Carbohydrates: a word that is taboo in too many popular diets.
Here at the Frogman Project we’ve got one take on this – if you are training, shooting for strength, fitness, and resilience, eat the damn carbs.
No, downing chocolate shakes with added marshmallows, and finishing with a packet of Tim Tams is not a good idea. Not all carbs are equal, and breakfasting on frosted flakes every day or lunching on crisps is a one-way track to bad health. But if you want optimum strength and fitness, then taking in the right kinds of carbs at the right time is essential.
Carbohydrates are an essential caloric nutrient for life, which along with protein and fat, provide the essential energy for our physical and cognitive functioning. Containing five calories per gram, they aren’t the most calorie intense food, but our bodies can process them quickly, so they are a particularly effective source of fuel for high intensity activity.
Carbohydrates break down into glucose molecules when we eat them. Glucose is another bogeyman in modern diets, but if you want to stay alive, you need it – it is the fundamental fuel for your muscles and organs. All those other fancy refined sugar replacements you see nowadays – raw honey, maple syrup etc. – still turn into good old glucose after you swallow, because it is what your body wants and is set up to get.
Weird shit fact time – all mammals need glucose to live, and some, such as rats, can’t survive on a low carb diet as they can’t do ketosis. However, one really freaky animal, the naked mole rat, can switch its body from using glucose to fructose in order to survive without oxygen. They are also immune to cancer. We probably ought to be keeping an eye on the furtive little bastards.
Anyway… you aren’t a strange hairless rodent with superpowers, so you need glucose. If your body has more glucose than it needs to burn immediately, the extra is converted to glycogen and stored in the liver and muscles as an energy reserve. Glycogen stores are what give you the extra kick for higher intensity training. The catch is that your body can store only a finite supply of glycogen, and any excess glucose will be converted into fat, which is something you don’t want too much of.
So take home message for this section – excess calories from any source will result in weight gain because your body doesn’t have anything else to do with them. But carbohydrates in and of themselves won’t make you fat.
Low carb diets – what’s the problem?
Many popular diets such as keto revolve around restricting carbs, and increasing consumption of proteins and fats. There are pros and cons here like anything in life, and we aren’t biased against low carb diets if used where they have benefits.
The real question you need to be asking is “what do I want to gain from my diet regime?”
Low carb diets remove your body’s normal sources of fuel – you are converting less nutrients to glucose, your glycogen stores get depleted, and your body is forced to burn stored fat.
That can be pretty effective if you just want to lose some weight. Low carb diets, designed right, can be really useful for people who need to reduce their body fat %, but are restricted to low levels of physical activity. Low carb diets are also pretty simple to follow – eat less carbs – which means people find them easier to stick with. And of course, any low carb plan is going to rule out that choco-mallow-tim tam slammer, so they make it easier to avoid high calorie junk.
However, you guys probably aren’t here to shift a couple of kg – this is about tactical fitness. If your aim is long-term performance and resilience, and the capability to slay intervals of high intensity training or activity, then those glycogen stores, and easy access fuel are vital. It is what lets your muscles kick into higher gear, and access those last-chance reserves.
We’re not kidding here – if performance is what matters, then carb depletion is a bad, bad thing. It means that when you crank into higher speed, your top speed will be reduced. That’s because when the body needs energy quickly, it can access it more easily from carbs than any other source. Fat actually has more calories per gram than carbs – 9 as opposed to 5 – but your body takes longer and has to work harder to get at them. It needs to take in more oxygen to process the fuel. It’s not a problem if your exercise regime is a gentle 2 km stroll. It is if you need to move and act fast.
Good diet = good carbs at the right time
Ok, so you need to eat carbs if you want maximum performance. Which carbs should you be eating, and when?
You need healthy carbs – wholegrains, veggies, whole fruit (not juice, it’s liquid sugar), beans, peas, nuts, seeds etc. You are looking for food that loads your body with good quality nutrients that your system can use when it needs them, without swamping the whole thing in refined sugar.
Then there is the question of how much – what is the optimal intake of carbs per day? Most recommendations log in at about 3-5 g/kg of body weight for a normal recreational athlete. For those working at higher levels it can be anything between 5 and 12 g/kg of bodyweight, depending on the intensity and endurance of the activity. Overall, the recommendation for active people is that about 38 – 64% of daily calories should be coming from high quality carbs.
It’s not just a question of eating the right carbs in the right amounts though – timing is key. Remember if the glucose from the carbs isn’t burnt right away then it turns to glycogen, and if your glycogen stores are full, then your body will squirrel it away as fat. Carbs should be eaten when they are going to be used. Do the carb loading around training times, not just before you hit the hay. Having a couple of pieces of wholegrain toast with avo and eggs, or a big bowl of porridge and a banana after a morning gym session is great.
Go for the right quality, in the right quantity, at the right time.
Disclaimer: We are not nutritionists or experts and don’t claim to be. Our information shared is personal experience and like we encourage you to do – research! Start here for extra info on carbs including amounts – Fell is usually pretty reliable in his data.
Image credit: Defence Imagery Australia