Let’s clear up some of the carb confusion out there. Here’s what lifters and athletes should be eating and avoiding when it comes to carbs.
Since we started this Samurai shredded thing rolling here on T NATION, here's what has been hitting my inbox.
- Hate mail – Yeah, for some of you dudes, I get that anyone under 200 lbs. is basically a figure chick. I graciously accept your rookie hazing.
- Date mail – Sorry, I'm a happily married man, although I am a whore for money, so you never know if you name the right price.
- Carbohydrate mail – Not as exciting, but most of the real inquiries I've been getting pertain to specific carbohydrate selection questions.
"I know you recommend eliminating sugar and eating rice and potatoes as your primo anaerobic fuels, but what do you think about 'x' or 'y' carb, Nate? What about 'z' carb – did cavemen have access to it? And were any of these cavemen jacked?"
Sheesh, I think I almost prefer the hate mail!
There seems to be a common misconception concerning carb selection strategies. Many are choosing which starchy carbohydrates to eat for the wrong reasons, thus their starchy carb food pyramid is upside down. Let me explain.
Starchy Carbs: Nonessential or Conditionally Essential?
If you've been in the game long enough, you've probably read or heard something like, "carbs are not essential nutrients" or "there is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate." Those are both 100% accurate statements.
The anthropological study often cited involves Eskimo tribes. Historically they've survived on protein and fat diets (whale, walrus, seal, etc.) with carbohydrates virtually nonexistent. There's water, essential amino acids, essential fatty acids, and that's basically it. The body can find a way to function and fuel itself on those compounds alone.
Which leads to the question – why eat starchy carbs at all? Many low-carb proponents would suggest you shouldn't, and while that may be fine for sedentary folks, it's not the most effective or efficient approach for athletes.
I don't see many Eskimos trying to hoist inhuman amounts of weight, get their arms so big they can't wipe their you know what, go five rounds in the octagon, or get so shredded that they can watch their pancreas make glucagon. That's where sports nutrition comes in. Functioning and surviving is different from excelling and thriving.
In a sports nutrition context, carbohydrates are thus considered conditionally essential, with activity level, body type, training/performance demands, and physique goals dictating intake. What's the real reason then that you, an athlete, should be eating starchy carbs? It should be for the sole purpose of obtaining the pure starch compounds within those carbohydrates, which in turn can be used to:
- Fuel anaerobic activity by way of glycolysis (the breakdown of carbohydrates). In this unique metabolic environment, glucose molecules can be used to efficiently regenerate ATP.
- Restock glycogen that's been depleted through hard training, especially high volume training.
- Provide an anabolic environment that offsets, and hopefully exceeds, the initial catabolic stress/stimulus brought on by intense training.
Misguided Carb Selection Strategies
The moral of the story is that for athletes, it's the glucose chains in starchy carbs that really matter, not all the additional compounds that come along for the ride. If you're eating starchy carbs for any other reason than to obtain those glucose chains, you're eating them for the wrong reasons.
Let me elaborate and give you some examples.
I choose "x" carbohydrate food because it's higher in protein.
I love protein just as much as the next meathead, but this is seriously misguided. Grain proteins are of inferior quality and bioavailability than animal proteins. You should be getting the bulk of your protein needs from animal sources. Any protein in grain foods is incidental, not necessary.
It can even be counterproductive for some. It's often the protein component in grain foods that's so problematic for body composition and overall health – think gluten allergy/sensitivity. The body can handle the actual starch component of wheat, but many suffer gastrointestinal distress, lethargy, stubborn fat, water retention , etc., from a negative reaction to the protein component – gluten.
I choose "y" carbohydrate food because it's high in fiber.
Don't misunderstand me – Mr. Miyaki didn't say to not eat fiber. Fiber is invaluable for overall health, and a lack of it's been linked to a plethora of diseases ranging from diverticulitis and colon cancer to high blood cholesterol and kidney stones, just to name a few.
But you're better off getting the bulk of your fiber, so to speak, from natural sources, like fruits and veggies, rather than man-made cardboard, like fiber twigs and sawdust.
That opinion originated from the work of anthropological researcher and AUTHOR of the Paleo Diet Loren Cordain:
"Don't whole grains equal fiber? When our doctors tell us to add more fiber to our diet, don't they mean us to eat more oatmeal? The truth is that, calorie for calorie, whole grains can't hold a candle to fruits and vegetables. Fruits average almost twice as much fiber as whole grains. Compared to whole grains, non-starchy vegetables have eight times more fiber...One of the greatest dietary myths in the Western world is that whole grains and legumes are healthful...Worse, cereal grains and legumes even contain 'anti-nutrients' – chemicals that actually prevent your body from absorbing the proper nutrients and can damage the gastrointestinal and immune systems."
So as an alternative opinion from someone not influenced by traditional ADA recommendations, the fiber in grains, which comes from the bran, can be problematic, not beneficial, for the digestive tract and overall health. In addition, whole fruits and vegetables contain a ton of nutrients other than fiber – vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients, compounds for which we only understand a fraction of their importance for disease prevention and health.
I choose "z" carbohydrate food because it's low glycemic.
