As you probably know, carbohydrates are one of the main types of nutrients and they’re the most important source of energy for your body. There are many foods that contain carbohydrates. However, not all of them influence your body in the same way. People often speak about good carbs and bad carbs. There is a lot of information about carbs in the internet, but I feel that the more one reads about carbohydrates, the more one gets confused. On the one hand, there are people who spread myths about carbohydrates. On the other, carbohydrates can be described and categorized in many different ways. As a result, it is easy to get confused by the various information about carbs, and the internet sometimes makes understanding carbs even more confusing.

You probably already predicted that this article is about carbohydrates. I have to mention that I didn’t study nutrition in college. I’m just interested in how food affects our bodies and that’s why I do lots of research on this topic. Sometimes it’s pretty tough to find the right information, because like I said before, there are so many different opinions and some of them are really hard to interpret and understand. I’m going to try my best to write this article in a way that is easy to understand for those who haven’t studied nutrition but who want a little education on the topic of our so-called enemy. That’s right. Carbs.

Simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates

Carbohydrates can be categorized into simple and complex carbohydrates based on their chemical structure. While simple carbohydrates are composed of only one or two sugars, complex carbohydrates contain three or even more sugar types. The difference between them is that simple carbohydrates can be digested by the human body very fast. Examples of simple carbs are soda, candy, ice cream and generally everything that is high in sugar. Complex carbs, however, are slower in digestion. Vegetables, brown rice, quinoa as well as oats are just a few examples of complex carbohydrates.

But why is it useful to know if a special type of food can be absorbed fast or slow?

It is essential to know that the faster the carbohydrates can be absorbed by your body, the more it spikes your blood insulin. A high blood insulin level can lead to diabetes. In other words, simple carbohydrates increase the risk for diabetes and heart attacks. In contrast, complex carbohydrates do the opposite; they can prevent such diseases. Complex carbs are often unprocessed and contain important nutrients, vitamins and minerals, while simple carbohydrates are less filling, which means you will be hungry sooner.

It seems like complex carbohydrates have several advantages over simple carbs. However, there are complex carbs such as white flour which act like simple carbs in that they can affect your insulin levels in the same way that simple carbs can. In other words, the choice of what kind of carbohydrates to eat shouldn’t be based simply on whether it’s simple or complex.

The Glycemic Index

The glycemic index ranks carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 on how quickly and how much they raise blood sugar levels after eating. The higher the glycemic index is, the faster the food will be digested and the more the blood sugar will rise. The glycemic index was originally made for diabetics to show which foods are best for them. Today, however, the glycemic index is not only used by diabetics, but also by bodybuilders and athletes, alike.  It basically guides people to eat the right food to control their blood sugar level. This is useful for many reasons. First of which, you can control your energy level during the day. Secondly, you can control your hunger and by eating foods with a low glycemic index, you can prevent medical issues.

But this is only the half-truth…

So, we mentioned the distinction between simple and complex carbs, and the useful scale called the glycemic index. But… there’s more.

One of the problems of the glycemic index is that it does not take serving sizes into account. The fact is that eating a single piece of candy won’t have the same impact on blood sugar as three packs of the same food would. That’s why the concept of the glycemic load was created, which helps counter this flaw. It gets even worse. The glycemic index only counts when a certain type of food is eaten in isolation (for example, Oats). If you mix however different types of food (oats with milk and fruits), the digesting time will change. In other words, the glycemic index of carbohydrates is affected by the combinations of foods you eat.

Even though the glycemic index is not perfect, it’s still a good reference to figure out which carbs are the healthiest. If you’d like to know the rating of a specific food, simply google “Glycemic index database” and from there you can search a specific food.

Carbohydrates and building muscle

This is probably the most interesting part for the majority of us that like to build muscle and keep fit. In bodybuilding, the terms “eat clean” are often used as a reference to unprocessed foods. But can the glycemic index really help to build muscles and does it affect your body composition at all? The short answer is: not really.

Studies have shown that there is no connection between the kind of carbohydrates you eat and building muscle. What really counts is the overall calorie intake. Basically, you could consume your required calories from simple carbs or even from foods with a high glycemic index. It simply doesn’t matter, that’s why the so-called diet “If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM)” really works.

I do not want to motivate you to eat all those foods high in sugar. Not at all. Eating the right types of carbohydrate can definitely help you to build muscles though. Remember how carbohydrates can affect your appetite; foods with a high glycemic index make you hungrier sooner. If you’re hungry, you’ll eat more food, and the overall calorie intake logically increases. This could definitely lead to gaining fat. In addition, who is actually able to work out when they’re hungry?
Moreover, I guess you just feel better and stronger if you eat healthy food and as you feel better, you perform better at the gym. This again leads to more muscles.

And let’s not forget about general health benefits from eating the right types of carbs.

My recommendation

To summarize, it doesn’t matter what kind of carbohydrates you eat in terms of body composition as long as long as you consume the right amount of calories. However, unprocessed, complex, low glycemic carbohydrates can help to reach your goals (gaining muscle, lose body fat, or whatever your goal is) as they control appetite. Furthermore, they have significant benefits in terms of overall health.

I personally stick to the following guidelines and highly recommend doing the same to everyone:

  • Avoid simple, processed, high glycemic carbohydrates such as ice cream, candy, soda, cake, etc., as much as possible.
  • Use complex carbohydrates which have a low glycemic index such as oats, brown rice, quinoa etc. as your main source of carbs.
  • Don’t limit yourself. If you can’t resist a little piece of chocolate every now and then, go for it. Just make sure you don’t overdo it. Remember, moderation is key.

Now, let’s go to the gym and get some gains. 😉

– Tinu



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