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The 10 Carb Commandments

Use these guidelines to find the proper place for carbohydrates in your diet.

Pity the poor, beleaguered carbohydrate. Long castigated for its role in turning a six-pack into a snack-pack and often nutritionally degraded by the food industry, many health-savvy individuals are left wavering about its role in a physique-minded eating plan. Some fear carbohydrates more than last week’s mystery meat. Well, good news for pasta and cereal lovers. If you put the right carbs in the right amounts at the right time in your pie hole (Ed. note: No, not pie), you can bolster your fitness gains and go from scrawny to brawny. We’ve ID’d 10 rules of carbohydrate eating that will help you get over any aversion to the C word.

Rule No. 1: Low-carb diets can backfire.

Typically, when someone aspires to improve their buff-to-blubber ratio, one does it with a sense of urgency. Impulsively, carbohydrates are often severely slashed in pursuit of this well-intentioned goal. Sure, too many carbohydrates, particularly the wrong kind, can make you more sloppy than sliced, but dietitian Jim White, RD, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia Beach, Va., (jimwhitefit.com) says drastic cuts can cause your metabolism to sputter, making it harder to have a better six-pack … or a six-pack, period. “A diet with too few carbs can also leave you feeling sluggish, so all you want to do is hit the couch instead of the gym,” he adds. Instead of putting carbs on the chopping block, make them work for you by following the guidelines contained herein.

Rule No. 2: Get big with more carbohydrates.

Normally, when you think about sculpting muscle, the first thing to come to mind is protein. After all, it’s protein that helps repair and build muscle after a stiff workout. However, without packing your muscles with glycogen, you have as much chance of gaining serious size as Michael Vick does becoming a spokesman for PETA. Glycogen is the collection of carbohydrates stored inside muscle cells and is the most easily accessible source of energy to fuel training. “With more glycogen, you can lift more weight for longer periods, helping elicit muscle growth,” White says. What’s more, carbs love water, and when you store them as glycogen, H2O comes along for the ride. This intracellular hydration looks and feels like added muscle and gives your muscles a fuller appearance. Carbohydrates in the diet also provide a source of calories that are vital for putting on size. After all, there is only so much chicken breast you can eat.

If you’re training to put on overall size, White says you should aim for 1.5 to 2 grams of carbohydrate per pound of bodyweight. So to gain mass, a 180-pound person can consume 270 to 360 grams of carbs daily. “Hardgainers may want to concentrate on the higher end of this range,” White says. Monitor your body fat, and if you find it’s inching too much upward, you can cut back a bit. Online tools such as NutritionData.com can help you track your carbohydrate intake.

Rule No. 3: Know when to scale back.

When your goal is to get lean and ripped to the bone as opposed to putting on overall size, we recommend curtailing carbohydrate intake to less than a gram per pound of bodyweight. This helps encourage the body to burn more fat for fuel. The easiest way to implement this step is to reduce your carbohydrate portions at meals. Instead of a full bagel, for example, have a small slice of whole-grain bread. Toss only berries into your shakes instead of berries and a banana. Try half a cup of rice instead of a full cup. On days when you don’t train, you can cut back slightly more. If you find that your energy levels are sagging or your muscles are looking a little soft, add back in an extra portion to see whether that helps.

Rule No. 4: Prioritize “whole” carbs.

Like sports cars, not all carbohydrates are created equal. Slower-digesting, whole-food carbs such as oats, quinoa, brown rice, legumes and vegetables should constitute the bulk of your daily carbohydrate intake (with the exception being rules No. 6 and No. 9). These edibles result in a less drastic rise in blood sugar than their more processed counterparts such as white bread and most boxed cold cereals, which impedes hunger and fat storage. According to researchers at Tufts University in Boston, people who regularly eat whole grains rather than refined grains pack on less fat in their midriffs. Not only does fat in this area look unsightly, but it also can put you on the road to heart disease. “Don’t overlook that these carb sources help you stockpile valuable minerals, vitamins and antioxidants that will improve training results,” White says. Nuts, seeds and unsweetened dairy also supply smaller amounts of carbs and can be considered beneficial whole-food sources.

Rule No. 5: Rise and dine.

Your breakfast repast is no time to skimp on carbs. “You need carbohydrates at breakfast to replace glycogen stores that have been used up during the overnight fast and to boost blood sugar so you have energy to tackle the day,” White says. Providing carbohydrates also helps turn off early-morning muscle catabolism. Researchers at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom found that when subjects consumed a high-fiber, low-glycemic breakfast, they burned more fat during subsequent exercise and had higher levels of satiety than those who noshed on a high-glycemic, fiber-poor breakfast. So to start your day the right way, think rolled oats instead of the sweetened instant variety, an orange instead of orange juice, whole-grain toast instead of an elephantine muffin on the go.

