“C’mon, fire me up. Pour your sugar on me. Oh, I can’t get enough. I’m hot, sticky sweet. From my head to my feet, yeah.” ~Def Leppard
The answer to our question, and just about any health and nutrition question, is “it depends.”? But the following is a level-headed, science-based, as well as experience-based set of guideposts to help you determine the right answer for you as an individual.
Carbohydrates have received a thorough lashing of late with the explosion of self-proclaimed nutrition experts on the internet, of which I was guilty of being one myself when I first started doing this (and bashed carbohydrates in favor of fat in delusional hopes that fat was some undiscovered ideal fuel source…. uh, not so much as it turns out). But carbs still rule, and will always rule, especially when looking at the whole spectrum of generally healthy diet and lifestyle?practices.
Although I do believe there are a few rare cases of people who may do better obtaining their dietary energy primarily from fat rather than carbohydrates, temporarily or permanently,’those are anomalies that don’t really enter into a conversation about general food consumption. I consider the minimum carbohydrate consumption, for most, is roughly 50% of dietary calories. Thus, if you need 3200 calories per day, 1600?of those calories should come from carbohydrates – about 400 grams.
However, the minimum increases any time you consider doing?physical activity. Again, there are many individuals in poor enough physical condition that exercise will only make their health worse, not better. But from a general perspective, being physically active has far more benefits than drawbacks.Taking exercise into consideration, the logic then follows on this trajectory…
- The more carbohydrates you eat before exercise, the more liver and muscle glycogen (stored carbohydrate) you have.
- The more stored glycogen you have,’the harder you can exercise and the longer you can exercise.
- The more carbohydrates you eat after exercise, the faster and?more fully you will replenish glycogen stores.
- The faster you replenish glycogen stores, the more often you can exercise.
Carbohydrates and full glycogen stores do other things as well, such as lower cortisol, increase metabolic rate, and improve sleep – other very potent ingredients in the overall health formula. Thus, carbohydrates are the primary substance allowing you to?exercise more vigorously?and more frequently due to their recovery-expediting effect. Combined with the metabolic effects of carbohydrates on cortisol, muscle fiber type (more fast twitch),?amount of glycogen storage in muscles and liver, and so on – carbohydrates provide everything from enhanced insulin sensitivity and glucose clearance to?improved fitness and body composition (changes in body composition are?most influenced by long-term, cumulative?adaptations to exercise of which carbohydrates determine how your body?performs and responds to exercise stimuli).
Consider the following – from Ellen Coleman’s thorough review of carbohydrate requirements for exercise…
“A mixed diet (50 percent calories from carbohydrate) produced a muscle glycogen content of 106 mmoL/ kg and enabled the subjects to exercise 115 minutes. A low-carbohydrate diet (less than 5 percent of calories from carbohydrate) produced a muscle glycogen content of 38 mmoL/kg and supported only one hour of exercise. However, a high-carbohydrate diet (more than 82 percent of calories from carbohydrate) provided 204 mmoL/kg of muscle glycogen and enabled the subjects to exercise for 170 minutes.”
In other words,?feeling and looking better boils?down to getting in good physical condition. And getting in good physical condition is not maximally possible without lots of carbohydrates. The more the better in fact – at least up to the point in the diet where so much fat is displaced that the diet is no longer palatable enough to foster adequate calorie intake.
The minimum carbohydrate intake for anyone engaging in pretty regular physical activity (say, an hour of moderate exercise per day on average), is considered to be 5 grams per kg of lean body weight. For someone like me with a lean weight around 85-90 kg, that’s over 400 grams per day. But with my extensive exercise experience with a wide range of exercise volumes, frequency, and intensities talking?- most people will feel an immediate improvement in performance and recovery, as well as a stronger desire to be physically active (and enjoy doing stuff physically more in general), in the range recommended for much harder training athletes – 7-12 grams per kg of lean body weight each day.
I would be more than happy to donate a portion of my genitalia to?have had a firmer grasp on this back in’the peak of my hiking and cycling days. Once I ate?a measly 150-ish grams of carbs per day all summer while?hiking 700 very slow, painful miles.Back then I had trouble putting things together,?even when I had trouble keeping up with a sedentary, potbellied fish biologist on one trip.Lack of carbs must starve the brain of considerable glucose as well!
How hard you exercise is also a big factor. The higher your heart rate while exercising, the faster you rip through glycogen supplies. Even 15 minutes of very intense exercise is enough to reduce glycogen stores by half – perhaps even more if you are really going at your maximum threshold. Easy, light exercise spares glycogen and takes a lot less carbohydrate to recover from.?But even if you are doing fairly light endurance exercise like hiking, you’ll notice you go much faster and much farther without breathing so hard if you?eat more carbohydrates as?opposed to less.
But, like anything else in the world of nutrition, exercise, and health in general, there is nothing that compares to personal experimentation as long as it is intelligently-guided (you are paying attention to the appropriate markers to determine success that is).Play around with your diet and see for yourself if this holds true. Pay close attention to:
- Your desire to exercise.
- How?hard or easy it feels when you are exercising.
- How long it takes you to recover.
To get your carbohydrate intake up I recommend’sweet fruit, dried fruit, juice and sweetened low-fat milk, breakfast cereals,’starches with minimal added fat – such as rice, bread, and potatoes, and exercise drinks containing dextrose or maltodextrin – especially before, during, and?immediately after exercise.When selecting from these foods,?you should eat what digests best, tastes the best to you, and allows you to get in the most carbs without peeing your brains out (lots of carbs per volume of water taken in with them, as discussed most thoroughly in Eat for Heat).