x (1-body fat percentage)]
and then double the resulting number on the high-carb day. For example if you weigh 200 lbs and have 15% body-fat (or 0.15), that’s
200 x (1-0.15) or 200 x 0.85 = 170 g of carbs on low carb days and 340 g of carbs on high carb days.
The problem with this particular approach is that it cannot fit neatly within one week. The preferred choice for some people is 2 high-carb days each week, the first one on the day you train most intensely, like leg day, the second on chest day, and the rest would be low-carb days.
Here’s a guide on how carb cycling works : The Science of Carb Cycling
It should be noted that carbohydrates are only one parameter in the overall nutrition equation, because you still need to calculate your total daily calories right, which is much more important. Basically, the reason why this diet approach works is not because of the varying carb consumption, but because when reducing carb consumption you also reduce total caloric intake.
A nice tip when doing carb cycling is to follow the “tapering” method where you consume more carbs with your breakfast in the morning and then slowly taper them during the day on low-carb days. It’s worth noting, that no study has confirmed that this method helps burn more fat, but a lot of people have said that it helps them implement the carb cycling diet much easier.
What’s the relationship between carbs and fiber? Is fiber actually carbs?
There are two kinds of dietary fiber, soluble and insoluble. When added to water, soluble fiber turns into a gel-like substance and is digested minimally, while insoluble fiber doesn’t change when added to water and passes through the digestive system almost intact. Both kinds of fiber, coming from plants, are counted as carbs because of their molecular structure. Yes, you heard that right – Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that the body can’t digest. That’s why it does not affect your blood sugar levels.
Nutritionists are still debating whether dietary fiber should be counted as a carbohydrate and is treated differently depending on the country. Most of them consider that insoluble fiber has no caloric value, but it is generally agreed that fiber slows down digestion, which maintains reduced blood sugar levels.
This is in stark contrast to most carbs, which greatly increase sugar levels. The majority of nutritionists suggesting subtracting the dietary fiber from the total carb amount to get the amount of the so-called “net” carbs. In an ordinary average-sized apple, the total amount of carbs is 26 grams, dietary fiber 5 grams, which leaves 21 grams of net carbs.
What are sugar alcohols?
Sugar alcohol takes its name from its molecular structure, a hybrid between an alcohol and a sugar molecule. The majority of sugar alcohols have less calories and less impact on blood sugar levels than normal sugar, which is why nutritionists suggest that they be subtracted from the total amount of carbs, the same way fiber is subtracted.
These are the three main takeaway points: sugar alcohols are safe for consumption, they don’t cause an increase in blood sugar levels the way normal sugars do and third, they can cause bloating, gastric illnesses and diarrhea if consumed in large amounts or if one already has an existing condition such as irritable bowel syndrome.
Summary: How many carbs per day should you eat ?
The carbohydrate requirements are different for different athletes. If you are after strength gains and spend most of you day training in the gym lifting weights, then you’ll certainly need higher amounts of carbohydrates. On the other hand, you may want to lower your daily intake if you are a fitness athlete. Just keep in mind that your metabolism is a living thing, responding to the current circumstances, so you’ll have to keep up with these changes, and meet them accordingly.
Another important factor is the right choice of carbohydrates. Foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, rice and pasta abound in healthy nutrients, providing you with enough energy to support your training routine. Naturally, you should avoid junk food or candy. Although packed with carbohydrates, they lack all the other nutrients. If you choose carefully, the results will be swift.
One of the ways for handling the difficult task of keeping up with the rapidly changing numbers of your nutrition is to have a journal. Recording what you eat on daily basis will help you in the long run. It will allow you to compare how many grams of macro-nutrients you’ve had, and the loss or gain in weight each day.
After a week, you average the grams and find out how many carbohydrates you’ve been eating daily in order to achieve your weight, strength and leanness. After this, test by reducing/increasing the number of carbohydrates on daily bases. Compare the results with those of the previous week, and adjust the carbohydrates intake to serve your goals.