When it comes to dieting fads and fables, nothing gets a worse rap than carbs. When not being cast as the boogie man under the bed (à la very low-carb diets), we've heard rumors that if you're looking to stay trim, it's best to only eat carbs in the a.m. We figured amidst all the confusion that there was probably a fundamental misunderstanding of what carbs really are, what they do for the body, and how to eat them. For answers, we called nutrition expert Lori Zanini, R.D., who's also a certified diabetes expert.
Men's Fitness: What do carbs do specifically for our body?
Lori Zanini: Carbs are the main source of energy for our bodies. They give energy to our central nervous system. So that is including our brain and our spinal cord. In terms of performance energy, they're the foundation for the energy and the fuel needed to propel the body during exercise.
Should we avoid eating carbs at certain times of the day, or completely altogether?
I definitely wouldn’t recommend a carb-free diet, but I think the key is just the quality of the carbs you choose. I recommend that people have consistent amounts of carbs during the day. For men, the goal should be 45 and 50 grams of carbohydrates per meal. You don’t want to have a meal that has no carbs. Our liver stores blood sugar, and if we either go too long without eating anything or we go too long without eating any carbs, our liver will release extra sugar into our bloodstream. So that’s the benefit of eating consistent amounts of carbs, versus just eating a ton of carbs at one meal and no carbs the rest of the day.
What happens when your liver releases that extra glucose?
Not having consistent amounts of carbs during the day could be a risk factor for developing diabetes. You’re messing with your blood sugar throughout the day.
What different kinds of carbs are there?
When people say, "I don’t eat any carbs," they usually mean I don’t eat rice or pasta, but they’re still having carbs, they just don’t realize it. There are actually carbs in a lot of different foods that people wouldn't normally expect. Carbs can be found in starches, but they can also be found in fruit, milk, and legumes (there are also carbs in sugary snacks like candy). Half of a cup of beans, for instance, contains 15 grams of carbs, or one serving. If you have a small piece of fruit, like a small apple, that would be 15 grams of carbs. A cup of milk is usually 12-15 grams as well.
What kinds of carbs should we choose to eat throughout the day?
You want to choose carbs that have at least some other nutrient in them. If the food has fiber, it’s going to digest more slowly. So that would be the benefit of having a sweet potato over white rice. Having a cup of berries would be a really great carb versus. white pasta or white spaghetti. On the other hand, if you had 12 ounces of organic whole-pressed juice, that’s the same amount of carbs as a cup of pasta, but without the fiber. Juicing is so big right now, but people don’t realize that fruit juice (not veggie juice) can actually have a ton of carbs in really small quantities. Drinking juice won’t keep people full very long, and so they find themselves eating frequently, when really, if they’d just had something with fiber, it would’ve kept them feeling fuller, longer.
How many carbs should we take in daily?
I recommend 45-60 grams of carbs per meal. So for men, if you had a cup of pasta, that would be about 45 grams.
Should we change up how many carbs we eat when we're working out?
Think about it more as a portion range that you change according to what you're doing. If you’re trying to lose or watch your weight, stick closer to the 45 grams per meal. If you’re an athlete or you're exercising multiple times during the week, then I would go closer to the 60 grams per meal.
Should you eat before you do an intense workout?
Definitely. You want to have a carb-rich snack with protein before you exercise. Eat a meal that will digest easily 30-60 minutes before a workout. Say oatmeal, almonds, and a banana. You don’t want to eat something with a lot of fat, because fat takes the longest to digest.