All About Carbohydrates

Megan Dahlman
March 15, 2022

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In the world of nutrition, carbohydrates are the buzz word right now. Of course protein is definitely a close second (even Special K is jumping on the protein bandwagon!), but there is probably more “press” surrounding carbs.

​Are carbs good? Are they bad? Are some of them good? Should we cycle them or time them? Should we even care?

Let's sort this all out and end up with a clear understanding of the place carbs should have in our daily diet.

Energy: Simple and Complex.

(Warning, science lesson!) Carbohydrates are your body’s main source of immediate energy, and can be categorized as either simple or complex based on how many sugar molecules are connected together. Simple carbs are generally refined grains and sugars and require minimal work to break down. Complex carbs are generally found in whole grains, legumes and produce, and require a bit more work to break down.

​Whether the carbohydrate is simple or complex, all carbs are broken down into a simple molecule before it can be absorbed and used by the body. Once they are broken down and absorbed, they go to the liver to fill energy stores there, and then they enter the bloodstream and travel to other cells of the body for energy. Your muscles can store carbohydrates in them, in the form of glycogen. These glycogen stores are what give your muscles the energy to move and function, especially during a workout (you want big glycogen stores!). If these storage units are already filled up, carbohydrates can be converted into lipid molecules and then stored as fat.


Insulin plays a big role as a vehicle for carbohydrates. When you eat carbohydrates, insulin is triggered to enter your blood stream and shuttle these carbs where they need to go. Healthy levels of insulin production and proper carbohydrate usage and storage are determined by many factors, including types of carbohydrates consumed, general diet, activity level, body fat, body type, genetics, and much more. Many diseases and health risk factors today are associated with improper carbohydrate consumption and insulin production. Diabetes anyone?

Enough with the Science!

So what do you need to know about carbs?

  • In general, it is best to stay away from simple forms of carbohydrates, like refined sugars found in sweets, treats, sugary drinks, etc. They digest very quickly (since there isn’t as much to break down), spike your insulin levels, and then leave you feeling hungry not long after. These types of carbohydrates are more likely to be stored as lipids (fat) since your body wants to store them somewhere right away (that insulin got there quick!).

  • Occasionally, simple carbs will serve a very important purpose, especially for athletes. If you are training hard and for extended periods of time (workout duration longer than one hour, or very high intensity 4-7 days per week), you would benefit from a fast-absorbing carbohydrate to give you extra energy and to replenish your glycogen stores. This should be consumed in the "peri-workout" period, or 30 minutes prior to, during, and 30 minutes after your workout. However, most trainees do not fall into this category and would sufficiently benefit from some strategic carb timing or cycling (explained below).

  • When you do eat carbohydrates, choose forms that are more complex, take longer to digest, and inherently have more nutrition packed in them. Vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains are good choices.

  • If your goal is to lose body fat (an endomorph or some mesomorphs), you should try timing your consumption of starchier forms of carbohydrates. First thing in the morning and within three hours following an intense workout is the best time for you to eat whole grain bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, corn and sugary fruits like berries. Another approach is to simply save these starchy foods for workout days.

  • If you have a lean frame and have minimal body fat to lose (an ectomorph or some mesomorphs), you can consume a moderate amount of these starchier carbohydrates throughout the day (~one cupped handful with most meals). Just make sure they are a good source of whole nutrition (i.e. still stay away from refined sugars). You can still benefit from timing your carbs, but it is not as important for you. Your meals should still be based around protein and produce.

  • If you’re trying to get leaner and have a rigorous training schedule with very intense workouts 4-7 days per week, consider carb cycling. The simplest form of carb cycling is to consume a larger amount of carbohydrates throughout the day on your hard training days. On your off days, or your light training days, reduce your consumption of simpler, starchy carbohydrates. So throughout the week, you may have 3 or 4 high carb days and 3 or 4 low carb days. This ensures that you’ll have adequate energy for your tough workouts without sabotaging your body composition goals.

  • Serving size is important with carbohydrates. You don't need much to benefit from the nutrition they contain. For women, one cupped handful of cooked rice, pasta, quinoa, oats, barley, potatoes, etc. is plenty. This is also equal to about one slice of whole grain bread or one whole grain tortilla. It's easy to overeat carbs and quickly tip the scales into fat storage.

Hopefully this clears up some confusion about carbohydrates. Carbs are not evil and should not be avoided at all costs, contrary to what you may hear. Just make sure you are eating them carefully. Always choose complex forms of carbs, especially vegetables, fruits, beans and some whole grains. Depending on your body type and your weight loss goals, you can time or cycle your carbs to reach your goals. And always pay attention to your serving size. Above all, stay away from candy!!

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Trainer, nutrition coach, and Christian mom — in a culture that’s obsessed with “gym-selfies” and a number on the scale, I’m passionate about helping moms discover what it feels like to actually love their bodies and thrive in them.
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