That’s right, I said it: “The ‘C-word’”… Seems like the most hotly debated macro-nutrient of the last few years, and for good reason. I’m just going to jump right in and tell you the ONE irrefutable fact that 99% of trainers, nutritionists and the like simply are not admitting to you: Of proteins, fats and carbohydrates, only the latter is NOT essential for your body. You have no need whatsoever to actually consume carbs (especially in large quantities).
I can already hear the clamours, ‘Chris, WTF do you mean!? Of course we need carbs – as part of a “balanced diet”’; well, first off, the notion of a “balanced diet” is more the stuff of 20th Century marketing from big name food companies (I’ll cover that another time)… but keep in mind that I’m not saying, ‘Eliminate carbs from your day-to-day consumption’. All I’ve said is that they’re not ‘essential’.
Let me explain…
See, when it comes to *macros* (Protein/Fat/Carbs), you have essential amino acids (Leucine and Tryptophan, for example) – they are some of the building blocks of protein; and you have essential fatty acids (Alpha Linolenic Acid [an Omega-3 fatty acid], for example) – which [in general] are necessary for a myriad of functions in the body including anti-inflammatory response. Why are these so “essential”… it’s incredibly simple: the human body cannot synthesize them, and so, we must obtain them through our diet in order to promote normal/optimal physiological function (the lack of which can often lead to health complications).
Now, I know some of you will be saying/quoting, ‘But carbs are the “preferred” fuel source of the brain’, and ‘What about glycogen stores?’, and whatnot. But let me ask you this: Can you list just one source of carbohydrate that is *essential* to the body? Keep in mind, there’s an epic difference between “preferred” and “essential”… Fact is: there is none. Second fact is: the body can actually synthesize glucose all by itself. Consider, for example: Gluconeogenesis (the creation of glucose [usually] from [excess] protein/fat). So, actually if you have plenty of protein and fat in your diet, then you have your essentials covered, and if your body really needs any glucose – for whatever reason – it can just make some from unneeded protein or fat.
There is, however, no denying that carbohydrates do help when it comes to training. Whether you’re an a$$-kicking taekwondo practitioner, a wall-scaling speed-climber, a water-rower aficionado or just love flinging iron around the gym; carbs can most definitely help to fuel a “proper workout” (i.e. one where you feel like you didn’t just get the job done, but you crushed it).
Now, it is perfectly viable that if you decide to go low-carb and enter into ketosis, then your body can run just fine on the ketones it produces. (Ketosis is a physiological state whereby our body runs on ketones – byproducts created by the body when it breaks down fat for fuel – usually when carb levels are extremely low yet energy is still required).
The main difference is that carbohydrates will get used up quite quickly, and once you’ve depleted your glycogen stores, that’s it; whereas, with ketones, your body will use body fat as a fuel source, and so, unless you have a body fat percentage in the single digits, you have a relatively boundless source of fuel at your disposal. It’s kind of like a “nitro-boost” in a race car (think: Fast & Furious)… the carbs give you that boost to really push beyond, but it’s short-lived. The regular fuel (in this case – the fat that your body is just carrying around anyway), will absolutely see you over the finish line all the same, just perhaps not with the same “nail-biting rush”.
Let’s consider carbs from another perspective… the fact that most carb-rich foods just taste so freakin’ good! I’d be lying if I said I didn’t LOVE stuffing my face with a sugary, fluffy cloud of doughnutty goodness, or picking away at a cornucopia of fruity lusciousness (like sliced banana, strawberries, blueberries, mango and pineapple – my fave mix) from time to time. And I have a distinct weakness for a cheeky tub of Ben & Jerry’s “One Love” Ice Cream… but there are two issues that I have with these naughty nibbles: their sheer addictiveness, and the inevitable sugar-crash associated with overdoing these hedonistic indulgences. However, if you’ve read my first ever blog post (Convalescent to Certified Expert: 3 Principles to Better Understand Type II Diabetes and Even Reverse It), then you’ll know that *moderation* is the key to keeping these sugar-related issues in check.
But okay, I know – I’ve gone ahead and listed the “bad carbs” here (the foods that [generally] have a very high Glycemic Index or “GI”, in other words, are basically sugar-laden)… so how about the good carbs? What about fruitarians and vegans? How do they do it? They seem to be some of the healthiest people on the planet, right? Well, it is very hard to find anything “wrong” with these ways of eating – especially being vegan. With the exception of one or two micro-nutrient deficiencies (which can easily be supplemented anyway), the vegan diet is moderately high in carbs (and CAN be low in sugar depending on food choices); but you can get adequate amounts of protein and fat too. And – more importantly – you will get plenty of vitamins and minerals (which ensure proper physiological function on a level that, frankly, surpasses the relevance of macronutrient balance).
So really, when we talk about “the C-Word”, we have the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. What it comes down to is personal preference and moderation: either you like eating low-carb, and feel good running on ketones; or you manage carb intake really well – generally eating good [low-GI] sources – and are able to strike a solid balance with your macros. Personally, I have dabbled in various eating habits, and I have found that vegan works well for me [when *sugars* are in check]; but then conversely, I have also felt awesome eating keto/paleo (favouring higher fat and protein consumption, and heavily reduced carbs). The most valuable takeaway from both is that “hitting your MICROS” is actually the more important aspect! With that said, whatever you decide is your preference, just be sure to be getting adequate levels of both vitamins and minerals, and you should find that your body works optimally, in spite of being high or low carb.
There you have it – playing devil’s advocate with carbs. The “ketos” out there will blare their anti-carb tune, and the “pro-carbers” will sing glucose’s praises; the thing to consider if you aren’t already entrenched in one camp or the other is that maybe neither is a “one-size-fits-all” answer for everyone, but actually, we all have our individual physiological needs and responses, and so, some of us will feel better if we switch up how we eat and try something new (whether that means “going vegan” or “going keto”, for example).
As always guys and gals, I hope you have found this to be a thought-provoking and informative read.
I’ll catch you in the next CXP Nutrition post, but in the meantime, eat healthy and eat smart!
Yours in Training,
Chris Atkinson | Master Personal Trainer, SDO