It feels like you can’t go anywhere these days without hearing about “carbs” or sugar.
Everyone has an opinion on whether you should eat carbs or avoid them like a swarm of murder hornets.
So let’s set the record straight, shall we?
In this Simple Guide To Eating Carbs you’ll learn:
- What The Heck Are Carbs?
- Low-Carb, High-Carb, No-Carb & Keto – What’s Better?
- Where Do I Find Carbs In Food?
- Making Smart Carb Choices
- How Many Carbs Should I Eat?
- When Should I Eat Carbs?
- What You Should Do Next
Holy smokes that’s a lot of stuff to cover! Let’s get started…
WHAT ARE CARBS?
Alright folks, let’s keep this nice and simple, shall we?
In science terms, carbohydrates are organic molecules typically classified as either simple or complex.
Simple carbohydrates – also known as monosaccharides – contain 1 (mono-) or 2 (di-) molecules and are easily broken down and digested by the body. When these monosaccharides are put together into small chains, they form oligosaccharides.
Complex carbohydrates – also known as polysaccharides – have a more “complex” molecular structure containing long chains of 3 or more monosaccharides with double bonds. These double bonds make it more challenging for our body to break them down and digest them.
To make things even more complicated, polysaccharides come in different forms:
- Digestible (starch, dextrins, glycogen)
- Partially Digestible (inulin, raffinose)
- Indigestible (cellulose, pectin)
Glycemic Index 101
All carbohydrates we consume through foods – as simple as table sugar (sucrose) or as complex as digestible starch in potatoes – have to be broken down into their monosaccharide components. This is how our body uses and stores them as energy.
The difference is the “healthy” carbohydrate foods are typically broken down slower and the “unhealthy” carbohydrate foods are typically broken down faster.
This also goes for “non-carbohydrate foods”. Everything we eat can potentially be converted into glucose if it needs to be.
When you hear people say, “there are essential fats, but there aren’t any essential carbohydrates” that’s why.
And it’s true. But it’s only true because our body has become extremely efficient at converting literally anything we eat into glucose if it needs to.
This is where the glycemic index comes in. If a food is broken down quickly, it gets a high glycemic index rating and is labeled high-glycemic. If a food is broken down slowly, it gets a low glycemic index rating and is labeled low-glycemic.
Fibre is actually a form of indigestible complex carbohydrate. It acts as a sponge, cleaning our intestinal tract as it moves through our digestive system.
This is why it’s important to have adequate amounts of fibre in our diets. It has been shown to reduce risk of chronic disease by keeping our digestive system clean, helping improve digestion and keeping our microbiome healthy.
A quick note on added sugar…
You might be thinking right now, “Wow, that just sounds like a bunch of sugar! I’ve heard sugar is bad so I should probably just stop eating carbs altogether!”
Hold on there, champ. We’ll get to your diet in a second, but it’s important to remember that all of those different forms of carbohydrates have different effects on our body. This is why we can’t just generalize all carbohydrates as “bad”.
In recent years, “sugar” has gotten a pretty bad reputation.
Undeniably, excess sugar in our diets has led to the obesity epidemic and chronic health crisis we face today.
However it’s important to differentiate between “natural sugars” and “added sugars”.
Natural sugars are found naturally in foods like fruits and vegetables. While these foods do contain sugar, they also contain a lot of other naturally occurring phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, water and fibre. They’re also very low in calories compared to the actual volume of them.
Added sugars are what food manufacturers add to our foods through processing. These days added sugars come by a million different names and should be avoided or highly-limited.
Processed foods with added sugars are typically higher in calories and lower in nutrients which can lead to overeating. This would include obvious foods like candy and desserts, but also packaged foods like cereal, fruit juices, granola bars and pretty much every children’s snack food.
To keep it simple, fruits and vegetables are awesome and should fill the majority of your diet. Processed foods that come in a box or foods with a lot of ingredients should be limited or avoided completely.
