For someone to ask the question “do I need carbs to build muscle” implies at some level that they’d rather not eat them. Maybe they’ve been conditioned to believe that carbs make us fat. Or maybe they see the immediate benefit of eliminating carbs while not knowing the muscle building benefits of consuming them. For whatever reason, “do I need carbs to build muscle” can be an all-consuming (pardon the pun) question for many a casual muscle building enthusiast and serious bodybuilder alike.
For individuals with the ‘do I need carbs to build muscle’ question inspired by a natural aversion to carbohydrates, I have to say: Many of us don’t understand the mentality and at some level… might even envy it? Personally, I find carbohydrates to be the most addictive of the macronutrient choices; give me a good piece of bread and I’m likely to want another piece… and another… and, well… it doesn’t end with starch: Give me a raw and crunchy carrot and the same damned thing’s likely to occur.
But for whatever reason one might have the “do I need carbs to build muscle” question – even if it’s because that person thinks staying lean might be “easier” without them – the quick answer is “Yes… we need carbs for building muscle and for our overall health as well.”
‘Do I Need Carbs to Build Muscle’: Some Carbo-Basics
Carbohydrates are the body’s “preferred energy source” compared to the other two macronutrients: protein and fat. Carbs earn this distinction because the body more quickly and easily metabolizes sugars than it does these other two major nutrients. This could be the very reason eating carbs is so pleasurable for those of us who love them; the flavor variety of carbohydrate foods become subconsciously anchored to the nearly relief-inducing link between satiation and blood sugar spikes: “what a rush.”
Kidding aside, carbohydrates get this characteristic (and their name) from the fact that they’re “hydrated carbon”: composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. But this is where simplicity ends and the confusion sometimes begins. Since carbohydrates run the gamut from “simple” to “complex”, the digestion of which differing in speed by the molecular makeup, many people write the details off as being too complex (another stupid pun). But it’s really quite simple with a little outlining layout:
- Monosacharides (one glucose molecule): Glucose, Galactose, and Fructose
- Disacharides (two monosacharides stuck together): Sucrose (table sugar), Maltose (malt sugar), and Lactose (milk sugar).
Complex Carbohydrates (polysaccharides)
- So named because they’re comprised of 20 or more sugar units stuck together in branches or chains.
- They’re digested and absorbed slowly because an enzyme is required to break down the sugar units of these complex chains or branches down to a monosaccharide or disaccharide so they can be absorbed by the gut.
Eventually, all carbohydrates become glucose in the bloodstream. The big differentiating factors among the sources are the speed at which this occurs and the nutritional value of the carbohydrate source. The key for better health and body fat control is to cut back on simple sugars and replace them with complex carbohydrate consumption.
Examples of Simple Carbohydrates Foods (simple sugars):
- Table sugar
Healthier sources of simple sugars:
Examples of Complex Carbohydrates
- Brown rice
- Whole Meal Breads
- Whole grain cereals
“Do I Need Carbs to Build Muscle?” What carbs do
But the question “do I need carbs to build muscle” can be answered within a list of the major benefits of carbohydrates:
- It is the exclusive energy source of the muscles and brain.
- It has a “protein sparing effect” that allows protein to be used exclusively for tissue repair.
- There are four calories (energy) in each gram of carbohydrate – roughly the same amount as are in each gram of protein.
- Carbohydrate foods can be chosen and eaten strategically to create a more anabolic/anti-fat-accumulating bodily environment.
As if those first two bullets weren’t good enough reasons to include carbs in one’s daily eating habits, let’s investigate this last point. There’s a theory claiming that the consumption of simple sugars (along with quick-digesting protein) immediately following a bodybuilding workout will enhance muscle recuperation by speeding post-workout recovery. The purported reason for this is that it spikes insulin and insulin is an anabolic hormone. Supposedly, we’re getting a “jump on repairs” of damaged tissues when we engage this practice.
For the record: I think a meal after workouts (including protein and simple/complex carbs) is important, but only because I would have eaten that meal anyway (even without the workout).
If I’m surprising you by sounding skeptical about the importance of the “fast timing”, it’s because I am. I’ve never personally witnessed the advantage of chugging the meal into my gut within twenty minutes of putting down the weights. If I have some errands to do after leaving the gym and don’t eat a meal for an hour or so, it doesn’t hamper my post-workout recovery.
Bottom line: The effectiveness of this practice is debatable. Just keep in mind that it’s no coincidence that every article in hard copy bodybuilding magazines that talks about it does so favorably. The bodybuilding magazines are in the business of selling ‘post workout supplements’ (among other things). It doesn’t do much good to market post-workout drinks if people don’t think it’s urgent that they drink them and re-order the products when they run out. Therefore, there’s a bias in these magazines toward magnifying any research suggesting quick carbs and protein right after a workout will speed muscle growth.
That said, I think it is important to reserve most daily simple sugar consumption for the morning hours and the meal following a workout. Complex carbs should be eaten with every meal but emphasized at a higher ratio than simple carbs in the latter part of the day. And protein should be eaten with every meal and emphasized at a higher ratio to carbs as the evening hours wear on. These basic practices create a nice anabolic/anti-fat accumulating environment in the body.
“Do I Need Carbs to Build Muscle”: Conclusion
It’s interesting that carbohydrates, which are so vital to health, have become so maligned that we would ask the question: “Do I need carbs to build muscle?” Carbs – in and of themselves – don’t make us fat; consuming excess calories does that.
For health, energy, high performance, and optimal muscle growth, I say “enjoy your carbs.” Just be sure to choose them wisely, time their intake intelligently, and practice restraint if you have a tendency toward addiction to them… as I do.