Carbohydrate Candor – The Truth About Carbs
Disappear with me for a moment, will you? We’re heading to an alternate reality. An alternate world named Elysia. Elysia is a place where it’s always a sunny spring day. A city in which everyone likes to take a stroll in the evening, where the streets are filled with lovers staring into each other’s eyes, and it’s absolutely disgusting to witness.
In this alternate world it’s a beautiful night because it’s always a beautiful night. The sun is setting and it makes the sky look like someone took a paintbrush and had their way with every shade of pink, purple, and yellow imaginable.
There’s always an undercurrent of excitement in this alternate world. Everyone is happy because everything is always going well. It’s a beautiful night for a stroll, so you grab a coffee from one of the local artisanal shops that are found on every corner and head out.
You procure your coffee. It’s dark, smooth, and just acidic enough for your taste. Because of course it is in this utopian paradise.
You round the corner and up ahead is a girl sashaying down the side walk with a designer purse on her arm. Up ahead of her and to the left is a dark alleyway. But nobody thinks anything of it, because in Elysia alleys aren’t a dank and dark place where evil lurks.
Except today is different. Much different. Because out from the alley springs a ne’er-do-well, a low life thief hell bent on stealing this woman’s purse. You’re far back enough from the scene to see it all unfold. The thief jumps out of his concealed place in the dark alleyway, snatches the purse, and is on his way.
Now, you’ve got a decision to make. Do you spring into action and exact justice upon the lowlife thief? Or do you sit and watch it all unfold?
You make the smart choice. You’re going to be a hero. You’re going to save her the headache of canceling her credit cards, and potentially having her identity stolen by this scoundrel of the night.
But there’s a problem. You can’t spring into action and catch the purse-snatcher. Sure, you try to. But you try and fail. Why you ask? Because you haven’t had enough carbs today.
What are carbohydrates and why do they matter in this story?
Chances are you’ve heard a lot about carbs, and while you may know something about carbs, you may not know the basics. And learning the basics is paramount to helping make sure you don’t fall victim to thinking carbs are as evil as our purse snatcher.
Carbs, like protein, are organic compounds that typically come from living plants and include sugars, starches, and cellulose. Not that this explanation does a whole lot of good for you, but it helps to get the boring shit out of the way quickly.
Essentially carbohydrates are chains of sugar molecules. Most people have heard of simple and complex carbohydrates or fast and slow digesting carbohydrates. The only difference between the two is the length of molecule chains. If you’ve got a longer chain of molecules, i.e. a complex carb, it takes longer to break down in the body.
These chains of molecules are one of the most preferred sources of energy in the body because they’re easily broken down into glucose. Inside the complicated world that is your body, glucose is the preferred source of energy when it comes to brain function, fueling exercise, and a whole host of basic functions in life.
If you eat an entire loaf of bread they’re absorbed in the small intestine, sent off into the bloodstream, and if they need to be used for energy they are, if they aren’t they can be stored in the muscles and liver.
Now, glucose is by far and away the most common form of carbohydrate that we consume, but we also get in quite a bit of fructose, which is basically just the sugar that we get in fruits. Fructose is sent straight to the liver from the small intestine, where it’s converted to glucose, and then either used or stored.
Fructose, while delicious, isn’t necessarily the preferred source of energy for the body because it requires an extra step to be turned into glucose.
A quick primer on high fructose corn syrup.
And while we’re on the topic, you’ve probably heard about high fructose corn syrup, no?
Well, the jury is still out on how damaging high fructose corn syrup is to the body. In moderate doses it’s for sure not the poison that most people make it out to be, but there’s also little doubt that in our modern world where most of our food is packaged and refined, we’re probably getting too much of it.
But what is it exactly?
A lot of sources of carbs are actually various sources of sugar mixed. For example, honey is actually 50% fructose and 50% glucose. High fructose corn syrup is almost identical to honey, with just a slightly higher percentage of fructose.
How much higher? We’re talking 1-5%. Barely noticeable. Does that information help you get jacked? Probably not, but it’s kind of interesting and you can start dropping knowledge bombs on people at parties and become super annoying. When that happens, thank me.
So why are carbs good for you?
Let’s say that you’re trying to get bigger and stronger, and you care about your performance. Carbs become a key component of your nutritional plan because they play such a pivotal role in aiding your performance.
Thanks to the fact that carbs are a preferred source of energy, they become seriously important when someone starts to get serious about training, their physique, and they’re overall importance for a few reasons, the primary one being ATP.
ATP – The money you use to pay for activity.
Without getting too much into the weeds, understand that all energy is fueled by ATP. ATP is essentially the currency you use to pay for energy, and we generally have a small amount of it constantly at the ready, but only enough to fuel about 10 seconds of all out activity.