Speaking of your diet, let’s chat about a couple hot diet trends…
Low-Carb, High-Carb, No-Carb or “Keto” – What’s The Difference & What’s Better?
With the rise in the mentality of sugar being evil, it’s become very popular to simply tell people to stop eating carbs because all carbs are bad.
As you learned in the previous section, that’s just not true and very bad advice.
The benefit of being in the world of fitness and nutrition for over 13 years is that I’ve seen a lot of diet trends come and go….and come again.
What Was Once Old Is New Again
When it comes to low-carb diets, I remember back in the 90’s it was the Atkins Diet and the South Beach Diet. Then after that it was the Paleo Diet. Today we have the Keto Diet (and even the Carnivore Diet for the super extremists).
All of these diets have the exact same premise, just packaged up in a different way – stop eating carbs and you’ll lose weight.
The problem with that advice, like we discussed earlier, is that when you generalize “all carbs as bad” you’re going to miss out on a lot of nutrient rich foods like fruits and many vegetables.
Now don’t get me wrong. Some of those diets I mentioned above have a lot of good points. Personally, I think a well structured “Paleo-ish” type of diet can be a really solid template for most people.
But as with all “diets”, when you restrict too much it’s bound to break eventually. And if the method isn’t sustainable, the results won’t be either.
Remember, the best diet is the one you can follow consistently for the rest of your life. As it happens, that tends to be something a little bit more balanced that still allows you to have your favourite indulgent foods once in a while.
But before we get into that, let’s chat quickly about the differences between high-carb, low-carb and no-carb diets.
High-Carb Diets (a.k.a. Low-Fat Diets)
As the name implies, a high-carb diet would be a diet higher in carbohydrate foods. This is also more commonly known as a low-fat diet.
Think of it like a teeter-totter. If carbs go up, then fats typically have to come down to balance out your overall intake. If everything goes up, that can lead to overeating which is the reason for the obesity epidemic and chronic health crisis we’re facing right now.
High-carb/low-fat diets can be very useful for a variety of people and goals:
- Gaining muscle and strength
- Gaining weight if you’re someone who has trouble gaining weight (i.e. ectomorph body type)
- Improving performance goals
This kind of diet structure can also be useful for people who just enjoy eating more carbohydrate foods and less fatty foods.
And even though right now it’s popular to tell people to stop eating carbs if they want to lose weight, I’ve helped many people lose weight while eating a high-carb/low-fat diet.
Again, as the name implies, a low-carb diet would be a diet that focuses on eating very minimal carbohydrate foods.
Keeping with our teeter-totter metaphor, this would mean that when carbs come down, fat should go up. So typically a low-carb diet is also a high-fat diet.
A couple of the more popular low-carb diets of the last couple decades would be the Atkins Diet, the South Beach Diet and the Paleo Diet.
This style of eating can be really beneficial for a variety of people and goals also:
- Losing weight and body fat if you’re someone that struggles with that (i.e. more of an endomorph body type)
- Reducing Type 2 diabetes symptoms or other chronic health issues
- People with intolerances to gluten or grains
- People who enjoy eating more fatty foods and less carbohydrate foods
Like I mentioned earlier, I personally believe that a modified “Paleo-ish” type of diet is a pretty solid template for most people.
The reason for this is because over 60% of people are overweight or obese right now, struggling with chronic health issues. And even though it’s technically a low-carb diet, the focus is put on eating whole foods like fruits and vegetables along with quality meat, fish and eggs.
Again, balance is key because if the methods aren’t sustainable the results won’t be either.
This is very similar to the low-carb diets, but even more extreme. This is where the Ketogenic (“keto”) Diet and the Carnivore Diet would fit in.
In these diets you’re eating zero carbohydrate foods, focusing only on fatty foods like meat, fish, eggs, olive oil, coconut oil and butter.
