The role of carbohydrates is unique in that they have one primary purpose in the body – energy. Carbohydrates are probably the most controversial subject in nutrition today. We’ve been taught that they should be a staple in our diet through whole grains, cereals, and fruit. Today, we are realizing the damaging effects of sugar and gluten and establishing polar ideas on carbohydrate intake for health.
Role of Carbohydrates | Necessary to Live?
Carbohydrates are a non-essential macronutrient in that you can compensate for lacking it in your diet with protein and fats. This point is argued among nutrition experts, as your brain and red blood cells run only on glucose. Lucky for us, our body can make enough glucose for our brain through gluconeogenesis.
Vilhjalmur Stefansson was an explorer in the Arctic. He documented and consumed the Inuit diet. This consisted of 90% meat and fish. As he found out it is nearly impossible to cut out all carbohydrates as even the muscle in meats contain glycogen. Now, I don’t recommend eating raw meat or even that you should cut carbohydrates completely.
Find out what I do recommend here!
Role of Carbohydrates | Athletic Performance
As mentioned in my Carbohydrate Counting post, carbs are great for explosive activity. These activities include short bursts of high-intensity movements like powerlifting, sprinting, and sports like football. Carbohydrates are stored in skeletal muscle and the liver as glycogen. Glycogen can be quickly broken down into glucose for the muscle to use. It’s widely understood that they will increase performance in these types of athletes.
What about Endurance Athletes?
The role of carbohydrates in endurance athletes is simple. It is used as another source of energy in longer races. The more energy the body has to tap into the longer an athlete can prolong fatigue. These athletes especially will use a technique called, “carb loading.”
Carb loading is a technique used to before an athletic event to maximize glycogen storage. Bodybuilders will even take advantage of carb depleting before a competition to make the cells more sensitive to glycogen storage to maximize this. (Glycogen Supercompensation Effect).
Role of Carbohydrates | I’m not an Athlete anymore…
Ok, so what about the rest of us? Carbohydrates are still a great source of energy and should be used in moderation. Too often we get sucked into polar opinions of you should eat this all the time and never this. Just as the ancient Greeks used to believe, do everything in moderation and nothing in excess. The number of carbohydrates will vary on activity levels and goals. If you’re interested, check out my post on how many carbs you should be eating, here.
I personally enjoy cycling my carbohydrates based on what I did that day.
To be clear eating too many carbohydrates will be pushed to fat storage. If you are a carb fiend, then I suggest you learn to enjoy exercise more. When it comes to fat loss, you can diet hard without exercise and get results. But you will be at a huge disadvantage if you do not exercise with over 150g of carbohydrates in your diet.
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Role of Carbohydrates | Fiber
Fiber is a nondigestible carbohydrate. The purpose of this is still evolving, but what we do know is that fiber can help improve a healthy gut flora. It can help reduce cravings for foods by helping you feel fuller. And the most notable role is its ability to maintain digestive motility.
How much Fiber?
The textbook answer is 10 grams for every 1,000 calories ingested. Once again, the text isn’t trying to be optimal necessarily. I will, however, recommend this as a starting place. If you do have gut issues that worsen after increasing it, then you may need to consult a natural health care practitioner to help correct the issues. For the majority of people, this should not be an issue.
Pro Tip: You should aim to get your fiber from vegetables and not grains.
A note about Sugar
Sugar, like the other carbohydrates noted, will be broken down into it’s the smallest component – glucose. So, what’s with the war on sugar then? Sugar will stimulate an inflammatory response. As with anything inflammatory, the amount needed to cause symptoms will vary depending on your ability to manage it. It’s in everything and cutting it will drastically reduce this load. I could go on for another 1,000 words about sugar, but I’ll save it for another post. The main takeaway is its inflammatory component.