Stephen Box Fitness & Nutrition
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Today we're going to talk about one of the most controversial topics in all of nutrition, carbohydrates!

I'm going to simplify it for you by answering three questions today. 

  1. What are carbs and why do we need them?
  2. Which carbs should we eat and which ones should we avoid?
  3. How should carbs be portioned out?

Why do we need carbs?

Carbs or carbohydrates, are one of your three big macro-nutrients, that's your carbs, proteins, and fats. They're the primary fuel source for our body's energy needs. That means there's a direct correlation between our activity levels and our carb needs, but we'll get into that a little bit more later.

The right carbs serve several purposes in our body.

  1. They provide you with energy.

    Have you ever gone low-carb and found yourself just hungry, irritable, yawning all the time?

    That's because the right carbohydrates give you energy.  If you take them away,  your body doesn't have the energy it needs and sends out the distress signals in the form of hunger, irritability, and yawning.  This will prevent you from performing your best - physically and mentally.

    Most importantly, because they are a fuel source, they're going help you to kick butt, whether it's in the gym, on the field, or just in life in general. When you properly nourish your body and you give it the right carbohydrates and the right amount of energy, you are a lean, mean butt-kicking machine.

    In addition...
  2. They help you to feel calm and relaxed and they help you sleep like a boss. 

    I don't know about you, but I value my recovery. I think recovery is the most underutilized aspect of fitness and so many people do not understand how much the stress levels and the sleep quality impact that recovery.  Nor do they realize how much proper nutrition affects your stress levels and sleep quality.
  3. They help you to control your appetite.

    Certain carbs have fiber in them and that fiber helps you to feel fuller longer and it keeps you from overeating.  We'll discuss just how much fiber you need a little further down.

Carbs to eat, carbs to limit

Let's get into types of carbs. For simplicity we are going to group carbs into 3 categories:

  1. Fast digesting carbs
  2. Slow digesting or "Smart" carbs
  3. ​Vegetables

Today, I'm going to focus on those first two.  Vegetables, green vegetables in particular, do count as a carbohydrate, but we're just going to consider them in their own group.  You still want to get those independent of what we're going to recommend for carbs today and that's why I'm not discussing them right now.  Before moving on, be aware that some vegetables, particularly root vegetables tend to be very starchy and should be counted as a carbohydrate and a vegetable.  

The two types of carbs we're going to focus on are fast digesting and slow digesting (also know as "Smart Carbs". 

Fast digesting carbs

Fast digesting carbs, that's your simple sugar carbs: white breads, donuts, candy bars, sodas, all that stuff. These are the things that should be limited.

Notice I said limited. I didn't say you need to cut them out. I didn't say you can never have these things. But, you do need to understand a few things:

  1. They are more likely to be stored as body fat.

    The reason why they're more likely to be stored as body fat is because they get into your system very quickly. That causes an insulin release in your system. When you have an insulin release and you don't have any reason for that extra energy to be there, your body is more likely to now store that sugar as fat.  

    On a side note, that's why sometimes you'll hear people say that you can have a simpler digesting carb, something that is more just straight sugar, after a workout. Because if you do it right after a workout your body needs that energy, you're less likely to store it as fat at that time because you're going to use that energy up right away.
  2. They have little to no nutritional value

    Of course, that doesn't mean you should eat junk food after a workout.  That's also the time we want our bodies to get the highest quality food and nutrients possible to aid in recovery.  Most of the time, fast digesting carbs have no nutritional value at all.
  3. They usually contain other stuff you don't want

    In addition to a lack of nutritional value, many (not all) simple carbs contain other ingredients that you may want to limit.  

    Most of the time when we're doing these fast digesting carbs, they're going to be sweets. A lot of sweets are made with things like butter, which is added fat that you may not have accounted for. You may also find that many sweets contain artificial flavoring and coloring. While the research is a bit mixed on those things, there is no harm in eliminating them from your diet.   

Bottom line, there is room for simple carbs in a healthy diet but they should be limited.

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Slow digesting or "Smart" carbs

Slow digesting, or smart carbs as I like to call them are health-promoting and nutrient-rich. Some of your vegetables can get thrown into this category, but like I said you want to eat those in addition to some of the other smart carbs.

Slow digesting carbs:

  1. Are less likely to be stored as fat

    Because they are slower digesting, you do not get all of that energy given to your body at one time so your body's able to take it slowly and use it as it needs it. Now, of course if you overeat these you can still gain body fat, so don't think that this is a free for all that you just get to eat all these foods that you want.
  2. Contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.

    Phytonutrients, if you're not familiar with that term, are generally found in plant-based foods and help fight free radicals in your body.  Free radicals are what causes a lot of your cell damage and other issues, so you want to get those phytonutrients in there to help reverse some of that damage.

    We need a minimum of 25 grams of fiber per day. That's a minimum. Optimal fiber intake for women is 35 grams, and for men 48 grams of fiber.
  3. Are less processed and closer to their original form.

    Now, I bring that up because a lot of times people, out of convenience, they're buying boxed products that claim to be a source of whole grain or good source of fiber. Sadly, that's not always the case.  When possible, opt for the least processed version of these foods.  

    Whole grains generally do not come in a box.  When you go to the store and you see the box of cereal and it says great source of whole grains, no, it's not, that's not truly a whole grain. A lot of people do not know this, but in order for a food manufacturer to say that they're a source of whole grains they only really need about 1% of actual whole grain in the product in order to be able to say that.  You have to be very careful and make sure that whole grains are listed towards the beginning of the ingredient list, and if you see more than one kind of grain or wheat listed and whole wheat is not the first one there, you definitely want to avoid that.

