Why you shouldn’t ditch carbs in your quest for muscle gains

While carbohydrates have gained a bad reputation in recent years, with this macronutrient blamed for many of the health problems people experience today, such as obesity, type-2 diabetes and other lifestyle diseases, getting the right type and amount of carbs in your diet is vital to support muscle gains.

While an overconsumption of carbs, particularly the processed sugar included in modern convenience foods, contributes to these conditions, we need carbs to fuel peak performance in the gym and support various bodily processes, including optimal recovery and muscle growth.

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Breaking down carb sources

Our body breaks down all carbs and starches into glucose, which is the body’s primary energy source.

Complex carbohydrates are the form our bodies digest and absorb most efficiently. There complex structures take longer to break down during the digestion process, translating to a slower release of glucose into the bloodstream to deliver sustained energy.

Suitable complex carb sources include:

  • Rye or low GI bread
  • Sweet potato
  • Butternut
  • Basmati rice
  • Rolled oats

In contrast, our body metabolises simple carbs quickly as the sugar molecules have fewer bonds to break down, which means more glucose enters the bloodstream quicker.

Suitable complex carb sources include:

  • Cream of rice
  • White rice
  • Pre- and intra-workout and carb supplements with dextrose, maltodextrins, or high molecular weight carbohydrates

For example, a product like Biogen Pure Carbs Fast Absorbing Maltodextrin is a polysaccharide (a form of carbohydrate) that is rapidly converted into glucose in the blood stream, providing a quick source of energy. Maltodextrin is derived from a variety of starch products of which maize is the most common.

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The insulin response

When glucose circulates in our bloodstream after a meal or drink, the body releases insulin. This powerful hormone helps to regulate blood sugar levels by signalling the liver and muscle cells to absorb the circulating glucose, where it is either used to produce energy or gets stored as glycogen to meet future energy demands.

If we don’t burn off the circulating glucose through exercise or activity and the muscle cells and liver become full, we start storing excess glucose in fat calls.

We also tend to experience a rapid drop in blood sugar levels after the intense spike that follows a large dose of simple carbs, often leaving us feeling lethargic and sleepy, with a craving for more sugar for another energy ‘surge’.

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Timing your carb intake

Given the different dynamics in the way we metabolise simple and complex carbohydrates, it is important that we understand when to include them in their diet to derive the most benefit from this macronutrient.

In general, it is best to eat simple carbs around your training sessions, with complex carbs derived from natural, whole food sources eaten throughout the remainder of your day.

This approach helps to maintain stable energy levels, only spiking blood sugar levels at specific times when you are ready to burn the glucose circulating in your bloodstream.

In addition, a balanced diet does not necessarily mean dishing up a portion of carbs alongside some protein and healthy fats at every meal. Including carbs on every plate continually spikes insulin, which can reduce insulin sensitivity over time and may promote fat gain.

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Fuelled for success

A more strategic approach to carb consumption entails eating most (if not all) of our daily recommended intake before, during and directly after intense training.

This approach ensures a good supply of circulating glucose in the bloodstream for muscles to absorb and immediately use to provide energy for your workout.

Once your training session is over, a dose of complex carbohydrates will help to replenish depleted glycogen stores, and helps get amino acids into muscle cells thanks to the insulin response. This aids recovery and helps to develop bigger, stronger muscles.

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Carbs and cortisol

Another important reason to include carbs in your muscle-building diet is the impact that a low-carb diet has on stress hormone levels.

When glycogen levels drop too low, cortisol production increases to provide your body with the energy it needs through gluconeogenesis, a process that increases circulating blood sugar levels by breaking down digested or muscle protein and converting the amino acids into glucose.

This process can result in muscle tissue loss, which increases your recovery demands and, over time, may results in a decreased metabolic rate and a subsequent reduction in the body’s ability to burn body fat and maintain a lean physique.

Author: Pedro van Gaalen

When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

When he's not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He's worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

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