Nutrition Basics: What A Carbohydrate Is and Why It’s Important

It’s common practice when considering weight-loss programs in general, to glorify proteins and condemn carbohydrates. Although many people blame carbohydrates for unwanted weight gain, carbohydrates are an important factor for fat loss, muscle gain and improving overall athletic performance. If you are trying to get fitter and healthier, your nutrition program should be one of the main priorities, and carbohydrates are a key component. With all the online blogs, magazine articles, radio and television advertisements, it can be confusing and frustrating deciphering between what’s factual and what is not. This article will feed you the need-to-know facts on carbohydrates so you can optimize your nutrition and attain your health and fitness goals more efficiently.

What is a Carbohydrate?

Carbohydrates are large molecules that our cells need to function properly. They come in a variety of forms but are commonly made up of sugars, fibers and starches. They provide the body with glucose which is converted to energy used to support the central nervous system and working muscles. They also prevent protein from being used as an energy source and enable fat metabolism. Unlike protein and fat, carbohydrates are not essential to human life. The body can produce glucose from protein and fat, however carbohydrates are the most convenient and quickest way for the body to produce energy. Since carbohydrates are a macronutrient, you need relatively large amounts of it to stay healthy (whereas; vitamins and minerals are micronutrients, which you only need in small quantities).

The Importance of Carbohydrates for Exercise and Physical Performance

Carbohydrates are vital to help maximize performance during physical activity because they provide energy and help to increase muscle mass. They help to improve athletic performance by delaying fatigue and allowing an individual to perform at a higher intensity for longer. Without an adequate amount of stored glucose in the body, other nutrients, such as fat or protein, are utilized to make energy. With the correct amount of carbohydrates available to muscles, protein can be free to do its main job of repairing and rebuilding muscle tissue, which maximizes muscle gain. As exercise intensity increases, muscle glycogen (where we store carbohydrates) becomes used up, which causes a higher need for carbohydrates. Many people often think low carbohydrate and high protein nutrition programs will help them gain significant muscle mass, however, this is NOT true. There is substantial evidence supporting carbohydrate-containing foods for having the most significant impact on exercise performance. Eating a high-carbohydrate nutrition program (carb-loading) before prolonged exercise has been shown to significantly increase endurance capacity. This is because high carbohydrate intake increases pre-exercise muscle glycogen concentration (fatigue occurs when muscle glycogen concentrations are low). Carb-loading has also been shown to be effective for brief periods of maximal exercise (sprinting) because there is rapid utilization of muscle glycogen. But carb-loading has not been shown to be beneficial for performance during sports which involve several brief sprints because the rate of glycogen breaks down to glucose decreases as exercise continues. However, sports which demand a combination of submaximal running and brief period of sprinting (e.g. soccer), reduces muscle glycogen to very low concentrations. Performance is impaired when this occurs, thus, carb-loading would probably benefit individuals in multi-sprint sports.

How Many Carbohydrates Should Be Consumed?

While people generally understand that consuming adequate carbohydrates is incredibly important to supply the body and brain with energy, eating the right amount of carbohydrates can be the tricky part. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for carbohydrates is 130 grams per day. The RDA is the amount of a nutrient you need to meet your basic nutritional requirements. It’s the MINIMUM amount you need to keep from getting sick—not the specific amount you are supposed to eat every day. The exact amount that’s right for you is dependent on many factors: your goals, genetics, age, sex, height, weight, current nutrition program and overall health status (e.g. diabetic). For most people, aiming to hit 45-65% of your total caloric intake from carbohydrates should be sufficient. Based on a 2,000 calorie nutrition program, this would equate to between 225-325 grams of carbohydrates daily. RDAs have not been set for people with diabetes. The amount of carbohydrates needed is often determined by how well blood glucose levels are controlled. On average, adults with diabetes generally need about 150 to 195 grams of carbohydrates daily. Many people are surprised to learn that the need for carbohydrates is so high – it’s about half of your daily calories for most people! Since carbohydrates are the main sources of energy for the body and brain, they are an important component in nutrition programs.

As stated earlier, the body breaks down carbohydrates into smaller units of sugar which is converted into glucose and utilized as energy for basic body functioning and physical activity. If the glucose is not immediately needed for energy, the body can store up to a limited amount of it in the form of glycogen. Once glycogen stores are full, carbohydrates are stored as fat.