So you saw some damsel in distress get her purse snatched on the street, and you jumped into action to take down the thief. It probably all happened within 10 seconds, and all of that was fueled by ATP that you had available.
After that brief 10-second window is up, the next 30 seconds of activity or so are fueled by the glycolytic system, which is now responsible for producing ATP. If glycolytic sounds a bit like glucose, it’s for good reason, because that energy system is relying on glucose to create ATP.
Getting in enough carbs ensures that you’ve got enough stored energy inside your working muscles and liver to lift, run, and do any other form of exercise to the best of your ability.
So let’s say that the low life purse-snatcher decides to make a run for it, and you’re determined to chase them down; because, after all, chivalry isn’t dead.
That’s going to require more intense effort on your part, and if all goes according to plan it should hopefully be over in about 30 seconds. That was all fueled by more ATP, which in turn was fueled by carb stores you had available in the body.
Carbs and the brain.
On top of the obvious performance benefit, carbs are actually the preferred fuel source by the brain. In fact, the human brain requires about 120 grams of glucose per day in order to fuel all of the thinking and mindless Facebook scrolling you do.
Now, some people have experimented with getting into ketosis, which are a by-product the body creates when you eat extremely low carbohydrates and very high fat. The brain uses ketones for energy because unlike the rest of the body, it doesn’t have fatty acids it can turn to for energy.
There’s a massive debate amongst various camps as to what the ideal energy source is in the body, and there are absolutely cases where ketosis seems to be therapeutic (autism is an interesting example) but it’s nowhere close to conclusive that ketones are the preferred source of energy for the brain. And there’s a big reason why when people first go low carb they report feeling very foggy ,unable to concentrate, and lethargic.
So why are carbs super scary?
Much like fat in the 80’s and 90’s, carbs are the bane of modern existence today. At least that’s what people like to think. And they’re not entirely wrong. There’s no doubt to the fact that we have far too many options when it comes to eating easily digestible, sugar laden foods.
And this is where the scary side of carbs rears its ugly head. Remember, carbs are converted to glucose. After that happens, the body then secretes the hormone insulin to shuttle those carbs to the muscles where they’ll be stored for energy.
When people overeat carbs for an extremely long period of time (we’re talking years) they begin developing a resistance to insulin. Basically, people eat carbs, they don’t respond to insulin like they used to, so they secrete even more insulin to get the glucose out of the bloodstream.
This is insulin resistance, and after a certain point it turns into full blown Type 2 diabetes, and then exacerbates a whole new host of health issues like heart disease, blood pressure issues, and has even been linked to Alzheimer’s and cancer.
So yeah, if they’re allowed to get outta control they can cause a whole host of health issues. But it’s important to remember this takes a ton of time. Some people are genetically predisposed to insulin resistance and naturally can’t eat as many carbs as others.
And at the same time, your activity level has quite a bit to do with your ability to eat carbs. If you’re an active individual who lifts weights, then you’re naturally going to be more sensitive to insulin, because putting the body under stress aids that process.
How to know if you’re intolerant to carbs.
Before we go any further it’s important to remember that I am many things, but a medical doctor is not one of them. Charming, quick witted, and a wee bit arrogant? Yes. A doctor? No.
That being said, it’s not that hard to figure out if you’ve got insulin management issues, and therefore need to get your carb intake in check. A simple fasting blood glucose test can do the trick.
You can get it done at any doctor’s office or lab, and have your answer back pretty soon thereafter.
If you’ve got a fasting blood glucose level under 100 mg/dL then you’re within the normal range, and doing fine. Go home and eat a dozen donuts, because you’re good bro.
But if you’re glucose levels are in the range of 100-125 mg/dL then I’ve got bad news. You’re what’s considered pre-diabetic, and you probably need to cut back on the carbs.
If you’re over 125 mg/dL then it’s high time you see a doctor about managing your diabetes, because medically you are now officially a diabetic.
But what about fiber?
We all know we need to be getting fiber in. It’s one of the main reasons we put up with vegetables, and for good reason.
Fiber is cellulose or the hardcore plant matter that we can’t digest and use for energy. Fiber is good for keeping your pipes clean, good for your heart, and when it becomes the main source of your diet (ahem, vegans) you also can’t help but tell everyone about how awesome you are.
And while fiber is awesome for keeping us healthy in a myriad of ways, it doesn’t provide a usable source of energy. It passes straight through to the large intestine, where it’s actually fermented and turned into gas.
So while vegetables are awesome thanks to their fiber content and the micronutrients we get from them, fiber alone isn’t going to fuel you chasing down a purse thief in the middle of a dark alley. But clearly getting enough carbs from potatoes, bread, pasta, and other sources will.
It’s important to remember that if you’re someone who lifts weights, cares about your physique and performance, then carbs aren’t anything to be terrified of. They may just help you get someone’s purse back one night.