Updated: Feb 10
What you’ll learn from this article
What is a carbohydrate?
How can carbohydrates be beneficial for me and achieving my specific goals?
Different sources of carbohydrates
How do I know what is the right amount for me?
How do I control my carbohydrate intake?
Before we look at how incorporating the right amount and variety of carbohydrates can help you and your training / health related goals. Just in case you don’t already, let’s look briefly at ‘what is a carbohydrate’.
With that foundation of knowledge we will then likely have a better understanding of some of the information that will follow.
So, what is a carbohydrate?
A carbohydrate is simply an energy molecule, as is Protein and Fats (these 3 common food groups we know of can be referred to as ‘macronutrients’). It (a carbohydrate) can be found in different types of foods that are readily available to us (we will take a look at some of these shortly, along with what considerations we maybe should make in order to decide which ones, when compared among a variety of different options, could be more beneficial than others).
Protein contains 4kcals (calories) per gram, Fat contains 9kcals per gram and Carbohydrates contain 4kcals per gram.
Therefore if we were to consume a food that contains 20g of Carbohydrates, we would obtain 80kcals of energy from that food from carbohydrates alone (excluding the amount of kcals we may also obtain from any Proteins and Fats if it contained any).
Did you know, the average sized banana contains around 20g of Carbohydrates?
So, if all 3 of these provide us with energy, what makes Carbohydrates so unique? (Because carbohydrates are actually a non-essential macronutrient, meaning we can survive without them, proteins and fats however we can’t).
Think back to the caveman days (well not literally, because you obviously won’t have lived for that long, but cast your thoughts towards what I imagine through common knowledge you know what foods were readily available).
When the majority of the nutrition that was available was killed meaning that the diet of somebody living in those days would have been heavier in proteins and fats.
Some important things that they do contribute towards however:
Physical performance and appearance.
Upon ingestion of a carbohydrate, we now refer to this molecule as ‘glucose’. This molecule of glucose, should their be sufficient storage capacity, will then be stored among cells where it is needed to be used for energy. Glucose in its stored form we refer to as ‘glycogen’. Glycogen can mainly be found in the liver and in muscle tissue and can play a key role in facilitating muscular activity.
Carbohydrates in their stored form (glycogen) cannot be retained without the presence of water, therefore alongside the storage of glycogen there is an inherent percentage of water that is retained also (It is theorised that for every 1g of glycogen, there is a resultant 3g of water retained). This ‘water retention’, which you may have heard of before, can be seen intra-muscular and will affect the way that muscle tissue appears to the eye and how it feels to the individual because the surface area of the muscle will expand as more glycogen and water is stored within it meaning the muscle tissue will appear bigger and press tighter against the skin. (It is for this reason that you may have ‘felt’ skinny when adopting a diet for fat loss in the past that has had you drastically reduce your carbohydrate intake, or in fact why you may have ‘felt’ bigger following the consumption of a large quantity of carbohydrates, and also why if your carbohydrate intake (total consumption and time of consumption) has varied day to day you may have seen unexpected scale weight fluctuations. Understanding these ‘feelings’ and outcomes as a result of a varied carbohydrate intake can be key when our goals are relative to our body composition. Without this understanding we could in fact be influenced to think or act in a way that doesn’t positively contributes towards our long term goal, following the event of something that shouldn’t necessarily be associated with a negative (e.g. the scale weight could increase following the consumption of a large quantity of carbohydrates, with fat loss being the goal and scale weight being one of the many indicators that will in fact give us awareness of progression over time we could assume we are doing something wrong and not making progress. However if calories were to still be controlled over time in alignment with the requirements of which the individual needed to achieve in order to promote fat loss, it isn’t necessarily the case that our body fat percentage has increased.
Taste and social connection.
They are contained in most of the foods we will likely see in social environments and the world's different food cultures.
Some contain significant amounts of dietary fibre.
Fibre is important for the digestive system).
What is my body composition?
Click here to read my article where I discuss a variety of different terms and their meanings relative to training, health & fitness that you may benefit from knowing.
Also, following an understanding that calorie control is the foundation of body weight management, unless there are any underlying medical issues that would stipulate differently (you should check with a nutritionist and your health practitioner to see if you have any illness that would conflict with the consumption of any carbohydrate), I don’t think there are any reasons why we shouldn’t look to incorporate a percentage of them within our diet whether the goal be related to health, aesthetic (typically fat loss or gaining muscle tissue) or performance.
In fact, according to published general recommendations, it is advised that 50% of your daily calorie intake is to be made up from carbohydrates.
To put that into perspective, the RDI (Recommended Daily Intake) for the average Male is 2,500kcal and for the average Female is 2,000kcal.
50% of 2,500kcal = 1,250kcal.
1,250kcal / 4kcal (the amount of calories in 1g of carbohydrates) = 312.5g carbohydrates (the recommended amount for the average Male).
50% of 2,000kcal = 1,000kcal.
1,000kcal / 4kcal (the amount of calories in 1g of carbohydrates) = 250g carbohydrates (the recommended amount for the average Female).
