What are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates (or carbs) are organic molecules that consist of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. They come in three major forms (mono-, di-, and poly- saccharides), and further details in regards to different forms and benefits can be found in our "Advanced Carbohydrates Guide". Regardless of the form, they are eventually broken down into single sugar units, which can be used as a primary source of energy for metabolism and for the synthesis of more complex molecules for use by the body.
Where do Carbohydrates Come From?
Different forms of carbohydrates can be widely found in a variety of different foods. Simple sugars can be found in confectionary, processed foods, and fruit, while more complex carbohydrates are in grains, bread, pasta, vegetables, etc.
Carbohydrates are needed for life. Our central nervous system is only able to use glucose (a simple carbohydrate) for energy. In regards to bodybuilding and exercise performance, carbohydrates provide both rapid and sustained fuel during training. Inadequate carbohydrates may be seriously detrimental to performance.
Simple carbohydrates such as glucose (dextrose) are rapidly absorbed and have been shown to be beneficial for both extending endurance (Campbell et al, 2008), as well as increasing the rate of recovery by replacing used up muscle glycogen (Zawadzki et al, 1992). More complex carbohydrates such as waxy maize starch are more slowly broken down and release a steady supply of energy. It has been shown that such carbohydrates are able to better sustain athletes towards the end of a long bout of exercise (Thomas et al, 1994).
Carbohydrates Negatives and Side Effects
Carbohydrates are a necessary part of a balanced diet. They are completely safe and are generally free of side effects. However, overconsumption of simple carbohydrates (eg. sugars) can result in obesity and other associated diseases. Outside of this, perhaps the only groups of people that need to count carbs are diabetics and those on strict diets.
Carbohydrates Recommended Doses and Ingredient Timing
Typically, it is recommended at 50 to 60% of a diet should be made up of carbohydrates. However, this can be substantially higher or lower depending on the diet (eg. ketogenic diet) you choose to follow and your personal goals. Carbohydrates can be eaten at any time of the day, but again, this may differ depending on your goals. For example, for "carbo loading", complex carbs can be consumed 45 minutes before a workout to ensure maximum muscle glycogen for improved exercise performance. Simple carbohydrates can also be consumed during a workout to maintain glycogen levels.
Carbohydrate supplements come in many shapes and forms. Basic single carbohydrate supplements such as dextrose can be found, as well as complex mixtures of carbohydrates. Additionally, carbohydrates are present in significant quantities in weight gainers, some protein bars, pre workout supplements, intra workout supplements, post workout supplements, and sports drinks.
Different forms of carbohydrates (ie. simple and complex) stack well together to provide a comprehensive energy release profile. Creatine and protein also stack very well with carbohydrates to increase recovery and lean gains. More information can be found in our "How to Stack Supplements" article.
Campbell et al (2008), Carbohydrate-Supplement Form and Exercise Performance. International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 18: 179-190
Thomas et al (1994), Plasma glucose levels after prolonged strenuous exercise correlate inversely with glycemic response to food consumed before exercise. International Journal of
Zawadzki et al (1992), Carbohydrate-protein complex increases the rate of muscle glycogen storage after exercise. J Appl Physiol, 72: 1854-1859