WHAT DETERMINES HOW CARBS ARE USED?
Believe it or not, there are a few different ways that carbohydrates are utilized in the body. Mostly, what happens to the carbs you consume depends on various factors like:
- Being active/inactive
- How demanding your activity is (duration and intensity)
- How much usable energy you have based on the type of activity
- How much stored energy (glycogen) your muscles and liver contain
Essentially, carbohydrates will either be used rapidly if energy demands are high or stored as glycogen for later use (9).
For instance, if you're in the middle of a grueling workout and drink a sports drink, those simple carbs will help provide your muscles with glucose and energy for continued performance.
If, on the other hand, you drink that beverage after the workout, many of those carbohydrates will serve the purpose of replenishing stored glycogen.
As a simple way to understand this principle, if you're performing at a high intensity, there's a good chance the carbohydrates you eat will help support that activity by being used. If you're inactive and energy demands are low, your body will store those carbs as glycogen in your muscles and liver.
AREN’T CARBS BAD FOR WEIGHT LOSS?
A common misconception about carbohydrates is that eating them will limit weight loss or lead directly to weight and fat gain. While this can occur, it's not a natural result of eating carbs.
Carbohydrates, just like protein and fat, provide the body with calories. Even though carbohydrates do function differently than these other macronutrients, they still offer calories that serve a specific purpose.
What you should know is that carbohydrates do not inherently make you gain weight, and they do not directly inhibit weight loss in the same vein that neither does fat or protein.
Carbohydrates can, however, lead to these issues if you consume more than the body requires for replenishing stored glycogen or providing immediate energy, such as during a workout or event.
Think of it this way: carbohydrates have the purpose of providing usable energy for activity. That's why your muscles store glucose in the form of glycogen. This glycogen can be used to provide efficient and sustained energy during that activity.
If you consume more carbohydrates than are needed for immediate energy or to replenish these glycogen reserves, then sugars can undergo a process known as de novo lipogenesis where carbohydrates are transformed into fats (10).
But this process only occurs if those carbohydrates can’t be used as intended, such as if energy demands have been met.
Mostly, remember that carbohydrates can lead to weight gain or make weight loss difficult, but only if you eat more than you need, just like with other forms of calories.
If you're an athlete and very active, it's unlikely that this will be a concern, unless you're severely overeating carbs. Your activity level, for the most part, should be the determinant of how many or how few carbohydrates you consume.
HOW THESE FACTORS DETERMINE WHICH TYPE OF CARBOHYDRATE TO USE
Now that you understand that the fate of carbohydrates depends heavily on your energy demands, it gets a little easier to decide which type of carb will be best for each situation.
Simply put, consuming fast-digesting carbohydrates like those found in sports drinks or even GlycoMuscle Fueler will be a better choice when energy demands are higher since they break down easily and can supply immediate energy.
Additionally, it's smart to use these carbs for refueling and recovering if you have to perform multiple times in the same day or across multi-day events.
When you compete or train, your muscles are converting that stored glycogen back into glucose through a process known as glycogenolysis. As this happens, the amount of glycogen stored in your muscles declines (11).
If you use a large amount of this glycogen, you'll hit a wall in performance known as the dreaded "bonk," where performance significantly declines (12, 13).
Additionally, if you need to compete later the same day or even the following day, you'll need to replenish this stored glycogen as rapidly as possible. Otherwise, your performance will suffer.
Because of the rapid digestion rate of simple carbs, they're a better choice for rapidly replenishing your glycogen levels.
As we'll touch on a little later, knowing exactly when to use different amounts of simple carbohydrates will require self-experimentation.
While complex carbohydrates like the ones found in whole grains will break down to glucose eventually, their structure makes this happen at a slower rate. If you consume these carbohydrates too close to your workout or event, you could be left feeling full and bloated, without receiving the energy you need to perform.
Mostly, complex carbohydrates are a great idea after training or performance or earlier in the day, a few hours before your event.
First, since complex carbohydrates still break down into glucose, they'll be able to provide glycogen replenishment despite doing so at a slower rate. Second, because of their complex structure, the glucose they provide will enter the bloodstream at a slower pace than their simple carbohydrate counterparts.
Because this glucose will enter the blood a little bit slower, the body's insulin response will also be a bit less aggressive (2).
For general health, maintaining lower levels of insulin when you can is a good idea. As discussed earlier, having chronically elevated insulin levels can lead to insulin resistance, which is a disorder associated with obesity and disease.
Again, for most athletes, insulin resistance isn't too much of a concern, but sticking with complex carbohydrates during times when immediate energy isn't required is considered best practice (7, 8).
Lastly, because of their slower rate of digestion, complex carbohydrates are a good idea from a hunger standpoint, especially when activity level and carbohydrate consumption are lower.
Highlights: Both simple and complex carbohydrates are useful for athletes. Their usefulness, however, depends heavily on energy demands and how quickly you need that energy for sustained or future performance.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CARBOHYDRATES FOR ATHLETES