Rule No. 6: Think fast after workouts.

Fast-digesting, high-glycemic-index carbohydrates tend to create a large surge of the anabolic hormone insulin streaming through your blood. Normally, this would not be ideal because insulin can promote fat storage, but postworkout, White says high insulin levels drive recovery nutrients such as creatine, glucose and amino acids into muscle cells to restock glycogen (to be used for your next gym session) and stymie further muscle breakdown while encouraging its growth. Case in point: University of Texas researchers discovered that subjects who consumed a carbohydrate-protein supplement following exercise had higher levels of enzymes that promote muscle glycogen and protein synthesis. 

As for carbohydrate choices, try white bagels, rice cakes, juice, white pasta or rice, white spuds, or a carb-rich sports drink to get more bang from your workouts. “Aim for 0.3 to 0.6 grams of fast-acting carbs per pound of bodyweight within the first hour after working out,” White advises. “Hardgainers or those engaging in high-volume, exhaustive exercise on a regular basis should aim for the upper end of this range.” 

Rule No. 7: Go slow before workouts.

In contrast to after workouts, you want to focus on slow-digesting carbohydrates before a sweat session. Eating a small amount, 20 to 40 grams, of slower-burning carbs found in whole-grain bread, sweet potato, oatmeal or fruit like a banana, 30 to 45 minutes before you train, provides a steady supply of carbohydrates during exercise to keep energy levels up so you can push serious weight. Refined carbohydrates before a workout can spike insulin levels, causing your blood sugar to fall faster than a Major League splitter, leading to an energy crash and hampering fat-burning during the exercise.

Rule No. 8: Stop carbs at dinner.

To keep your fat-burning furnace hot while you snore away, keep your carb intake very low before bed. Metabolism slows during the wee hours, so it’s more likely that carbohydrates from the diet will be stored as doughy body fat. Carbohydrates also can put a damper on growth-hormone release during sleep. Growth hormone encourages muscle recovery and growth while at the same time promoting fat burning. The upshot is that a pre-bed snack should contain mainly slow-digesting protein; try a casein shake or low-fat cottage cheese. “The one exception to this rule is if you train late at night,” White says. “If so, you still need to consume carbs postworkout to facilitate recovery.” If your goal is to lose body fat and you’re training at this time, cut your postworkout carb intake to 20 to 30 grams of fast-digesting carbs.

Rule No. 9: Use the one-hour rule.

When engaging in sustained high-intensity exercise for periods longer than one hour, a spate of research says that you can get a boost from consuming fast-acting carbs such as those found in sports drinks and gels. “This prevents the detrimental drop in blood glucose and muscle glycogen that can slow muscular contraction and speed up the onset of fatigue, causing you to exercise less intensely,” White says. He suggests consuming 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates for each hour of exertion. Interestingly, UK researchers have reported that consuming two or more different forms of carbohydrates, such as glucose, fructose and maltodextrin, during exercise is more effective at improving performance than just taking in one form.

Rule No. 10: Find fiber.

One form of carbohydrate almost all Americans can use more of is dietary fiber. “The average American only consumes half as much as they should, which is between 25 and 35 grams each day,” White says. “This is no good because fiber helps fight a number of chronic diseases and keeps you feeling full by slowing down digestion.” So noshing on fiber makes it less likely you’ll give into the cake demon perched on your shoulder. A 2010 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that followed nearly 90,000 individuals for six-and-a-half years discovered that those who ate the most fiber were less likely to pack on body fat. Among the fiber powerhouses that can take a sledgehammer to hunger pangs are beans, lentils, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Twinkies? Not so much.

 

Supplement Savvy

These carbohydrate-rich supplements can help you achieve serious fitness and physique gains.

Waxy Maize Starch

Contrary to prior thought, this carbohydrate is particularly slowly digested, so add it to your preworkout shakes to fuel grueling workouts.

Fiber Powders

A far cry from their sawdust forerunners, fiber powders can help you meet your daily quota and keep you feeling full. Use with meals.

Accelerade

Use this powder with a 4-to-1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio for fuel during long workouts and afterward to speed up recovery. Add a scoop or two of whey for the perfect postworkout shake.

Gels

Packed with fast-acting carbohydrates, sucking back a gel during extended aerobic exercise can help you get to the finish line. Make sure to consume gels with plenty of water.

Agave

Made up mostly of the carbohydrate fructose, this super-sweet liquid sweetener has a lower glycemic index than most other sweeteners, so it won’t spike blood sugar. Use it to add a sweet kick to baked goods, yogurt, cottage cheese and drinks.

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