Examples of Smart Carbs

  • Fruit (fresh or frozen)*
  • Starchy tubers, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, etc
  • Other starchy fruits and vegetables, such as plantains or sweet winter squashes (Hubbard, butternut, buttercup, acorn, etc)
  • Whole, minimally-processed grains, such as quinoa, brown rice, wild rice, slow-cooking oats, buckwheat, sprouted grains, etc
  • Beans and legumes

*In many instances, frozen fruits and vegetables are healthier than fresh, because they literally are picked at the point of ripeness and frozen immediately, so they actually maintain that freshness. If you like frozen, or frozen's more convenient for you, do not let people tell you you have to eat fresh, it is okay to do frozen, and in some cases even better for you. 

How to portion your carbs

All right, so let's talk about how much you should be eating when it comes to carbohydrates. We are going to use a very convenient measuring tool as a guide - our hand.

I just heard the collective gasp, you're probably wondering how to count your calories.  Here's a little secret, unless you are a professional athlete and you have someone paying you, or you're, say, a fitness model and someone is paying you to look a certain way, you don't need to put yourself through that.  Calorie counting is imprecise to begin with, it can be off by as much as 25%.  For most people this hand guide is going to be all that you need.

For carbs, 1 cupped handful is one serving. If you're weighing it out, that's about 20 to 30 grams of carbohydrates per serving. Want more help with serving sizes?  Download the free portion guide here

We are going to use this as our starting point.  Based on 3-4 meals per day:

  • Women will eat 1 serving per meal
  • Men will eat 2 servings per meal

Obviously if you are doing one to two meals you may need a little bit more per meal. If you're doing five or six meals you would just decrease the amount a little bit per meal.

Like I said, this is our starting point.  From here we want to look at how your feeling and your results. Ask yourself, is my energy good? Am I achieving my goals, whether that's to gain weight, lose weight?  Based on what you are feeling and seeing, you can play with the serving sizes a little bit to figure out what's going to work best for you.

Some additional considerations outside of portion size.  

  • If your primary goal is fat loss: decrease carbs by 1 cup per meal for men and 1/2 cup per meal for women.
  • If your primary goal is gaining muscle: add 1 cup per meal for men and 1/2 cup per meal for women.

More activity equals more carbs, less activity, less carbs.

Going back to those serving sizes. Those assume that you are at least moderately active, that means that you're working out at least three hours per week.

When I say working out, that does not mean that you have to go to the gym and lift weights, it doesn't mean that you have to go and run on a 10 incline on the treadmill at eight miles per hour. That's not what that means. It just means that you're doing three hours of intentional activity that challenges you, everyone's different. Maybe what challenges you is walking around the neighborhood. That's okay, do what is in your range, don't feel like you have to meet somebody else's standards of what exercise is. As long as it's challenging for you, that's what we're looking for.

If you're currently doing less than three hours a week, just start doing more.  I'm not even going to tell you to eat less carbs, just up your activity levels. 

A side note on exercise and calorie intake

There are actually studies that show that eating more, not less, can be more beneficial. This article is really about carbs so I'm going to keep this kinda simple, but the whole calories in, calories out thing is a little bit off.

Let's say that you need 2000 calories a day just to maintain, and so you eat 1500 calories and do no exercise. Well, you've got a 500 calorie deficit.  In theory, if you maintained that deficit, you'd eventually disappear as you kept losing weight. Obviously this has never happened to anyone.  However, there is a bigger issue at play.  By only reducing my calorie intake, I've taken away energy (that's what calories are) from my body.  Energy it needs to perform, recover, and function.

By the same token, I could actually eat 2500 calories but burn 1000 calories through exercise. I've burned the 2000 that my body's going to burn anyways, plus 1000, that's 3000 total calories burned.  So, I burned 3000 and consumed 2500 calories, still a 500 calorie deficit.  The difference? I've now given my body 2500 calories worth of energy, not 1500, to rebuild muscle, to rebuild tissue, to give me energy, to do all the things I need to do.  I still maintained a 500 calorie deficit to help with weight loss, meaning I'm going to lose fat while protecting my muscle and preforming at a high level. That has really nothing to do with carbs other than they are your primary fuel source.  I just wanted to throw that in there while we're on the subject because I love giving you value.

All right, I wanted to ask a favor of you. Please comment below and tell me what your biggest takeaway from this article is. In doing, so you're letting me know what you're finding valuable and what may not be as valuable to you.  In the future when I make these videos or posts, I can really make sure that I'm focused on what's valuable for you.

Source:  Much of the information in this article is based on my personal experience or information from Precision Nutrition.  As a PN1 Certified Nutrition Coach, I have a partnership with Precision Nutrition that allows me to coach clients using their nutrition coaching curriculum.  You can learn more about that program here - Personal Nutrition & Fitness Coaching

About the Author Stephen Box

My passion for fitness started with my own 80 lb weight loss journey. I love showing people that fitness and nutrition don't need to be complicated or restrictive. A good coach should be able to meet you where you are and help you get to where you want to be. I am certified as a fitness trainer through the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA). Additionally, I hold certifications in exercise nutrition through Precision Nutrition and online fitness training through the Online Trainer Academy. When not serving my clients I am an expert media contributor for companies such as Men's Fitness, Men's Journal,, and many others.

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