Carbohydrates are a source of confusion for just about everyone. It seems that just when we think we get it we are bombarded with the latest "science" that tells us otherwise. It seems that health and nutrition headlines always take a black and white approach, but nutrition is never so simple. We are too quick to clump foods into groups and then label them as good or bad. In reality, all of the foods that might be clumped together exist on a continuum, even vegetables! Foods vary in the macronutrients (carbohydrate, fat, protein) they provide as well as their vitamin and mineral content. So, before I can talk to you about the best time to eat carbs, lets clear up what carbs actually are...
what are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. The macronutrient content of a food determines how that food will be broken-down and used by the body. There are three types of carbohydrates that can occur in a food: sugar, fiber, and starch. You will see these names listed under "carbohydrates" on a food label. For our purposes we are focusing on the total grams of carbohydrates in a food, this is the collective sum of all three types.
If someone were to ask you what foods are carbohydrates, what would your answer be?
I bet it would include: bread and all bread products, pasta, chips, crackers, rice and other grains, cereal, cookies, cake...
...but did you know that the following foods are also sources of carbs: fruit, vegetables, squash, potatoes, leafy greens, milk...
Carbohydrates break down to glucose. Glucose is then broken down through a process called glycolysis to produce energy. It can also be stored (as glycogen) to be used later for energy. If you take in more carbohydrates than your body immediately needs the excess will be stored as fat.
Your body has the ability to make glucose and energy from the other macronutrients (a process called gluconeogenesis). An essential nutrient is one that your body cannot make on it's own and therefore you must consume it for it's purpose to be served. There are essential fats, essential amino acids, but no essential carbs, but this doesn't mean we don't need them! Carbohydrates help the body break down the other macronutrients and can give us immediate energy!
quality and quantity
Let's revisit the carbohydrate sources I listed above: bread and all bread products, pasta, chips, crackers, rice and other grains, cereal, cookies, cake, fruit, vegetables, squash, potatoes, leafy greens, milk.
The carbohydrates provided from all of these sources will be broken down to the same end point: glucose. When we focus on foods that are the least carbohydrate dense (by nature, the real, whole food options) we get the most vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Higher density carbohydrate sources should be balanced out with other meal components to prevent energy and blood sugar spikes.
Here, you see that spaghetti is much more carbohydrate dense than the arugula. It would be much easier to overeat carbohydrates from a bowl of pasta than from a big salad, am I right? A good serving of vegetables with each meal is important! I don't endorse counting, but I do believe you should know what makes up a food so that you know how it will serve your body. Most important - consider how food makes you feel! A meal that is concentrated in high density carbohydrate may leave you feeling sluggish, weighed down, and having cravings through the day.
the take home...
I don't want you to be scared of carbs. I do want you to be able to recognize a carbohydrate source that will serve your body well, help it to function better AND MAKE YOU FEEL YOUR BEST! This means including vegetables as your star carbohydrate source and being aware of the more dense options that may spike your blood sugar.
We have covered the sources, the science, and the selection process. All you have to do is apply smart carbing to your daily life. This means choosing the least processed sources whenever you can, and balancing your meals with fat and protein. This will ensure that you get energy, vitamin, minerals and fiber without overloading your system with more carbohydrates than it needs.