Nutrition

Are Carbohydrates Truly Essential?

Written by Joey Argento

Nowadays it seems as if it is impossible to choose an effective meal plan and or specific diet. It can be incredibly confusing for someone new to the gym and looking to lose some weight or pile on some mass due to all the contradictory information you are exposed to.

Terms like low carb, high carb, if it fits your macros, ketogenic, complex carb, simple sugars and Glycemic index are flooding our favorite blogs and fitness sites and do nothing more than confuse the majority of people frequenting these articles. Before choosing a low or high carb or even a relatively “no” carb diet, such as the famous ketogenic, one must understand exactly what a carbohydrate is and what its functions are.

In very simplistic terms the carbohydrate is the bodies first and most readily available source of energy. Furthermore, it is also the bodies quickest source of energy. Within this quick energy source category, we find that not all carbohydrates are created equally. This is where all the information begins to contradict itself and is where the battle truly lies between the complex and simple carbohydrate.


What’s the difference?

The naming of these two different carbs is derived from the actual molecular structure of these two energy sources.

✓ Simple refers to one or two easily digestible molecules.

✓ Complex refers to the very complex and numerous molecular strings that are much harder for the body to digest. Complex carbs are much harder to digest because the body has a harder time breaking down the numerous molecules, whereas table sugar, for example, is broken down in one very fast  and easy step therefore causing an immediate insulin and energetic response.


The Low Carb Diet

Today’s trending diet is arguably the low carb diet, yet the biggest, most muscular and most idolized individuals on this planet consume anywhere between 300-1500 grams of carbs per day. One phenomena that isn’t worth fighting about is that we are all different and will all have different tolerances to carbohydrates.

The mass monsters that compete as Mr. Olympia competitors need huge amounts of calories and energy in order to complete the most simplistic tasks such as breathe, swallow and tie their own shoes. Their BMR (basal metabolic rate) are at heights which the average gym goer will never be able to reach. These beasts need plenty of fuel in order to conquer their several hours of training per day in addition to their everyday tasks.

They have to consume insane amounts of food in order to grow, so they opt for the easiest digesting simple carbohydrates, which will keep them fueled and energized throughout the day. Eating 1500 grams (around 6000 calories in carbs alone) of harder to digest, complex carbs, will without a doubt, pound at your digestive system and would call for some nasty stomach aches, bloating and constipation.

The average gym enthusiast just trying to lose weight or put on some muscle cannot base themselves off of a 300-pound genetically gifted freak.


The Glycemic Index

The glycemic index is one term that practically all of us have heard and yet the majority of us have no clue what it really consists of. The Glycemic index is overused in weight loss articles and never really contains any explanation of what that chart really means or what it represents.

The Glycemic index is a chart that ranks foods among their digestibility rates from slowest (1) to fastest (100 being glucose). In more complicated terms, this chart ranks these foods by the speed in which our bodies release insulin and increase blood glucose levels. If your aim is to lose weight then you should opt for the carbohydrates below 55 on the GI (Glycemic Index) so that blood sugar levels slowly increase rather than rapidly spike.

This rapid spike in insulin is what leads to weight gain because for the most part, we do not have enough time to burn off those fast acting carbohydrates thus encouraging weight gain. For example, if you consumed a sweet potato you’d have a much higher chance of utilizing the energy contained within it then say a chocolate bar, because the energy will be dispersed over a longer period of time. The chance of burning off these calories will also increase and you will avoid energy crashes that come from consuming highly sugary foods.

The issue with carbohydrates and the glycemic index is that this slow/fast digestion war between simple and complex carbs both fall under the category of “fastest source of energy”. So whether you’re looking at yams or a bagel they are both very fast and immediate sources of energy for the body despite one being slightly slower than the other. If a slower source of energy is what we are searching for then carbohydrates are not the solution.


Fats

One macronutrient that is often forgotten and is brought to light by the ketogenic community are fats. Fats tend to scare off the majority of the people trying to diet because of the name itself. Fats won’t make you fat (with reasonable consumption), on the contrary, they will promote weight loss. Fats are the bodies second source of energy and are a very slow releasing energy source.

If fitness enthusiasts are fighting over the slower yet still fast digesting carbohydrates in order to burn fat yet fats are slower digesting molecules, than there arises the question: are carbohydrates truly essential?

Fats will give you less of an immediate boost of energy, however this also means that there will be less of an energy crash preceding digestion. Another point worth mentioning is that digestion has a direct relation with satiety (fullness). If the food consumed is broken down easily and quickly then the individual will feel “full” for a short period of time. That being said, fats will keep you fueled for longer thus decreasing the chances of useless snacking and over eating. Fats are much more caloric then carbohydrates (9 calories per gram for fats and 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate) so it’s worth noting that consumption must be monitored and kept to a reasonable level.

A good example to compare the effectiveness of fats over carbohydrates is with breakfast. Most people will consume an “on the go” snack like a sugar filled granola bar and deem it “breakfast” on their way to work. If this person is you, then you’ll experience a relatively immediate spike in glucose levels within the blood. Then you’ll probably make your way to work in the car, on the bus or on the train. You’ll be sitting down and won’t be making use of the energy and therefore it will be stored as unwanted fat.

If you exchange the sugary granola bar for a proper breakfast, rich in fats, such as peanut butter or eggs, you would have a slower release of energy. This will increase your chances of burning these calories because your energy window will be much larger. Walking up the stairs to yout office or taking a quick walk during your break will both burn a fraction of the total calories consumed thus piling on less weight. In theory, increasing this caloric burning window will increase your chances of keeping those unwanted pounds off.


Dietary Fiber

Before you deem carbohydrates as the enemy, there is one more critical piece of information that you must know. Perhaps the most important Micronutrient on the planet is dietary fiber. Dietary fiber helps with our digestive system (reduces constipation). In addition, it lowers your risk of heart disease, high cholesterol and diabetes. Soluble fiber also helps lower blood glucose levels meaning that consuming a diet rich in fats and fiber can be a very lethal combination. This micronutrient comes from the very macronutrient discussed throughout this entire article: carbohydrates.

The Ketogenic diet states that carbs from fiber are not accounted for in your total carbohydrate intake. This is one critical step to take on a carb restricted diet. If not the side effects may be severe because insufficient amounts of fiber may lead to certain health issues as previously stated.

Despite fiber being a very important micronutrient it is not essential to our bodies function. A nutrient is considered to be “essential” when the body isn’t capable of synthesizing that particular nutrient on its own therefore it must come from food. Among these essential nutrients lie the essential amino acids and the essential fatty acids. These nutrients serve to break down food, repair body tissue, grow muscle, form healthy cells, hair and skin as well as hormonal production.

Amino acids are extracted from proteins and fatty acids are absorbed by the digestion of fats however there is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate. That being said there is no actual NEED for carbohydrates within the human body. If they aren’t essential it means that the body can live without them. The body was essentially not made to consume carbohydrates.


Take Home Message

Each and every single one of us individuals process this macronutrient differently meaning that the final decision is ultimately yours. That being said, if Fiber isn’t accounted for in your total carbohydrate intake, carbs truly aren’t essential to someone trying to build mass, lose weight or simply live a healthy lifestyle. Opting for fats instead of Carbs will lower your overall blood sugar levels, stop energy crashes, help with portion control and most importantly, keep you satisfied for longer.

Eliminating or reducing carbohydrate intake will increase the consumption of the other two major macronutrients thus giving your body more of what it physiologically needs for a healthier, stronger and more efficiently feeling and looking body.

 

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