Carbs: The Good, The Bad, The Complex
Cutting Through The Complications Of Bad Diets
Let’s go back for a minute to your early school years. You sat with the rest of your classmates as you learned about the layers of the food pyramid: the sweets, the meat and dairy, the fruits and vegetables and the powerhouse foundation of grains and starches that were to make up most of your daily intake.
It wouldn’t be until years later that popular opinion would revolt against that bottom layer and convince people to start cutting out carbohydrates altogether on their quest for a lower number on the bathroom scale.
Years of research have led to a reconstruction of the famous food pyramid, and rightfully so. But whether or not following the fad diet trend is a smart decision — especially for athletes like martial artists — is a different story entirely.
First, it’s important to know what carbohydrates are and the types of carbs that exist. Carbohydrates come in the form of fibers, starches and sugars and are labeled simple or complex. They are found in everything from dairy to vegetables and grains, and their basic function is to provide your body with glucose, the element that gives you the fuel necessary to fulfill your daily tasks, whether typing or training.
Think of your body’s energy vault as a bucket with a hole in it. Even if you sit at a desk all day, the bucket will still leak. If you expect to do any sort of physical activity like working out or participating in your Taekwondo class, you have to top off the bucket so that not only will you not crash, but you’ll have the energy to push forward and reach your goals.
So the question isn’t whether or not you need carbs to keep that bucket full — you do. The real question involves which carbs your body needs and which ones do the most damage to your body.
A good rule of thumb is to avoid anything highly processed or refined. This category is what’s known as simple carbohydrates and includes pastries, sodas, chips, candy and all the stuff you know is bad for you. However, it also includes options that could have been healthy, but were overly processed like white rice, white bread, white pasta, fruit canned in heavy syrup and even potatoes (which, though naturally complex, can act like simple carbs in the body).
Though it might seem a little backwards, the term “complex” is actually a good thing when it comes to carbohydrates. Complex carbs have a more intricate series of sugars, meaning it takes longer for your body to digest them. A plate full of these will leave you feeling fuller longer and without the dreaded post-meal crash.
Making the switch to complex carbs is simple, you just have to know what you’re looking for. Instead of white rice, reach for brown rice. Instead of white spaghetti, go for whole wheat spaghetti. Instead of sugary breakfast cereal, opt for rolled oats or quinoa. Then make sure your pantry is stocked with plenty of vegetables, fruits, beans and anything that is whole grain or whole wheat.
As is true with most wellness guidelines, the key is to find balance. Though modern myth says you should carbo-load before an endurance event, gorging yourself on pasta before a day of sparring matches will only slow you down and throw off your glucose levels. On the other hand, avoiding carbs entirely will leave you lacking the energy and alertness you need to perform at peak physical levels.
To help you measure the amount of carbohydrates to consume for each meal in a healthy diet, experts at the Harvard School of Public Health developed the Healthy Eating Plate, which stresses that the type of carbs you consume is much more important than the amount.
The Healthy Eating Plate actually recommends filling most of your plate with healthy carbohydrates. Fruits and veggies (except potatoes) should take up approximately one half of the plate with whole grains taking another fourth. The rest is dedicated to lean proteins and healthy oils.
The bottom line is that any healthy diet requires a little brain power. Be smart and use caution any time a new fitness plan tells you to cut an entire healthy food group from your diet.
Doing some simple research and arming yourself with the facts is the best way to defend against the harmful implications of popular diet tricks while achieving your goals in the process.
Your elementary school self would be proud.
Author: Jess Ardrey| Originally published in Vol. 23 no. 3 of the ATA World Magazine.