As with all of these, no-carb diets like the Keto Diet definitely have their place and many people have found amazing benefits by following this style of eating.
I’ve used this style of eating with many people over the years to help them lose weight, improve their health markers, reduce Type 2 diabetes symptoms and all but eliminate joint-pain, inflammation issues and even auto-immune disease symptoms.
However, this is the most restrictive kind of diet and as I keep mentioning, when you restrict too much eventually something is going to break.
Say it with me this time – If the methods aren’t sustainable, the results won’t be either.
Now, you’re probably thinking – “Well this is great Cam, but I can’t exactly go buy “fructose” at the grocery store. So, where are these carbs in actual foods??”
What Foods Have Carbs In Them?
This question is both easy, and very complex because almost every food you see in your grocery store has carbohydrates in it.
It would be easier to tell you what foods do NOT have carbohydrates:
- Oils (i.e. olive oil, coconut oil etc.)
- Meat, fish & eggs
Almost everything else you can think of is going to carry at least a little bit of carbohydrate, even if we don’t typically classify it as a “carbohydrate food” (think, nuts for instance).
And as I mentioned earlier, everything we eat (even the oils and meats) can potentially be converted into glucose if we need it through a process called gluconeogenesis.
But that’s a science conversation for another day, let’s get back to foods.
Thanks to food manufacturer’s love of sugar, carbohydrates are literally everywhere. Simply take a quick glance at a food label and you’ll see at least a few grams of carbohydrate in either sugar or fibre.
To keep this simple, we want to focus on eating more fresh, whole food sources of carbohydrates like fruits and vegetables, while eating less processed foods that have more than 3 ingredients.
So instead of telling you everything you shouldn’t eat, let’s focus on what you should eat…
Making Smart Carb Choices
In Blue Phoenix Coaching we prefer to focus on eating more of the healthy, nutritious foods instead of telling you everything you “can’t” or “shouldn’t” eat.
When it comes to carbohydrates, we recommend shifting your diet to include more of what we call Smart Carbs.
Smart Carbs are primarily unprocessed, whole food sources of carbohydrates. Since leafy vegetables have their own category in the Blue Phoenix world, typically these Smart Carbs will come in the form of fruits, starches and sometimes legumes.
Fruit is easy. I’m sure you know what classifies as a fruit:
- Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries
- And so on…
When we’re looking for fruit, ideally we’ll get organic and locally grown. But if that’s not an option then regular fruit from your grocery store is just fine.
It’s important to note here that frozen fruit is also a great option. We keep a few bags of various frozen fruits in the freezer all the time for SuperSmoothies.
When it comes to starches, we we want to focus on Smart Starches:
- Potatoes (red, white, purple)
- Sweet potatoes (yellow, purple)
- Squash (spaghetti squash, acorn squash, butternut squash, pumpkin)
- Rutabaga, turnips, beets, carrots
- Rice (white, wild, basmati, jasmine)
- Legumes, if tolerated (kidney beans, black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas)
We want to get as close to the original, whole food source as possible.
That’s why you don’t see bread, pasta, cereal or wraps on our list of Smart Carbs. Even if it’s “whole grain” or “whole wheat”, it’s still a processed food.
Now that’s not to say you can’t enjoy some fresh bread or a bowl of pasta ever again. I love a good bowl of pasta once in a while! We just want to focus on eating Smart Carbs the majority of the time.
Which brings us to the next question on everyone’s mind…
How Many Carbs Should I Eat?
This is largely going to depend on what your body, goals and of course eating preference.
Do you prefer to eat fewer carbs and a little bit more fatty foods? Or the opposite?
Are you trying to lose weight and body fat? Or gain muscle and strength?
Or maybe you’re training for a specific athletic event and need to improve your performance.
All of these questions, and many others, are important in determining what’s optimal for you.
Once you know that, there are essentially 2 way to figure out how many carbs you should be eating:
- Doing calculations and weighing your food
- The BP Hand Method
With our BP Coaching clients we usually don’t jump into calculations and weighing your food until Level 2 & 3 because for most people it’s just not necessary.