I believe the glycemic index is overvalued at best, misleading at worst, and should not be the sole determinant in your carbohydrate selection process. Pure fructose is low glycemic – but you also know from my previous articles that fructose is the major compound in table sugar that leads to insulin resistance, type II diabetes, and abdominal obesity.
Meanwhile, carrots have a high glycemic index. I guess that's why Bugs Bunny is so fat.
Overemphasizing the glycemic index is how Agave Nectar (which is a concentrated source of fructose) has inexplicably become the latest and greatest "health food" craze. Pour that crap over everything and I see in your future some nice little adipose rolls forming soon. Conversely, the GI scale is also how the potato – an awesome, natural starch source – has somehow become demon food amongst dieters.
I propose the glycemic index doesn't matter as much for strength athletes and bodybuilders for the following reasons.
- Most of us aren't insulin resistant, hardcore training makes us more insulin sensitive, and during fat loss phases/caloric deficits, a little bit of controlled insulin release is actually a good thing (it's anabolic/anti-catabolic and helps preserve lean muscle mass).
- The way most of us eat, the glycemic index becomes no more than a minor issue. If you're eating super-sized portions of carbs alone, than yes, starches like rice can send blood sugar and insulin levels soaring. But if you combine starchy carbs with proteins and fibrous vegetables, and eat them in targeted amounts and ratios, then digestion is slowed and blood sugar and insulin release is better controlled. I know most of us understand this on a conceptual level, but many have forgotten it on a practical level as a result of Anti-Carbomania.
Now if you have a medical condition that affects blood sugar and insulin control, i.e. diabetes, that's a different story. The best advice is to work with a specialist, and I don't mean some general doctor who's taken one nutrition course in his/her life. Find an endocrinologist or medical nutrition therapist who specializes in these issues and can more specifically monitor your response to individually tailored protocols.
Pound for Pound Starchy Carb Rankings
Keeping the above considerations in mind – most protein should come from animal foods; most fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients should come from plant/vegetable foods; the glycemic index doesn't matter as much for athletes, and the primary reason to eat starchy carbs is for obtaining glucose – below are the best carbohydrate choices for athletes. We'll call it the new starchy carb food pyramid.
Again, these are my opinions, based on practical experiences and exposure to research and resources. It's not a system or dogma I'm trying to propagate. So if you're eating wheat bread and getting great results, relax bro. You aren't doing anything "wrong." Don't fix something that isn't broken.
Those who ask questions or seek new knowledge are generally dissatisfied with their current progress. My aim is to provide an alternative approach for this demographic (which I was formerly a part of).
The Division Elite – Champions and top-level contenders
- White rice and white potatoes (any kind). Almost pure starch, with varying ratios of amylose and amylopectin starch.
- Yams and sweet potatoes (any kind). Much higher in vitamins than the white variety, but also a little higher in fructose/sucrose.
- Rice cakes (plain). Generally milled to remove the bran (thus most of those anti-nutrients in the cereal grain we talked about). Basically just rice cooked with air pressure and heat instead of water and heat.
- Glucose (Plazma™). If you adhere to a peri-workout nutrition protocol, the pure monosaccharide provides a speedy digestion/absorption during and around the training session.
In The Mix – Decent fighters, but with holes in their game.
- Brown Rice. Depending on processing methods, may contain parts of the bran and germ that can be problematic for some.
- Beans, lentils, corn, quinoa. Can contain lectins (which may impair absorption of proteins), although soaking and cooking reduces the content. But why take a chance when there are less "risky" choices?
- Ezekial products. Sprouting grains reduces their anti-nutrient content, but again, why risk it?
- Oatmeal. Contains a protein similar to gluten, for which many can be allergic or sensitive. For others it's a great food, and can make the leap into the top five.
Bottom of the Barrel – Just aren't worth the contract dollars and likely should be cut.
- Gluten-containing cereal grains. Wheat, rye, barley. Pass.
- Refined flour. It's ubiquitous and offers no nutritional benefit to the athlete or average Joe.
- The Fizzy Bubbler. Unless you're the Zohan, whereupon it should be included at the top of the list.
Low Carb Wrap (Up)
Whether your current nutritional protocol calls for 50 grams or 500 grams of carbohydrates, the TYPE of carbohydrates you choose matters. That means you need to understand why you're eating starchy carbs to begin with. It's not for the protein, the fiber, or the vitamins or minerals; its simply to obtain a high powered molecule (glucose) that can help us fuel, recover from, and respond to the unique physiological environment created by hardcore training.
One of the old school standards of bodybuilding/fat loss dieting was the high protein, moderate carbohydrate, lower fat (fat as byproduct of protein sources with maybe some additional essential fatty acids) approach. Interestingly, this approach has been disregarded as an unviable, ineffective, archaic option in today's strength training communities. I don't understand why, because it has proven highly effective for many.
"I get fat when I eat carbs." Well, if your carb sources are loaded with sugar and your base starches are foods you may potentially be sensitive to like wheat bread and oatmeal, then yes, you're going to get fat eating carbs.
But what would happen if you stuck to the division elite – replaced the sugar and gluten with rice and potato varieties, moderate portion sizes, and food combining practices? That's an experiment I propose you try.