Tip: Carbs Aren't Essential But You Need Them

Here are the three things you need to know to get your carb intake just right.

My philosophy on carbs can be explained by two sentences, which might seem somewhat contradictory at first:

  1. There are no essential carbohydrates.
  2. Carbs are a tool to create specific physiological responses in the body.

In nutrition, "essential" means that you must ingest something in your diet because your body can't manufacture it on its own. For example, there are some essential fatty acids that the body requires for optimal function because it can't make them itself.

But there's no such thing as an essential carbohydrate. That's because even if you don't consume any carbs the body can produce glucose by using amino acids (a process called gluconeogenesis). So if you consume enough protein you don't "need" carbs to maintain a normal blood sugar level.

You can also produce fuel from fat. And if fat is high enough in your diet, you can produce ketones which can also be used for fuel. So, you don't "need" carbs to live and function.

But You Want More Than Minimal Functioning

But as serious lifters, simply "functioning" isn't enough for us. We want to perform at a high level, build muscle, and feel good. And to optimally accomplish these three goals most of us will need carbs. Not everyone will need the same amount, but most will do better with them.

If your goal is mainly to gain muscle, you'll need to add carbs, mostly around your workout. (Think workout nutrition supplements.) This increases mTor activation and leads to higher IGF-1 levels, both of which are important to stimulate hypertrophy.

Low-carb diets have been shown to lower IGF-1 levels. That might actually be a good thing when it comes to slowing down aging, but not so much if your goal is to gain muscle.

As far as feeling good, especially if your life is stressful, carbs can help by elevating serotonin, a hormone that helps you relax. I recommend carbs in the evening for those who have a lot of stress in their professional life.

Remember 3 Things

  1. The leaner you are, the more carbs you can ingest without repercussion. The leaner you are, the more insulin sensitive you are.
  2. If your goal is to build muscle you'll need more carbs than you would if your main objective was to get leaner.
  3. If you overproduce cortisol because of stress, then carbs can help you.
Christian Thibaudeau specializes in building bodies that perform as well as they look. He is one of the most sought-after coaches by the world's top athletes and bodybuilders. Check out the Christian Thibaudeau Coaching Forum.