My story of exercising and getting familiar with nutrition goes back some 5 years. It was the time when young girls and women were becoming increasingly aware of body aesthetics, the popularity of fitness was at its top, and new kinds of fitness were emerging almost every day, as well as new diets that supposedly improved your looks and performance. Bikini fitness was also becoming widely known and popular. Every second girl wanted to have a shredded physique with rock-hard six-pack abs, and there was I, a new mom just recovered from pregnancy and labour, with a 6 months baby in my hands. I have never been overweight, in fact, my entire pregnancy my body weight was on the lower side. But after giving birth, my body didn’t look the same anymore. I had plump cheeks and my stomach stuck out. I didn’t like it. I wanted to be lean again, the way I was before.
My husband was into serious weight training, trying to build muscle, and he was doing well. He’s always been sporty, while I’ve never done anything close to sports. My ‘sportiest’ things we crunches, 1 lb dumbbells and a book on basic yoga sequences, which I could hardly repeat, except the tree pose.
But that was exactly the time when, after giving birth, I wasn’t feeling great anymore and I needed to change it. I wanted to be as determined as my husband, I wanted to be active together with him, I wanted to be fit. And because it was also the time of the rise of the bikini fitness, the models and competitors were published in every Muscle Mag issue that my husband bought. I saw them, I was mesmerised, and I wanted to look the same.
For inspiration I dived into the limitless resources of Internet and stumbled upon many groups and pages about women’s fitness. It felt great to be a part of a new community, to have new goals, which I never thought I’d have, I was excited for what was to come, but I needed tools and information to achieve my goals. And for that purpose I decided to look into those communities.
Unfortunately, there was a lot of misinformation out there, and still is. The ‘guru’ girls advocated for a lot of fasted cardio and also no eating in the next 2 hours post workout – or else you will be burning sugar instead of fat and eating the burnt calories back. The proposed diets consisted of tons of lean meats and eggs, low fat dairy and non-starchy vegetables. No grains, no real carbs, no fruit. And they also said to not weight train – it would make me bulky. They said I already had the muscle I needed and just had to cut the fat layer by cutting out carbs, most of the fat and even water.
The prospect of a hot bod was appealing, but I started to notice major discrepancies between the information in the groups and in the bodybuilding and fitness magazines that my husband gave me to read. It soon became obvious to me that those girls in the communities were purely focused on achieving a low-fat body and the desired weight of 40-45 kg, which is extremely low, unless you are 150 cm tall. Health wasn’t their real priority, although most of them did believe that what they were doing was healthy. I have only my husband and his magazines to thank that I didn’t fall a victim of those unrealistic and unhealthy goals and didn’t develop an eating disorder. And it scares me to think how many girls did.
But back to today’s topic,
I know perfectly from my own experience how hard it is to understand what is right and what is wrong. Most of the time the wrong is just the misunderstood and twisted right. That is why I became interested in nutrition in the first place – to understand the right way. And today I know that there is no one way, no one size fits all. But keeping that in mind, there are still general guidelines, the gold standard that is healthy, unlike those extreme ways popular in the World Wide Web. I want to share what I know, what I have learned from my studies and textbooks, what is backed by science and considered a good rule.
Today it is about the importance of Carbohydrates for those who exercise, why you should consume them pre-workout and why you shouldn’t workout on empty stomach.
Why are carbohydrates so important?
Carbohydrates is the main fuel for the body and the muscle. In the body it is broken into simple glucose molecules (sugar) and stored as glycogen in the liver and the muscle. When the glycogen stores are full, the excess glucose is stored as fat. For this reason many people fear carbohydrates and unnecessarily limit them, ignoring the fact that the lack of carbohydrates in the diet can severely impair their performance both on physical and mental levels, and also ignoring the fact that protein and fat can also be stored as fat if consumed in excessive amounts. It’s not what you consume that matters, it’s how much of what you consume is actually needed for your body. And when you exercise, well, even if you don’t, you still need carbohydrates. How much you need will depend on your activity levels and goals.
What happens if you exercise without fuelling your body?
Unfortunately, it starts to use muscle as a fuel. The process is this: if your glycogen stores are full, then your body takes glycogen from muscle and liver to create energy. When the stores are empty, it takes sugar from blood to make up for the lack of fuel. Since the blood glucose levels drop and no carbohydrates are available to keep the blood glucose steady, the body starts to break down the proteins in muscle to maintain the blood sugar. This leads to break down and wasting of the muscle tissue.
What can be done to prevent muscle break down?
Eating enough carbohydrates to support your activity level is one way to prevent muscle loss. And so is eating enough proteins to help your muscles recover.
There’s also one more aspect to this:
To prevent glucose from storing as fat you can:
- Empty your glycogen stores by exercising regularly. High intensity exercise requires the most glycogen, so if you do exercise vigorously, your glycogen stores will be in a continuous cycle of being emptied and replenished. That way the most (if not all) carbohydrates eaten will store as glycogen and not as fat.
- Train your muscles. The more trained they are, the more glycogen they can store.
How much carbohydrates do you need?
Even if you are pretty much inactive, your body still requirs carbohydrates for energy and for maintaining blood sugar. Glucose feeds the cells, and that is the primary function of insulin – to deliver glucose to the cells.
For lightly active people, 3-5 g of carbohydrates per 1 kg of body weight is optimal. So if you weigh 60 kg, that would mean that your requirements are between 180 g and 300 g of carbohydrates a day.
The more active you are, the more you need. So if you are moderately active, you need 5-7 g of carbohydrates per 1 kg of body weight. If you weigh 60 kg, then you need between 300 g and 420 g of carbohydrates.
For highly active individuals, the requirements are 7-12 g per 1 kg of body weight. So for a 60 kg person it would be between 420 g and 720 g of carbohydrates.
And lastly, for those who are extremely active, it is 10-12 g per 1 kg body weight. If you weigh 60 kg, you would need between 600 g and 720 g of carbohydrates.
Now what does it all mean for the pre-workout meals? The requirements given above are daily requirements, but it is a good rule that in the 4 hours before you exercise, you should eat 1-4 g of carbohydrates for 1 kg of body weight. So, again, for a 60 kg person it means eating 60 g to 240 g of carbohydrates before exercise.
Why is there such a big difference, you might ask. The quantity of carbohydrates will also depend on your daily Calorie intake. About 40% to 50% of your Calories should come from carbohydrates, and the grams composing those 50% will vary greatly for people on 1800 Calorie diet and 3500 Calorie diet.
What you can do right now for your performance without going into maths
Right now, you could start consuming a carbohydrate-rich meal or snack before your workout. You can also add protein to it, as it might enhance the absorption of carbohydrates and also enhance your performance.
Here are some ideas for your pre-workout meals and snacks:
- Orange juice and whole wheat cereal with milk
- Oatmeal with a banana
- A toast with a banana and peanut butter
- Apples or banana and peanut butter
- Oat cakes and peanut butter
- Dried fruit
And remember, that it’s not the carbohydrates that you need to fear; it’s consuming the excess calories and not being active.