Doing complicated calculations is beyond the scope of this article, so we’re just going to make it really easy for you…
The BP Hand Method For Measuring Carbs
The hand method has been around for a long time and really helps to simplify the process of portion control.
When a new BP Coaching client starts with us, this is always where we start. Until you’re able to consistently eat using the BP Hand Method there’s no need to get into the added hassle of weighing your food.
We’ve found that most people are quite happy with the results they get simply by using the BP Hand Method and never need to get into weighing their food.
The best part about this method is that it’s extremely simple and very sustainable.
So, here’s what I want you to do:
STEP 1: Make a little cup with your hand, palm up
STEP 2: That’s it, you’re done
For carbs, we’re going to use your cupped hand as our portion size guide. Pretty easy, right?
1 serving of protein = 1 “cupped handful”
We want to aim for a serving size of Smart Carbs to be the size of the palm of your hand. Then, each day you’re going to aim for 1-2 “cupped handful” sized servings of Smart Carbs with your meals, or 3-6 “cupped handfuls” per day.
If you’re a bigger person who is very active, you’ll aim for the higher end of 6 “cupped handfuls”/day.
If you’re a smaller person, you might aim for the lower end of 3 “cupped handfuls”/day.
Other variables to consider when choosing how many “cupped handfuls” you need might be:
- Your current goals
- Your body size, composition or caloric needs
- How active you are
- Your eating preferences
- How frequently you eat
- Your appetite or satiety levels
- Your progress
These are all things we help our Blue Phoenix Coaching clients with. So if you’d like a little bit more help figuring this out for yourself, I highly recommend checking out the Blue Phoenix Fitness Coaching Experience.
Now that you know where to find Smart Carbs and how much to eat, the last thing we need to discuss is when you should eat carbs…
When Should You Eat Carbs?
This is getting a bit more into the weeds than we need to for most people, so try not to overthink this part.
If you’re just starting to make some changes to your diet, simply aim to get Smart Carbs with most of your meals.
However, if you want a simple way to start optimizing your carbohydrate intake a little bit, here’s an option for you.
There has been quite a bit of research done on post-workout carbohydrate timing. Basically, you’d have the majority of your Smart Carbs after your workout. Ideally a strength training workout.
One of the magical things about our body is that it can store energy that we can use later. It does this by converting our food into glucose and then storing it in little sacks as glycogen.
The one caveat is that these little sacks can only hold a limited amount of glycogen. Once they’re full, the excess gets converted to another form of energy storage – fat.
When you hit a solid strength training workout (or any high intensity exercise), you essentially empty your energy stores (i.e. muscle glycogen).
If you eat a carb-heavy meal (or post-workout drink) within 2 hours of your workout, your body should use those carbs more efficiently to replenish your muscle glycogen stores. Since the little sacks were empty, this is more likely to be done without spilling over and needing to be stored as fat.
This is one of the ways carbohydrates can improve performance, gaining muscle and strength.
Again, this is getting a little bit deep in the weeds and most people don’t need to think about this.
Simply aim to eat more Smart Carbs with your meals and less processed foods.
Ready To Kick Things Up A Notch?
This Simple Guide has no doubt given you plenty of tools and strategies to begin eating healthy and living your most awesome life!
But if you’re wanting to go a bit further or you’re looking for some extra personalized help, I have 2 options for you…
If you want step-by-step, personalized guidance on exactly what you need to do to reach your fitness or weight loss goals…
- Customized workout program
- Specific lifestyle-based nutrition plan
- 100% access to your personal coach at all times
Then you’ll want to apply for our awesome 1-1 Blue Phoenix Fitness Online Coaching Experience.
Looking for some workouts you can do at home with no-equipment and limited time?
Drop by and and say hello
Stay strong and live awesome, my friend.