If you have insufficient carbohydrate intake or stores, the body will consume protein for fuel (as commonly seen in a Ketogenic diet). A deficiency of glucose, or low blood sugar, is called hypoglycemia. Many people don’t do well with insufficient carbohydrates because without sufficient glucose, the central nervous system suffers, which may cause dizziness or mental and physical weakness. Additionally, a lack of carbohydrates may cause a deficiency in fiber, which can result in digestive problems and constipation.

It’s important to know that timing your carbohydrate intake is vital. It’s best to consume carbohydrates (especially simple carbohydrates) prior to performing physical activity or during. This is because your hormonal state changes when you’re exercising. You’re contracting large muscle groups and utilizing that sugar during exercise. Simple carbohydrates during training consistently and reliably reduce stress markers during exercise. If you time carbohydrate intake with exercise correctly, you can get a lot of the muscle building and glycogen-storing benefits of insulin. So, don’t fear carbohydrates – they’re important for optimal health!

Not All Carbohydrates Are Created Equal

What’s most important is the type of carbohydrate you choose to eat because some sources are healthier than others. The amount of carbohydrates in your nutrition program – high or low – is less important than the type of carbohydrates.  There are two types of carbohydrate: simple and complex. The difference between these two forms is the chemical structure and how quickly the sugar is absorbed and digested. Generally speaking, simple carbohydrates are digested and absorbed more quickly and easily than complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates contain just one or two sugars. Carbohydrates with single sugars are called monosacharrides (e.g fructose, galactose), whereas, carbohydrates with two sugars are called disacharrides (e.g. sucrose, lactose, maltose). Complex carbohydrates with three or more sugars are called polysacharrides. They are often referred to as starchy foods. While all carbohydrates function as relatively quick energy sources, simple carbohydrates cause bursts of energy much more quickly than complex carbohydrates because of the quicker rate at which they are digested and absorbed. Simple carbohydrates can lead to spikes in blood sugar levels and sugar highs, while complex carbohydrates provide more sustained energy. But that doesn’t mean all simple carbohydrates are bad compared to complex carbohydrates. The healthiest sources of carbohydrates promote good health by delivering vitamins, minerals, fiber and a host of important phytonutrients (i.e. unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains, vegetables, fruit and beans). Unhealthier sources of carbohydrates contain easily digested carbohydrates that have little or no nutritional value and are often described as “empty calories” (e.g. refined sugar). These bad carbohydrates may contribute to weight gain, interfere with weight loss, and promote diabetes and heart disease.

Fruits Beans, Lentils, Peas
Milk Nuts, Seeds
Glucose, Fructose, Sucrose Green Vegetables
Raw Sugar, Brown Sugar Starchy Vegetables (Potatoes, Corn, Pumpkin)
Corn Syrup, Maple Syrup Whole Grains (Quinoa, Wild Rice, Oatmeal, Pasta, Bread)
White flour (Pasta, Bread)
White Rice
Soda, Juice
Jams, Jellies
Candy, Desserts


Evidently, carbohydrates are vitally important for individuals seeking maximum muscle, endurance and overall performance. Although the exact amount of carbohydrates needed as well as when to consume carbohydrates throughout the day is not resolved, a balanced nutrition program will meet all your protein needs. But keep in mind that the quality of carbohydrates consumed is more important than the quantity. Make healthier choices by choosing foods with more fiber and less added sugars. More to follow for next week’s blog post on FATS! If you enjoyed reading this blog post, comment below with an asterisk (*) so I know how many people are reading these blog posts!


Agriculture and Consumer Protection. (n.d.). The Role of Carbohydrates in Exercise and Physical Performance. FAO Corporate Document Repository. Retrieved Feb 1, 2017 from

American Physiological Society (APS). (2015, December 15). Carbs, not fats, boost half-marathon race performance. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 2, 2017 from

Gedney, Larissa. (n.d.). RDA Requirement for Carbs Every Day. SF Gate. Retrieved Feb 1, 2017 from

Harvard T.H. Chan. (2017). Carbohydrates. Harvard School of Public Health. Retrieved January 30, 2017 from

Shugart, Chris. (2009, December 1). Seven Things You Need To Know About Carbs. T-Nation. Retrieved January 30, 2017 from

Szalay, Jessie. (August 25, 2015). What Are Carbohydrates? Live Science. Retrieved Jan 30, 2017 from

Tel Aviv University. (2009, June 27). How High Carbohydrate Foods Can Raise Risk For Heart Problems. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 30, 2017 from

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