Carbohydrates seem to have a bad reputation, especially among insulin-dependent diabetics. As soon as we are diagnosed, we learn that carbohydrates are the key (or the downfall) to good glycemic control. We count them, we dose our insulin for them, and if we get it wrong, we struggle with high or low blood sugars for hours.
Many of us also experience weight gain when we start using insulin, so it’s natural to feel that just eliminating all carbohydrates, and not having to use so much insulin, is the best solution to weight management.
In general, I think low carbohydrate diets have their place and time, but I want to make the case that carbohydrates, at the right time and quantity, can actually be beneficial and help you reach your goals, especially if you live an active fitness lifestyle with diabetes.
Why are some carbohydrates better than others?
If you eat large amounts of high glycemic carbohydrates, your blood sugars will quickly go through the roof (diabetic or not) and your body will need large amounts of insulin to get your blood sugars down to a healthy range. That’s the perfect formula for instant fat storage (for more information about low and high glycemic carbohydrates, read this post).
If you eat moderate amounts of low glycemic carbohydrates instead, you won’t see that blood sugar spike. You’ll still need insulin of course, but rather than promoting instant fat storage, the insulin will help convert the carbohydrates into the energy your body needs in order to maintain your brain activity, fuel your muscles, and keep your metabolism running.
If you are a fitness nut like me, carbohydrates are a valuable tool that shouldn’t just be cut out of your diet completely. However, the amount and type of carbohydrates you consume should match what your fitness goals are. I have had very different fitness goals at different times, and I want to take you through how I managed my carbohydrate intake through each of those phases.
It’s very important to keep in mind that when I talk about carbohydrates below, I only include “hard” carbohydrates like rice, pasta, quinoa, potato, etc. I also eat a lot of vegetables like broccoli, asparagus, and cauliflower that contain carbohydrates, but I don’t measure them because they have so few calories and a minimal impact on my blood sugar. They are essentially “free food” 😀 . I probably get another 30-50 grams of carbs or more per day from vegetables.
Carbohydrates for building muscle
Anyone following Diabetes Strong probably knows that I’m all about lean muscles. I don’t want big bulky muscles, but I love that I carry enough muscle to be a strong fat burning machine. Not only do I think it looks good, it also helps me manage my blood sugar and weight.
I spent a good part of 2014 building lean muscle without adding significant body fat. For that to work, approximately 40% of my calories came from carbohydrates. I ate 140-160 grams of carbohydrates/day, and my blood sugar was beautifully stable. How? Well, because I ate healthy low glycemic carbohydrates such as brown rice, sweet potato or oats with all my meals, and bananas post workout (I have written a post about My Favorite Healthy Carbohydrates).
If you want to read more about how carbs help me manage my blood sugars during my workouts, check out my post about Food and Insulin Around Workouts.
Carbohydrates for fat loss
After my muscle building phase, I spent the rest of the year cutting fat, while doing my best to not lose any of my hard-earned muscle. It was hard. My body wanted to shred the muscle and hold on tight to the fat.
One strategy could have been to significantly reduce my calories and stop eating carbohydrates. Although this might have worked to begin with, my body would have lost a lot of muscles first and quickly adapted to the new regime, and the weight loss would have stalled. Instead, I used another methodology that I also use with most of my diabetic clients. What I did was carb cycling.
Carb cycling is a technique where you switch between lower and higher carbohydrate days. That way, your body still gets the energy it needs from carbohydrates, your metabolism doesn’t get damaged, you won’t be burning muscle mass and, believe me, you will drop fat. It’s a little trickier to manage your blood sugars while carb cycling since the daily carbohydrate amount will vary, but with a little extra blood sugar testing it’s doable.
I would eat about 60 grams of low-glycemic carbs on my high days (three days/week) and 20 grams on the low days (three days/week). On the last day, I would allow myself a treat meal, so I would probably eat around 100 grams of carbs (only after my fitness competition in October. Until then, there was no room for treats).
Carbohydrates for maintenance
Right now, I’m pretty much where I want to be from a fat percentage perspective and I’m just looking to maintain. This is not a bad place to be, and carbohydrates definitely have a place in my diet.
I’m still lifting weights, but since I don’t want to really gain muscles, I go a little lighter on the carbohydrates than in my building phase. I only include carbohydrates in my main meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and post-workout) and continue to stick to low-glycemic carbohydrates. Right now, I eat about 80 grams of carbs/day.
I find it very important to get my maintenance macros right. By finding my calorie maintenance equilibrium, it becomes easier to dial my diet up or down when my goals change. It also becomes easier to manage my diabetes, since I get a really good base understanding of how carbohydrates impact my blood sugar.
I hope that this post has given you a little insight into how I use carbohydrates to reach my fitness goals, and why I believe carbohydrates don’t really deserve the bad rep they sometimes get. We are of course all different and have different needs and goals, so my approach may not be right for you, but I hope it has at least given you some inspiration to experiment with your diet and find what works for you.