Living healthy and loving it – Carbohydrate: Friend or Foe? Part 1 of 2

Carbohydrates are the most loved and hated nutrient. The wonderful world of bagels, pastas and freshly baked breads beg for indulgence, but today’s popular diets caution to keep them at a distance. The late Dr. Atkins and his followers preached loudly that to lose weight one had to make the carbohydrate sacrifice. In harmony, bodybuilders promise that rejecting baked potatoes and choosing salmon instead builds muscle faster and bigger than ever before. So are carbohydrates a friend or a foe?

The popular explanation is that when carbohydrates are cut out of the diet, or severely reduced, the body goes straight to stored fat for energy, causing fat loss.

This is false. Actually, fat burns in a carbohydrate flame. Nutrition texts and registered dieticians worldwide scream this phrase.

There are different cycles within the body, which break out individual nutrients like fat, protein and carbohydrate. The Krebs cycle is responsible for burning fat, including fatty acid degradation. To unlock the door to this fat-burning cycle you have a carbohydrate key. The key is found in the breakdown of carbohydrates for energy, Glycolysis. This process results in the production of oxaloacetate. Without oxaloacetate, fat burning or Krebs cycle activity is severely reduced and slowed.

When carbohydrates are restricted, the body has to find other energy sources. Since there are no carbohydrates to assist in reaching the fat stores, the body needs another way to get energy. Therefore, lean muscle is called to play. Amino acids, which are the building blocks for protein/muscle, are stripped and used for energy, compromising this muscle. Thus, lean muscle must be sacrificed when carbohydrates are depleted.

So why does it seem that people are losing weight on these low-carbohydrate diets? From the popular text Nutrition: Concepts and Controversies, low-carbohydrate and low-calorie diets lead to “loss of water and lean tissue.” Fat loss does occur but in an insufficient ratio to muscle and water. This loss in lean muscle severely damages a metabolism, making it nearly impossible to ever eat a normal diet again without gaining weight back. The water weight is also “rapidly regained when people start eating normal again.” For weight-loss, a low-carbohydrate diet may be a quick fix. But true weight-loss, one that will last beyond a six-week goal, cannot be obtained through a low-carbohydrate diet.

In order to keep the body burning fat throughout the day, the fat burning door has to be left open with a steady and controlled stream of carbohydrates coming into your body. There are different types of carbohydrates, simple sugars being one of them. Simple sugars are sugars found in those sweet Starbucks drinks and tasty cereals. These sugars are considered “empty calories” and should be minimized in diets; they bring on the calories but leave out the nutrients. Other carbohydrates, like whole grains, are what you want to build your carbohydrate intake upon.

Depending on body weight, muscular build and current fitness goal, diets may need anywhere from six to 11-plus servings (1 serving = 15 grams) of carbohydrates in a day. As a general rule, it is good to have at least 2-3 servings of carbohydrates at every meal. And after a good cardio session, the body needs that carbohydrate key so fat burning can continue, therefore 1-2 servings of additional carbohydrates will be the most beneficial during this time.

Using carbohydrates at a healthy pace and at the right times throughout the day can be the key to getting rid of those extra pounds and inches that are discouraging. So don’t be misled by this low-carbohydrate fitness trend. Carbohydrates are far from being your foe.

Next week: Carbohydrates and protein: how the combination can lead to better muscle building.

Dayna Davidson is the group and fitness supervisor at the Campus Recreation Center and is a senior majoring in wellness andleadership with a minor in professional writing. She can be contacted for questions or comments at