Carbohydrates and Bodybuilding share a long standing love-hate relationship. You can call them your frenemies. Friends, when used correctly can help build muscle, but enemies, and can make you extraordinarily fat, when used incorrectly.
Carbohydrates are an essential macronutrient that is our bodies primary ingredient for energy. It is converted to glucose that our body uses for energy. Glucose are simple sugars so right off the bat do understand that even the best carbohydrates for bodybuilding are converted into glucose; which essentially is a sugar. The trick here is to recognize which one is a fast reacting carb and which is a slow reacting carb (more on this later!)
Sugar, when dumped into the bloodstream raises insulin. Insulin and it’s release is propagated by carbs, which is why they are notorious for weight gain. Insulin shuts down the fat burning process in the body. So insulin would signal the body to uptake the glucose produced by carbs for energy and signal fat and muscle cells to take the glucose from the blood. Obviously you’d want the glucose to go to your muscle but when the body is producing sufficient energy, and depending on your body-type, it is stored as fat.
Another important thing to note here, before we jump into the types of carbs, is the prioritization our body gives to these certain macronutrients. For energy, the body prefers carbohydrates and if you are ‘carb-sensitive’, then that just means that your body either has an offset nutrient partitioning. These kind of people especially need to monitor their daily intake of carbohydrates.
- Slow Acting Carbs
Slow acting carbs are lower on the glycemic index, is a chart which shows which foods elevate our blood glucose and insulin levels higher than the rest, because they give you a sustained release of energy and are the preferred source of carbs in the body. These include wholegrain, oatmeal, sweet potato etc. The insulin will not be spiked but rather increase at a tapered rate. These foods are fantastic options for a pre-workout food and is the ideal food to eat during the day.
- Fast Acting Carbs
Like the name suggests, these carbs are high acting, giving you a high insulin spike and overall higher glucose levels in a said period of time. That being said, they do have a place in bodybuilding. As a post-workout meal you would need fast acting carbs to drive your insulin upwards to provide essential nutrients, whey protein, to the muscle. This is not mandatory though but does the job well. Examples include glucose, dextrose and all your sugary treats like chocolates and donuts and ice cream!
Tip: Don’t go overboard with the post-workout sugars! Ice-creams are still laden with unhealthy fats!
To understand why carbs are important we need to understand a few things:
1. Glycogen and its importance in physical activity- Glycogen is the compound that is broken down into glucose. Weightlifting or bodybuilding or anything involving short bursts of energy need glycogen because fat can not be metabolized quickly enough to provide the energy one needs which is why low intensity steady state cardio burns more fat because it depletes glycogen and then burns the fat. This is also the reason why a low-carb diet will cause lethargic workouts, and sometimes even crashes. Thus the benefits of post workout carbs are such that they replenish the glycogen used by intensive exercise.
2. Conversion of glucose to fat- After your body is finished using the energy from the glucose, guess where the excess glucose goes? It goes to the liver to be stored as something called FAT. There is no limit to the fat although carbs contribute less to fat than high fat foods.
Tip: Unlike liver cells, fat cells can store an unlimited amount of fat!
3. The glycemic index is basically a bodybuilding carbs list. It includes the carbs from dextrose and glucose to complex carbs like bread and oatmeal. The higher the glycemic index of a particular food item, the more you should use it as post workout carbs. The lower it is on the glycemic index, the more frequent use of the food item avails.
Carbohydrates were made for muscle building and this is because you can play about the insulin release to your advantage. After raising your insulin levels using fast acting carbs, you can pretty much ensure that the post-workout whey protein shake will be delivered to your muscles because they need the energy to replenish their empty glycogen levels. The best carbohydrates for bodybuilding are basically of both kinds. Slow acting carbs, pre-workout, to give you constant energy to your worn out muscles, and fast acting carbs, post-workout, to repair your muscles after your workout. Carb timing is an art and thus one should learn how to manipulate your carbs for maximum effectiveness.
This is where it gets a little confusing. Do you cut down on your carbs to cut the fat? Or do you cut fats? Honestly it depends on your body type and carb sensitivity. If you’re getting ready for a show, I’d recommend you cut your carbs and you’d need to do the same to follow a six pack abs diet. However if you are an ectomorph then you should use carbs as a tool to maximize your gym potential. Hence the answer to how many carbs should you really eat to build muscle or lose fat, is to count your calories and use the hit and trail method to figure out. 40% of your daily macros is a good starting point.
Tip: Ectomorphs should use liquid carbs post-workout to get more calories
Fiber also has an important role to play in our bodies. Not only does it provide roughage but other vital components. For more on fiber, read here!