Carbohydrates (carbs) are a very popular topic these days. Carbs are one of the three main macronutrients (macros) along with fat and protein. Various opinions exist on optimal quantities and portioning of macros for health and performance. Proteins and fats are essential because they provide building blocks for our bodies that can only be obtained through diet (from meat, fish, poultry, dairy, soy, nuts and oils). Glucose (sugar) can also be produced from proteins in the liver when carbs are absent or during intense exercise. The reason carbs are important is because some of them provide the most ideal sources of essential vitamins, minerals and fibers (also only obtained through diet). Carbs arguably have the most variety of differences of all the macros as far as choices, though. Studies show the majority of Americans consume poor choices of carbs. Choosing the appropriate type and quantity of carbs is vital to health and fitness goals. You need to get good quality carbs daily for optimal health.
Are Carbs The Most Important Macro?
Nutrient-dense carbohydrates like vegetables and fruits provide many vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants and healthy fibers (good). Furthermore, these carb sources tend to be lower in sugar in comparison to starchy carbs (breads, pastas, rice) and sweets (candy, desserts, baked goods). Sugar is the most potent releaser of insulin, a “growth” (anabolic) hormone that shuttles nutrients into the muscles and builds lean body mass. However, excess insulin (hyperinsulinemia) from too much sugar intake causes fat growth and inflammation. Hyperinsulinemia is responsible for things like diabetes, high blood pressure and other metabolic and cardiovascular disorders.
Many authorities claim glucose is the main energy source of the body and brain. This is not exactly true. Our bodies actually use fat as energy for most activities of daily living and low-intensity exercise (think walking, jogging, hiking, climbing stairs, etc). It is only under high-intensity exercise that our body may benefit from higher intake of sugar (think sprinting, weightlifting, and resistance training). Aside from competitive and professional athletes, the majority of people do not need much sugar.
How Often Should Carbohydrates Be Consumed?
Daily carb intake is not set in stone. Activity levels and the person’s duration of intensity, gender, weight, age, medical conditions and genetics dictate optimal individual intake. Regardless, nutrient-dense vegetables (leafy greens, onions, peppers, purple cabbage, green beans, raw carrots, broccoli, etc.) and fruits (berries, oranges, grapefruits, kiwi, etc.) that are low in sugar are the ideal choices. The general rule is at least eight or more servings (8+ cups) of vegetables (~6-8 servings) and fruits (~2-3 servings) daily. This level of intake provides all the benefits of carbs, including lowered inflammation, optimal gut health, favorable metabolic profiles (blood glucose, HbA1c, cholesterol, triglycerides), just to name a few. Additionally, veggies and fruits tend to be very filling and may reduce hunger, too.
Bottom line, your carbohydrate intake needs to be balanced with adequate protein and fat for your individual needs. Vegetables and fruits are your best source of carbs. You need to get at least eight or more servings of nutrient-dense veggies and fruits daily to reap the benefits. Try to get two servings of every color (red, green, blue, purple, white, orange, yellow). If you undergo intense training regularly, keep additional intake of carbohydrates to levels that support exercise and not body fat.
Nate Charpentier, PharmD, RPh has been trained in how to manage health and disease using pharmacological intervention. He believes food is the most important pharmacological choice we make on a daily basis. His website, GrassFedFarmacy.com, is a new start-up for health awareness. He is an active member and coach in the CrossFit community.