Carbs are our main source of energy. Carbohydrates come in many shapes and sizes, with the common denominator being that they feed our body energy that we can use to stay active.
Some carbs are slow, and continuously release small amounts of energy over a couple of days, other carbs are fast, and give us all their energy over a single day, and yet other carbs are super-fast, and blast all their energy off in no time.
Traditionally, slower carbs are considered healthier (potatoes, rice, wholegrain pasta and dark bread), because their slow processing time gives us more time to spend them, whereas with faster carbs (white pasta, white bread) we have to spend them faster, lest they turn to fat.
Slow carbs in combination with fiber is even better, since the fiber makes us less hungry, allowing us to get the same satisfaction out of smaller meals, besides managing your cholesterol and glucose-levels and promoting optimal bowel-function.
Must Read: 15 High Carb Foods that are Healthy
In the case of super-fast carbs (sweets, honey) we have no real chance of burning them off, unless we already have a very high metabolism, and then only if we avoid consuming them regularly.
When talking about sweets, we are however not just talking about carbs, but also either fructose or other sweeteners, which come with a whole set of problems of their own (something that will surely form another article), so from here on out, “carbs” will be reserved for the foods, while super-fast carbs will be referred to as “sweets”.
Proteins – The Building Blocks of Progress
Proteins (like most macronutrients) have many functions, but in the context of fitness, their most famous function is building muscle. In essence, what you’re doing when you push your muscles during exercise, i.e. put them through more exertion than they are comfortable with, is causing miniscule tears in them.
They heal, as all parts of your body do to some extent, and in the case of the muscles, protein is what heals them. The thing about healing though, is that just like your skin healing from a cut leaves a trace of thicker, more durable skin – a scar, the protein builds up your muscles slightly stronger. What kind of improvement, or hypertrophy, they get, depends on the how you exert them, but more about different kinds of upgrades in another article.
Proteins are made up of so called amino-acids, of which there are twenty different kinds, only about half of which we actually need to consume daily in order to maintain a healthy store of (essential amino-acids), while the body can produce the other ones (non-essential amino acids) by itself, as long as you maintain a varied diet.
Different sources of protein have different percentages of these amino-acids, where some sources have very few of the essential ones, while others have more of them. Examples of sources with a lot of essential amino acids are eggs, meat, cheese and soya-beans, while examples of sources that lack some of the essential ones are every other kind of bean, lentils, and rice.
What Happens If I Lack One or the Other?
Perhaps more than any other combination of nutrients, carbs and proteins work together to make you strong and fit. Carbs give you the energy required to overload your muscles properly, so that the protein can make them grow. Carbs is also what allows your body to get into a fat-burning state during endurance training.
How that works is in all simplicity that your body starts grabbing after whatever energy it can most easily use, which is carbs (there are actually several steps before that, but they are very short and nothing you need to worry about unless you’re at the point where you’re trying to push the boundary of human capacity for explosiveness).
Once your carbs run out you’ll experience a dip in energy, when your pulse is lowered and you feel tired. If you push through that, your body wakes up and goes for the stores it uses for endurance, namely fat. In cardio, this transition is what is referred to as the “second breathing”.
So why not skip the carbs entirely, and burn fat right off the bat? The reason this does not work is that unless you burn through the carbs first your body does not recognize the training as endurance, and assumes that you will only exert yourself for a short period of time, in which case it goes after a more easily digested source of energy: Protein. If you train without a sufficient amount of carbs in you, your body goes straight to using the protein in your muscles as energy, and thus you lose muscle mass.
Now you may wonder: If my body can use proteins as fuel, could I not simply eat a lot of protein, and get away from the carbs that way, with plenty of protein to spare for building muscle? The answer is yes; there are low- and no-carb diets that work, though as a rule they consist more of fat than of protein, albeit protein is a main source of energy in them.
There have been supported potential benefits to low-carb diets for professional athletes, at least periodically, but for the layman it’s a tricky and risky business to get into, and from a perspective of overall health we know that there is a higher stress-level put on the body when burning protein than when burning carbs, and although no health-issues have been traced directly to responsible low-carb dieting in reality, I would recommend to avoid it, if possible.
Can I Overeat?
Almost everything is unhealthy in exaggerated amounts, and carbs and proteins are certainly no exceptions. The fact that over eating on carbs leads to obesity, especially if combined with lack of exercise, is commonly known. What is perhaps less known is that eating too much protein is arguably an even greater hazard to your health, not just in terms of obesity, but also in terms of losing essential minerals and releasing certain toxic rest-products, such as ammonia, in your body.
The recommended amounts vary from person to person, but with proteins one recurring recommendation is never eating more than half to a full gram of protein per kilo bodyweight, which means that most people land at between 40-80 grams of proteins per day (roughly a can of soya beans and an egg), assuming you train hard. Combine this with several small meals of carbs per day, giving your body some time to process and use them up before loading up with more, and you’re on your way to fitness!