Whether you exercise to burn fat or improve your athletic performance, goals cannot be achieved unless your body’s engine is fueled properly. According to Ben Greenfield, the owner of Rock Star Triathlete Academy and a nationally acclaimed fitness guru, understanding carbohydrates is the single most important thing you can do to improve your health, increase your fitness, and lose stubborn belly fat.
Failure to lose weight or see improvement in your athletic endeavors is typically a result of poor carbohydrate choices. The body uses carbs for energy. When muscles need immediate fuel, they look for a substance called glycogen (sugar) that has been broken down from certain foods we eat. Those foods, called carbohydrates, range from oatmeal to oranges, berries to bread, and pretzels to potatoes. They are rated on a scale called the Glycemic Index (GI), which tells us how fast they can be fed to the muscles and organs. Carbs with a high GI increase blood sugar rapidly while those with a low GI increase blood sugar more slowly.
High GI carbs that fuel muscles quickly are considered simple or “quick-release” and include sport drinks, pasta, cookies and crackers. The average exercise enthusiast needs much less of these carbs than is required by a high-performance athlete. Unless you’re running a half marathon, pushing yourself in a challenging Spinning® class or swimming laps in the pool, munching down sugary, starchy carbs can lead to insulin spikes. Frequent insulin spikes can damage your metabolism and cause weight gain, fatigue, cravings, and even diabetes. What’s worse is that simple carbs have long been considered addictive because they release serotonin, the chemical neurotransmitter in the brain responsible for mood, appetite, and certain behaviors. Whether it’s a supersized box of Junior Mints at the movies or too many cocktails during Happy Hour, quick-release carbs are sky-high in calories and often contain unhealthy additives like high-fructose corn syrup and trans fats.
At the other end of the spectrum are complex or “slow-release” carbohydrates like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and nuts. These low GI carbs are rich in fiber and nutrients and take longer to digest. The slower break-down process helps maintain insulin and blood sugar levels, thus keeping moods on a more even keel and providing a more consistent energy supply. Slow-acting carbs satisfy hunger for longer periods of time and limit the vicious cycle of cravings experienced with quick-release carbs.
Both types of carbohydrate play an important role in your body’s energy management, but sadly, most Americans scarf down the wrong carbs at the wrong time and wonder why they feel lethargic or can’t shed those extra pounds. According to Greenfield, you should only consume small amounts of simple, quick-release carbs before, during, and shortly after an endurance workout to replace glycogen as your muscles become depleted of energy. Yearning for a chocolate chip cookie? Feel free to indulge, but enjoy it before a workout session, not while sitting behind your desk or the wheel of a car.
If you haven’t seen a noticeable improvement in your athletic performance or weight loss goals, take a look at the list of ingredients and amount of simple carbohydrates (especially sugar!) in the foods you’re consuming and you’ll quickly discover the culprit. This is not an invitation to cut carbs from your diet, but lay off quick-release carbohydrates if you are not vigorously exercising and enjoy generous portions of slower absorbing carbs freshly prepared at home. As the pounds peel away and your athletic performance rapidly improves, you’ll feel stronger and more energized thanks to carbohydrates.
Barbara Hoots is a veteran Spinning(R) instructor at Tony’s Gym and a contributing columnist for Spinning News and Indoor Cycle Instructor Pro. She has designed award-winning studios for the U.S. Army, Half Moon Resort in Jamaica and numerous health clubs and universities. Visit her website at www.spinroomdesign.com.