With the keto trend in full swing, more and more people are permanently banning carbohydrates from their diets. For ages, anything “high-carb” has been instantly labeled as unhealthy. But the truth is, cutting carbs isn’t necessarily the answer to a healthier lifestyle; it’s more or less the opposite, especially when it comes to getting the most out of your workout. How do carbs play such a vital role in staying healthy—and what difference do they make at the gym?
Carbohydrates are the body’s main form of energy
If you’ve ever wondered why sports teams hold pasta dinners, it’s because carbohydrates are the best way to fuel up before a big game or workout (although white pasta is a simple carbohydrate, which isn’t the healthiest). According to Nutrition Facts: The Truth About Food by Karen Frazier, when your digestive system breaks down carbohydrates, they’re converted to glucose, which the body’s cells burn to produce something called ATP (adenosine triphosphate). The ATP is what regulates the storage and release of energy from the cells.
If you don’t consume a healthy amount of carbs, the body then burns fat for energy, which is known as ketosis; when the body burns fat for energy, ketones get released into the blood. A small amount of ketones in the blood isn’t harmful, but there have been mixed results about how safe it is long term. The best way to fuel up and get the most out of a workout is to consume healthy carbohydrates.
Eliminating carbs may lead to fatigue and reduced work rates at the gym
Since your body depends on carbs for its much-needed energy during a workout, cutting them from your diet can have some seriously negative effects. “Exercise without adequate carbohydrates can lead to fatigue, impaired skill and concentration, and reduced work rates,” says Jillian Greaves, MPH, RD, LDN, founder of preventionpantry.com. You might feel more exhausted than ever if you work out without any energy, and you likely won’t see the results you had hoped for without energy readily available for your body to burn up during a workout.
If you want to get the most out of a workout, what you eat beforehand is crucial. “In the 30-60 minutes prior to a workout, you want to focus on a carbohydrate-rich snack that is relatively low in protein and fat,” says Greaves. She says the low protein and fat content is to avoid any digestive upset. “The focus right before a workout is quick energy.” For quick energy, Greaves recommends fruit such as a banana or an apple. Dried fruits, such as dates, apricots, or mango are also good options. If you’re eating several hours before a workout, a meal full of whole foods will be beneficial—as long as you give yourself enough time to digest. Greaves suggests brown rice with chicken and broccoli or oatmeal with nuts, berries, and chia seeds.
Carbs are important to your diet—but make sure you’re eating the healthiest kind
Stacking a plate high with lasagna and garlic bread will definitely up your carb intake, but processed, simple carbs aren’t the kind you should be eating. Anything white, such as pasta, rice, and bread, has been processed, and most of the nutrients have been removed. This means it contains simple carbs, which the body breaks down into glucose quickly. When you eat simple carbs, the quick breakdown causes a spike in your blood sugar all at once instead of the glucose being stored as energy to be released over time. The end result can be an unhealthy amount of sugar in your body, which leads to fat buildup.
Greaves doesn’t believe cutting carbs from your diet is the answer to staying healthy. “I would recommend focusing on carb quality and choosing more whole, minimally processed sources, such as sweet potatoes, quinoa, beans, lentils and oats,” she says. Whole carbs are also known as complex carbs, which contain multiple sugar molecules and break down slowly in the body–this means there is plenty of energy to burn during a workout and no blood sugar spike. Instead of reaching for a big bowl of pasta, opt for carbs that are whole and unprocessed—your body will thank you.