After assembling our foundation (protein) and functional structures (fats) of our building; it’s time to focus on what gives our home that “complete” feeling. Just like how different styles/colors of interior design affect how we feel in a space, different types/colors of carbohydrates can drastically change the way we look and feel. Carbohydrates, then, are like the furnishings that give each room its unique character; giving color and nutritional variety to balanced meals.
To put carbohydrates in perspective, let's discuss them in order of how you should be building your meals. There will be small amounts of carbohydrate in the protein and fat sources you have chosen already for the dish; therefore, the remainder of your carb requirements should be mostly fibrous plant sources. By understanding the difference between complex and simple carbohydrates, you'll be equipped to use them appropriately to reach your goals!
The higher priority "complex" carbs contain larger amounts of fiber and are slower to digest than more "simple" carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates include most vegetables, beans, some whole grains and other high fiber plant foods. Think of the fiber in these carbs like the furniture in your building. They are big, bulky, and require concerted effort to move from one room to the other; just as complex carbohydrates require more energy to digest and to move through the different "rooms" of our gut. A major reason we need these complex carbs is that our bodies regulate most of our detoxification pathways using fiber to absorb (soluble fiber) and drag out (insoluble fiber) toxins/wastes/etc through forming stools to excrete. So if you aren't getting enough fiber in your diet from these fiber-filled carbs, you may be quite literally "full of shit"! This is why people on higher fiber diets typically poop more frequently...because they are supporting the body's natural waste-removal processes. Trying to lose fat? Chances are that lack of fiber is keeping you from pooping out those extra pounds.
"So how much fiber do I need?"
For most people, averaging 1-2 cups of vegetables per meal would meet your overall fiber demands, while normalizing your energy and nutrient requirements. Optimal fiber intake is usually somewhere around 38g/day for women and 48g/day for men. So as more meals are eaten to reach your calorie goals, the additional 1-2 cups per meal will keep you in the right range. It's much more complicated to calculate how much of the other nutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc) you need for yourself, so here's a simple trick many coaches have adapted to help you. It's called "Eating the Rainbow", and means that by intentionally varying the colors of the foods on your plate, you can increase the number of nutrients you are getting in every meal. People usually make the mistake of always eating the same foods/colors over and over again, causing multiple nutrient deficiencies. Eating the rainbow negates this issue by forcing us to make our plates more well-rounded. Though a 2013 roundtable of experts pointed out that there are many nutrients we can't "see" in the color spectrum, varying the colors on your plate is still the most practical way to get more nutritional diversity in your meals.
"Eating the Rainbow" - Carbohydrates Organized by Color
The other type of carbohydrates to address are “simple” carbs, commonly referred to as “sugars”. These are found in foods like fruits, starches and most grains. Sugars are usually sweeter in taste than more fibrous complex carbs, which is why we tend to like them more. Just like their name “simple” implies, these carbs are readily used for short bursts of energy to optimize bodily functions.
Think of these carbs as the flower pots, photos on the wall or accent pillows placed around your space. They don't serve as much "function" as your couch does, but they make the room look/feel nicer by tying everything together. In terms of your daily meals, the only time that this kind of carb should be priority would be during breakfast. This is because your body hasn't fully warmed up yet, so eating a piece of fruit or other simple carb with breakfast (instead of hotwiring the body with coffee), actually helps get your systems running how they were meant to. Fruit, in this way, will tie your breakfast routine together like a well-chosen painting in the kitchen. Coffee and cereal for breakfast (like most people routinely start with) would be more like hanging up a random kid's finger paintings. Yes, it may be "art", but is it bringing the room together? Worse yet, drinking multiple cups of coffee (or only eating cereal) would be like covering the walls in those finger paintings or using them for your plateware...probably not a very feng shui way to start your day!
Limiting your simple carbohydrate intake to roughly a 1/2 cup to every 4 cups of complex carbs per day* will maintain proper energy balance in most cases. Your sugars should be the LAST consideration for your perfect meal because they are the "buffer" for your energy levels; NOT a "replacement" for them. You should only supplement your balanced meals with these simple carbs, or those mistakes will start to add up in your body.
Carbohydrate Ratios to Consider
Ectomorph/Weight Gain Goal - 2-3 cups of Complex to every ½ cup of Simple
Mesomorph/Maintenance Goal - 4 cups of Complex to every ½ cup of Simple
Endomorph/Weight Loss Goal - 5-7 cups of Complex to every ½ cup of Simple
*Ratio of Complex to Simple Carbohydrate depends on a combination of your body type and goals
Ectomorph = usually thin/hard to gain weight, Mesomorph = ideally proportioned, Endomorph = more stout/harder to burn fat
Like we discussed briefly in our fat article, the accumulation of "body fat" isn’t normally due to "eating fat". One of the major reasons we actually store body fat is because these sugars start adding up in our fat cells. Without enough activity (walking, cleaning, etc) to use these simple carbs in healthy tissues, our insulin is forced to shuttle the sugars to our fat cells instead. This is why the Starbucks "grab some coffee/bagel and go" breakfast routine doesn't work out well for you in the long run. Well-balanced meals allow simple carbs to serve their function instead of building up as less attractive body fat. Once you've gotten your foundation (protein), function (fat) and furnishings (complex carbs) for the meal chosen; keeping to only 1 simple carb serving with some meals will effectively prevent the unwanted fat storage...allowing you to burn more than you are storing!
Healthy Carb Options by Food Color and Type
Choose 1-2 cups of Complex Carbohydrates from any color for every meal
Choose 1/2 cup of Simple Carbohydrates for breakfast and occasional other meals
*Note - some foods have been moved into different types to simplify how you build your meals
Let's wrap up the macros series by reiterating the main points we’ve learned so far:
Building the Perfect Plate Every Time
Always start your meals by choosing a protein source (ideally animal-based), first. This is the foundation that the rest of your meal is built upon.
Then, choose a fat source that you can cook with (green/yellow category fats) and another source (yellow/red category fats) that you can add to your meals after cooking (oils, nuts, seeds, etc). And
Finally, choose 1-2 cups of colorful complex carbs (with possibly one serving of a simple carbohydrate option), by choosing from the chart above
CALLING IT CURTAINS!
Congratulations on passing Meal Building 101! Throughout this series, you've learned how setting up your meals is very similar to making a building you would be proud of. In our protein article, you learned how to set up the foundation of your meal with robust and sturdy protein sources to start your plate. In our fat article, you saw that fats add function to your body just like the inner workings of the walls in a building. And now you have a simple way to choose the right carbs to furnish your rooms in a way that makes you most comfortable...like a good set of curtains! Consider yourself a Certified Meal Builder, because you now have the tools to make great meals every time you walk in the kitchen...so let's get get to work!
We hope you've enjoyed learning about macros and can apply these principles to your daily meal routines. If you've found this series helpful, don't forget to share it with your loved ones so that they can join us in becoming the healthiest versions of ourselves possible! Until next time, stay healthy, keep learning and thank you for taking the necessary steps to SEE YOURSELF CHANGE.