By Michael Schroth
In just a couple of days, I’ll be starting my first ever bodybuilding “cut.” This is the opposite of a bulk phase. Instead of trying to put on size, I’ll be trying to lose it. The idea of a cut is to lose fat and maintain muscle mass by staying in a slight caloric deficit. Since this is my first ever cut, there are a few things I am not sure about.
One thing I am sure about is that I will not be giving up carbs.
Several people have told me that they believe that in order to lose weight, you need to cut way back on the carbs. I would like to heartily disagree.
“You can’t survive without carbohydrates, period,” writes Joan Khalaf on Active.com. “Even on a low-carb diet, you need them to sustain energy… If you’ve decided to follow a low-carb diet, be sure that you’re still getting plenty of veggies, and don’t forget that carbs aren’t the enemy — you’ll need them sooner or later.”
The simple fact is that your body needs carbs for energy. The National Academies Institute of Medicine suggests that adults get “45 percent to 65 percent of their calories from carbohydrates, 20 percent to 35 percent from fat, and 10 percent to 35 percent from protein.”
Before looking at the better choices we can make, let’s look more closely at carbs.
Types of Carbs
According to the American Diabetes Association, all carbohydrates fall into one of three categories: sugars, starches, and fibers.
Sugars are considered simple carbohydrates because of they are made up of just 1-2 sugar molecules. Most people can name foods that are high in sugar. What’s important is being able to differentiate between natural and added sugars (discussed in a moment).
Starches are called complex carbs since they are made up of long chains of sugar molecules. Foods high in starch include potatoes, corn, beans, oats, rice, and pasta.
Betterhealth.gov explains that the digestive system breaks down both simple and complex carbohydrates into glucose which your body’s cells use for energy.
Fiber is the final type of carbohydrate, the indigestible part of plant foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts. Adults should try to get 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day, but most Americans struggle to even get half of that amount.
This problem stems from the fact that most grain-based foods in the United States are refined or processed, meaning they’ve been stripped of the bran layer and germ. As a result, they lose key nutrients and fiber. As a general rule, look for “whole grain” as the first ingredient. “The more refined, or ‘whiter,’ the grain-based food,” explains WebMD, “the lower the fiber.”
To see what constitutes a full serving of carbohydrates, see WebMD’s list of foods here.
Making Choices: Added Sugars
The obvious problem with not eating enough carbs is that you will probably feel tired and sluggish all day. To make up for this lack of energy, many people turn to coffee or other caffeinated drinks. And unless you like your coffee black, you’re probably loading up on sugar with every sip. So in the misguided endeavor to cut back on carbs, you just end up taking in more added sugars.
Added sugars, not carbs as a whole, are the enemy.
According to the CDC, Americans should try to limit how much added sugar they consume. How do you identify these unhealthy carbohydrates? The CDC explains, “Added sugars are sugars and syrups that are added to foods or beverages when they are processed or prepared.” See their full list of added sugars and facts about sugar consumption here.
They suggest keeping your added sugar intake under 10 percent of your daily caloric intake. A 2,000 calorie diet should ideally contain 200 or less calories from these kinds of sugars.
So when people tell me that they are trying to cut back on carbs, I tell them they’d be better off just cutting back on sugar.
But wait just a moment. Not all sugars are created equal.
The ADA explains that there are two main types of sugars: added sugars (as discussed) and natural sugars. Natural sugars, as you might guess, are considered far healthier.
Did you know that the nutrition label for an average cup of low-fat milk lists 15 grams of sugar? WebMD tells us that all this sugar comes from lactose, which is a natural source of sugar, and not from added sweeteners.
Both lactose and fructose (found in fruit) are healthy simple carb options in moderation.
Making Choices: Pre- and Post-Workout
You knew I’d talk about the gym eventually.
When it comes to working out, what should our pre- and post-workout carb intake look like? I follow Bodybuilding.com pretty religiously for my routine. They suggest eating “20 to 40 grams of moderate- to slow-digesting carbohydrates” about two hours before working out. Consuming low GI carbs spreads out the release of glucose into the blood, meaning that a) you won’t be hungry during your workout, and b) you’ll have enough energy to power through a full day at the gym.
Better Health says that low GI foods include oats, beans, fruit, milk, pasta and grainy bread. Taking in these carbs before hitting the gym can improve exercise capacity.
In addition to eating slow-digesting carbs, I also ritually eat fruit before my workout. If you’ve read my first article, you might remember that I always have a banana about 20 minutes before I hit the gym. Since fruit is mostly sugar, it digests quickly and easily, giving me an extra burst of energy. Also popular in the bodybuilding community are oranges and apples.
Just be careful not to load up too heavily on carbs before hitting the treadmill, and never workout on a full stomach. You need time to digest and metabolize your food. If you make the mistake of not waiting long enough, Bodybuilding.com explains that you’ll probably get cramps. That’s no way to make gains.
You also need carbs post-workout. Your muscles’ glycogen stores are depleted, so it’s important to replenish them quickly. Again, a banana will do the trick, or even mashed potatoes, and both will help raise your sapped potassium levels. As a side note, never forget your protein!
So. We’re stuck eating carbs. It’s a fact of life, and don’t let anyone tell you differently. If your idea of eating carbs still revolves around just pizza and ice cream, though, you might want to rethink things a little.
Just making the switch from white bread to whole grain bread for your sandwiches is a solid change in and of itself.
If you take away anything from this article, it’s that you should never feel bad about eating carbs. We can all make better choices—some people are just further along than others.