Debunking The Carb Myth


Working as a trainer, I hear countless myths from clients who happen to watch something on television or read it online. 

Every few years, the same myths rear their ugly heads and get chins wagging.

One that is guaranteed to be a mainstay in the myth machine is carbohydrates. Lately, thanks to the popularity of Paleo-type diets, carbs have again been demonised and sent to the naughty corner.

However, in order to establish if carbs are “good” or “bad”, let’s go back to basics.  In my opinion, one of the main problems within the health industry is attempting to give everybody the exact same meal plan.  It just doesn’t work that way.

Humans have far too many variations in their daily nutrient requirements for a cookie-cutter approach to nutrition. For example, just one intense workout will alter your body’s ability to digest nutrients, your metabolism, and your hormone levels for up to 48 hours.

A sedentary office worker will handle carbs vastly different to that of an experienced female weightlifter who trains several times per week.

The reason is that the sedentary person will not burn through muscle glycogen stores, where as the gym-goer will need to replenish her muscle glycogen levels several times throughout the week. Muscle glycogen is the stored energy within the liver and muscles, and is what is used during intense workouts such as strength training or high intensity cardio training.

So the argument is not if carbs are needed. Rather, it is how many carbohydrates are required and what types are best.

What Type Of Carbs Are Best?

This is where the topic of carbs becomes confusing.

Carbs are bundled together in the one broad description, which is why the statement “don’t eat carbs” is both dangerous for your health and for your progress in the gym.

Carbs include everything from natural sources (think fruit and leafy vegetables) to starchy vegetables, breads, sugars, and my favourite meal as a university student: two-minute noodles.

Therefore it’s misleading to claim that all carbs are the enemy when fruits and vegetables fall under the carb category.

Generally, the types of carbs that support anaerobic activity best are ones that do not cause any inflammatory responses. Some people will respond negatively to carbs containing gluten (found in wheat, barley, rye and oats), and if that’s you then the best sources will be from fruits, vegetables, and some starchy vegetables and rice.

For others with no gluten intolerances, some wheat products may be tolerable. The majority of my clients feel and perform better by choosing gluten-free, natural sources where possible. The majority of these are consumed during their more intense training days.

Rice, potatoes and pumpkin can be great additions to fruit and vegetables where additional sources are required.


So How Many Carbs Can I Eat?

For inactive people, sufficient carbs can be digested through a daily intake of green vegetables and fresh fruit. This would supply them with roughly 75-125g of carbohydrates daily – more than enough for sufficient muscle and brain activity.

The same intake would apply to anybody performing very low-intensity exercise, such as slow walking or beginner gym sessions. There is no need for sedentary people to start on the super-low carb route (unless severe brain fade, dizziness, and lack of short-term memory are your goals).

Therefore the gym-goer who is undertaking intense cardio sessions plus muscle-tearing resistance workouts will obviously require a higher amount of carbs.

Let’s say you plan to complete two cardio sessions and two resistance sessions each week. When you exercise, your body undergoes a period of muscle glycogen depletion, to provide the energy for the workout.

This depletion needs to be repaid through an appropriately timed intake of carbohydrates. If you were only consuming 100g of carbs, like our sedentary office worker friend, and performing four intense workouts per week, you won’t be able to function for very long.

Your body can handle as much as 300-500 grams of carbohydrate1, which is stored in the muscle and liver. The amount you need will depend upon your training intensity, the particular day of the week, and your personal carbohydrate tolerance.

So the purpose of this carbohydrate intake is three-fold:

1.      To trigger a muscle-building environment and offset the stress brought on by training. This includes hormone production, and sleep quality. (Low-carb dieters frequently suffer from insomnia.)

2.      To fuel anaerobic activity, such as sprinting or weightlifting.

3.      To restock carb stores for the next workout, which have been depleted through intense training.


The moral of the story is that carbs are necessary.

It’s true that a reduction in carbohydrate will assist with weight loss (don’t forget your body holds 3-4g of water for each gram of carb – so dropping carbs means dropping water and a fair bit of weight), and with general health if the carbs were previously from a poor source.

However, to support anaerobic training - and to help with overall health and sleep - sufficient carb sources are needed. Don’t jump on the zero-carb bandwagon without expecting a drop in mood, performance and recovery.

As renowned strength coach Charles Poliquin likes to say, you need to earn your carbs. The leaner you become and the more intense workouts you perform, the more carbs you can handle.

Start to experiment with both the type and the amount of carbohydrates to find what works best for you.

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Pete Tansley is a writer, personal trainer, business owner, proud dad and a horrible dancer. He owns and operates, a training and online coaching company based on the Gold Coast, QLD.

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