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Carb seems to have become a low-down, dirty, four-letter word in the fitness industry. Hear someone use the word carb, referring to his or her diet,
and you'll likely think, 'Why is he/she eating carbs?' Whereas carbs used to be plentiful on any bodybuilder's plate, now they appear to have gotten
a bad rap.
In my opinion the mainstream diet industry is to blame for a lot of this change because diets like Dr. Atkins' and others have made carbs unpopular. Bodybuilders and fitness competitors have latched onto this perception and incorporated it into their psyches so that they now have an aversion to carbohydrates. Believe me, though, the bad rap sur-rounding carbs is a fallacy. Sure, loading up on carbs in great quantities, and all the time, can spell trouble to a competitor, but carbs also serve an important purpose in any athlete's body - always have and always will.
There are three main macronutrient groups: proteins, carbohydrates and fats. They all provide energy to the body, but with varying schedules of delivery. Proteins and fats supply energy in the form of calories. Protein eventually delivers glucose, but the body takes a long time to access it. On the other hand, carbohydrates offer calories that are quickly converted into glucose and are readily available for energy, much faster than any other type of food.
You need glucose because the body burns it to produce heat (energy) and ATP, a molecule that stores and releases energy from muscle cells as required. Glucose is converted into energy in two ways: with and without oxygen. In the belly of most cells (the mitochondria) glucose is converted into energy with oxygen. Since red blood cells don't have mitochondria, they convert glucose into energy without oxygen.
That little chemistry lesson should give you a bit of background to understand how carbohydrates produce energy the body needs.
Omitting them can be as dangerous as eating too much of them. Here's why: Muscle cells can produce energy from glucose either with or without oxygen. You might say they're ambi-energetic. They can switch off according to what's at hand. So, for instance, if there is little oxygen in the muscle cells, the cells still go right ahead and convert glucose to useable energy. If an abundance of oxygen is present, the same principle applies.
When your muscle cells don't need all the glucose for energy immediately, they turn it into glycogen (a starch) which is stored for later use in the muscle cells and in the liver. Your body can stash about 400 grams of glycogen into muscle cells and liver. That's about 1700 calories of energy that your body can store if you're a 150-pound person. People fear that carbohydrates will cause them to greatly increase their bodyweight. When you're trying to diet down for a competition, the last thing you want to do is inflate your body with a ton of carbs. Okay, fair enough. But what about keeping your body's machine (metabolism) working correctly? Isn't that important too? Of course. I wanted to write this particular column so that I could remind competitors, my clients, and the general public about why carbohydrates have their place in any diet.
No doubt manipulation of the diet is half of bodybuilding success. You can have the greatest physique in the world underneath your winter layer of fat, but if you can't take enough of that fat off to showcase your efforts and the God-given genetic talent that prompted you to compete, you aren't going to do well. Omitting carbohydrates for a short time or in a brief ongoing cycle of dieting is highly effective for fat loss. However, getting into the habit of avoiding carbs to stay in shape for photo shoots and personal appearances can become a counterproductive practice.
Just as the body adapts to stress of any kind and needs constant change, so does the metabolism. Omit carbs long enough and you'll have a problem on your hands if you start eating them again. People who follow Atkins' first zero-carb phase will know exactly what I mean because after a while the rebounds are too great and the diet becomes less effective. The trick is to follow that kind of plan for only a few weeks at a time, and then gradually add small amounts of carbs back into the diet in order to find the balance each individual body needs, based on activity, goals, age and many other factors; otherwise, the body rebels.
Providing the body energy is a great feat, but it isn't the only contribution carbohydrates make. Bodybuilders and other aesthetically minded folks think they can get the energy they need to perform in the gym or on a stage from fats, rather than from carbohydrates, so they assume they do not need carbs to function. They believe aesthetics can then dictate cutting them out altogether. In some ways this perception is true in the short term because the body responds by losing bodyfat and water rapidly in the absence of carbs. However, carbohydrates have other functions, and what they do for the body matters much more than their aesthetic impact on a dieter's program.
Carbohydrates protect muscles in ways that other macronutrient groups cannot. When you need energy, your body looks for carbohydrates first. If none are available, because you're on a carbo-restricted diet or because you automatically limit them while still working out hard, your body then begins to burn its own protein tissues for energy. That means muscle! If this process continues for very long, you can run out of fuel and eventually even die. Now, while bodybuilders do not get to that point, they definitely push carb restriction to the extreme.
A diet that provides even a little carbohydrate with each meal will make the body run much better than a body that is getting zero carbohydrates. That's why you hear people refer to a higher carbohydrate allotment as protein-sparing. It is actually sparing the life of your muscle!
Carbohydrates regulate the amount of sugar you have circulating at any given time in your bloodstream and throughout your body so that all the cells get exactly what they need. They also provide nutrients for the good bacteria found in your gut that help digest food and fight illness (the flora and fauna that ward off disease-causing bacteria). This factor is crucial when you talk about people who restrict all carbohydrates, all the time. They are much more susceptible to disease and illness than whose who include even 10 to 20 grams of carbohydrates per meal.
Carbohydrates are important in helping you absorb nutrients, vitamins and minerals, such as calcium. They regulate blood pressure and also prevent you from developing a very high cholesterol level. Naturally cholesterol is affected by other factors, such as genetics and quality of the rest of the diet, but carbohydrate is a great ally to have when high cholesterol runs in your family. Knowing how much is enough and what kind of carbs are called for at any given time is essential to effective use.
If you're a marathon runner, a long-distance cyclist or a swimmer, you can eat any and all carbohydrates, as well as proteins and fats, in abundance. But since most people aren't this active, you need to pick and choose carbohydrates and quantities to suit activity levels, genetics, age and goals.
This is one reason diet experts began discussing the glycemic index, a system for grading all carbohydrates - since they aren't all created equal - and giving them scores on the basis of their ability to increase blood sugar level within a certain time frame. Sugars and starchy carbohydrates elevate blood sugar level the fastest, whereas lower glycemic choices, such as vegetables, some fruits, and nonstarchy carbohydrates (broccoli, strawberries, oatmeal) keep blood sugar level from spiking rapidly. If you read my column last month, you know a high level of blood sugar circulating in the bloodstream causes a release of fat-producing insulin. Bodybuilders, therefore, aim to consume mostly those carbohydrates that don't cause an unnecessary release of insulin. The balance that bodybuilders and fitness athletes need to strike with carbohydrates is crucial to aesthetics.