Marc Perry, C.S.C.S., ACE-CPT, and founder of Built Lean, answers questions about everything and anything related to carbohydrates, their function and how to use them appropriately.
1. How many grams of carbs should be consumed in a day? Is there a ratio or math equation to determine how much is needed?
“The amount of carbs to eat in a day depends on several variables including your (1) body size, (2) activity level, (3) fitness goals, and (4) genetics. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest around 55% of your calories each day should come from carbohydrates. Most bodybuilders consume around 50% of total calories from carbs whereas low carb advocates can consume as low as 10-15%.
Technically, carbs are not an essential nutrient so we don’t need to eat them to survive. With that said, going very low carb is simply unnecessary to reach your health and fitness goals.
The best way to arrive at your desired carb intake is to first establish how many grams of protein and fat you want to eat first, then the balance will be your carb intake. For example, if you are looking to cut some fat for the summer without losing muscle, you can intake 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, 0.5 grams of fat per pound, and the balance will be carbs. For a 180lb man, that means 180 grams of protein and 90 grams of fat. Assuming a 2,000 calorie diet, that leaves 200 grams of carbs left over (1 gram of protein/carbs has 4 calories, and 1 gram of fat has 9 calories). The percentage breakdown in this example is roughly 35% protein, 45% carbs, and 20% fat.
As a general guideline, somewhere around 40-50% carbs, 25-30% protein, and 20-30% fat is a solid benchmark during a cutting program. You can play around with increasing, or decreasing the carb/fat level to see what works best for you. ”
2. When should I consume the most about of carbs, and when should I cut them?
“After your workout is a great time to eat relatively more carbohydrates and even faster digesting carbohydrates. Carbs are anabolic because they raise your blood sugar level, which in turn stimulates the storage hormone insulin. Insulin gets a bad reputation because it can increase fat storage, but it can also be your friend by helping your muscles suck in more protein. After a workout, eating carbs with protein in a roughly 2:1 ratio can help your body utilize the protein most effectively. Eating more carbs when you have a endurance race, or competition can also be helpful. “Carb loading”, or consuming large amounts of carbs to saturate your sugar storage tanks (muscles and liver) leading up to an athletic event can help you perform better.
You don’t necessarily have to cut carbohydrates, but eating excessive carbs is not advisable. So if you are a 180lb guy who works out a few days per week and has a sedentary job, somewhere around 200 grams will help fuel your bodily functions and your workouts without any excess being wasted and converted to fat. For every extra full hour you spend exercising, you can add on 50-100 grams of carbs. For frame of reference, endurance athletes intake as much as 300-400+ grams of carbs per day. “
3. What is carb cycling—and how does it work?
“There are many carb cycling frameworks and each varies depending on whether you are trying to build muscle, or lose fat. One of the most popular is 3 days low, one day high. There are a lot of factors to consider (body size etc) to come up with your carb breakdown, but one method during a cutting program is to eat one gram of carbs per pound of Lean Body Mass [bodyweight x (1- body fat percentage)] and double that number on your higher carb day. The challenge with the 3 low, 1 high framework is that it doesn’t fit neatly within a week. I personally prefer choosing 2 high carb days each week, one of which is on your most intense lifting day (such as legs), and the rest are low carb.
Keep in mind that carbs are only part of the nutrition equation, because you still have to get the calories right, which is more important. In fact, the reason why carb cycling works is arguably not because you are varying carb intake, but because by decreasing carb intake you decrease calorie intake. A quick carb cycling tip is to follow a “carbohydrate tapering” approach where you eat more carbs in the morning and taper them throughout the day on your low carb days. There is no scientific proof this strategy helps you burn more fat, but it makes implementation much easier. “
PRE and POST-WORKOUT CARBOHYDRATES
4. How important is the timing of carbs in relation to your workout routine? Is it one hour before and after that’s safest for breakfast?
“Whether you are looking to build muscle, or lose fat, your prime objective is to have plenty of energy for your workouts. If you find that your energy levels are high without eating carbs before your morning workout, then you don’t need the carbs. If, however, you are looking to build some muscle and find your energy levels waning during your workout, then a protein shake and an apple before your workout can work well because they are easy to digest while fueling your body with ample protein and carbs. After your morning workout you can have a normal breakfast.”
DIFFERENT TYPES OF CARBOHYDRATES:
5. I would really like to know more about the relationship between fiber and carbs/net carbs. Is fiber counted as carbs? Also I’d love to hear about sugar alcohols—what are they?
“There are two types of dietary fiber: (1) soluble and (2) insoluble. Soluble fiber becomes a gel like substance when added to water and is minimally digested, and insoluble fiber does not change when added to water, instead passing through our bodies mostly intact. Both types of fiber, which are derived from plants, are considered carbohydrates due to their molecular structure.
Whether or not dietary fiber should be considered a calorie is open for debate and is even treated differently from country to country (most consider insoluble fiber as providing 0 calories), but it is agreed that dietary fiber slows down the digestion process, which reduces blood sugar levels. This is the exact opposite effect of most carbs, which increase blood sugar levels. Most nutritionists recommend subtracting dietary fiber from the total carb count to arrive at the “net” carbs. In a medium-sized apple for example, the total carbs is 25 grams and the dietary fiber is 4 grams, leaving 21 grams of net carbs.
Sugar alcohol gets its name because of its molecular structure, which is a hybrid between a sugar molecule and an alcohol molecule. Most sugar alcohols provide less calories, sweetness, and impact to blood sugar levels as normal sugar, which is why they are often subtracted from total carbs like fiber.
Here are the key points: 1) Sugar alcohols are considered safe for human consumption 2) They do not cause a rise in blood sugar levels like normal sugar 3) They may cause gastric distress, bloating, and diarrhea if eaten in large quantities, or if you have a pre-existing condition like irritable bowel syndrome. “