Want to know more about the role that calories play in the management of your body weight? Click here.
It is in fact for these reasons, that I encourage and advise the majority of clients that I work with to consume a large variety and quantity of carbohydrates.
Most of the time, their desires are to perform their best, look their best and not be restricted from their social life outside of the gym. A combination of the 3 are a few aspects that I believe heavily contribute towards our health, wellbeing and us feeling our best.
How do I know what is the right amount for me?
As i’ve already mentioned, general guidelines recommend that we make up 50% of our total calories from carbohydrates so if you know your daily calorie intake, a wise starting point would be to look at what percentage of those calories are coming from carbohydrates.
If it is below 50% and you are experiencing any of the following symptoms:
Low energy (during and away from training sessions)
Digestion issues (potentially from a resultant lack of fibre)
‘Feelings’ of being skinny / ‘flat’
I would first question whether you need to be eating more in general (calories, in order to support your own energy demands), and then also the quality of the foods that you are choosing to make up the majority of your days calorie intake in order to make sure you are not deficient in other nutrients (proteins, fats and other important vitamins and minerals).
Take a look at this image below, taken from a slide of one of my nutrition webinars in The Everyday Athlete 12 Week Coaching Academy, where we discuss and compare the nutritional values of 2 sources of food that have the same calorie contents, but drastically different nutritional values.
What we can learn from this, is that it is possible to eat what might be the right amount of calories and macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates & fats) but if we are not carefully selecting what foods those nutritional properties come from, we may in fact be missing out on others that are just as important for our health.
Remember also, that the ‘right’ amount (sweet spot) will only likely be achieved if at first we have an awareness of what is the appropriate amount of calories for us to be consuming in order to achieve our goals, so before answering what is the right amount, I would start with questions like; what is my goal? Where am I currently at?
Are your goals to lose body fat, do you need to lose body fat?
Are your goals to gain muscle tissue?
Are your goals performance related?
Each of these potentially dictating a different intake of what would be the appropriate intake of calories.
A calorie deficit?
A calorie surplus?
Do you have a timeframe / deadline that you have to achieve any of these goals by? Are you performing in an event / competition? If the goal is fat loss, is it ‘x’ amount of weeks before your holiday that you’re wanting to be in your best shape for? Is your focus long term, and there in fact isn’t any deadline that you need to consider?
Each of these should influence how aggressive or reserved you are with your calorie deficit or surplus, as this will dictate the rate at which we progress.
From there, after understanding what might be the appropriate amount to be aiming for I think it would be wise to look at your lifestyle and assess what is the most appropriate route for you to go down in order to achieve a large degree of control over this important macronutrient and its daily / weekly intake.
How do I control my carbohydrate intake?
How you manage your intake of your carbohydrate intake per day is no different to the considerations that I’ve mentioned I think we should make in order to achieve consistent control of our PROTEIN intake.
The two methods I find most beneficial is either a portion controlled approach (we would select a number of different nutritious and favoured sources of carbohydrates, an appropriate portion size for each and rotate between these aiming to achieve and a number of portions per day) or food tracking apps such as MyFitnessPal.
A variety of recommended sources of carbohydrates:
Take a look at the 2 images below:
Is your goal fat loss?
In this case, knowing that your calorie intake will have to be lower, I think it's often more appropriate to prioritise a larger percentage of your carbohydrate consumption from wholegrains and fewer processed products. The majority of these will be denser in fibre and other nutrients that will aid not only your health, but levels of satiety which will be important for sustaining the calories your require for fat loss (preventing hunger can be key).
Is your goal to gain muscle tissue?
In this case, knowing that your calorie intake will have to be higher (and in some cases significantly higher depending on the individuals metabolism), I think it's often more appropriate to allow a slightly larger percentage of your carbohydrate consumption to come from processed goods and fruits. These will be a little more sparse in fibre and easier to digest; allowing you to sustain the large amount of calories that you may require to stipulate growth of muscle tissue (eating enough consistently is sometimes a difficult task).
Fitting in meals 'off plan'?
Extra attention to planning ahead will likely be required.
Yes, more planning and preparing I know what you're thinking, there's a lot to do?
It's often the case, however I love to see my clients be able to still incorporate their social lives into their dietary regime and still progress with regards to their health & fitness goals.
I often find that alongside regular education like this, the amount of planning and preparation we have to do in advance of occasions like this becomes less of, often due to the development of new habits and knowledge.
General recommendations for nutritious sources of Carbohydrates:
Whole-grains like brown rice, barley, quinoa, buckwheat.
Whole-grain pasta, whole-wheat couscous.
Whole-grain / whole-wheat bread.
Variety of fruits.
Please note; this article is should not be used for the prescription of your own nutritional practices. Before making any changes to your nutrition, you should first consult with your doctor and/or qualified nutritionist to ensure there are no conflicts with any medication you are taking or any health issues or allergies that you may present.
Have a question? Get in touch.
Feel free to contact me via email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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