Carbohydrate Supplement FAQ
What are Carbohydrates and Where Do They Come From?
A carbohydrate or saccharide is a molecule consisting of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms, with a typical hydrogen-to-oxygen ratio of 2:1, as is found in water.
For the purpose of understanding their application in the fields of sports and bodybuilding we do not need to delve too deeply into the structure of various forms of carbohydrates, but we will touch on the practical effects they offer a little further down.
Commercially, sports-orientated carbohydrate powders, liquids, and gels are produced from a variety of sources, including:
- Malt; and
- So on…
The production methods will vary from one product to another, but all carbohydrates are metabolized in the body and used as fuel via either the glycolytic pathway or the citric acid cycle.
Once metabolized saccharides enter the bloodstream as glucose, they can then be immediately used to fuel physical activities such as resistance training, or they can be stored in the form of muscle or liver glycogen within the respective tissues.
Stored glycogen, particularly within the muscles, plays a crucial role in the body’s ability to produce forceful muscular contractions, which of course is what we need in order to lift weights and perform the repetitions of a given exercise required to illicit growth.
What Types of Carbohydrates are There?
With the ever-increasing growth of the health and fitness industry there has been an explosion in the variety of different carbohydrate products available on the market.
Some more commonly available carbohydrates include:
- Highly-branched cyclic dextrins;
- Potato starch; and
- Waxy maize starch
Each of these carbohydrate variations offers its own benefits, as we will explore below.
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What are the Benefits of Carbohydrates?
As we explored above, carbohydrates can be used within the body as fuel for activity, as well as helping our muscles to contract more forcefully in the form of glycogen.
The main benefit of using a pure carbohydrate powder is its rapid digestion, which allows for more rapid uptake into the bloodstream so that you can begin using them within a short period of time.
To illustrate this point consider how quickly the sugar from a bottle of Gatorade will hit your bloodstream compared to the starches in a bowl of oatmeal which contains fiber and small amounts of protein and fat; using pure carbohydrates helps them to play a far greater role in a bodybuilding context, but there is more to the matter than simply using spoonfuls of sugar in your workout water.
One of the most anabolic hormones in the body is insulin, arguably even more so than testosterone, and it is this ‘storage’ hormone that signals for the body to shuttle nutrients to certain tissues in your body.
On one end of the spectrum we have the average sedentary person who consumes a cheeseburger, French fries, and a gallon of soda; all of that sugar causes a rapid surge of insulin which then signals for their body to begin storing the large amount of fat in the meal. The problem is further compounded by their sedentary nature which means that their muscle cells are less sensitive to the effects of insulin and will therefore be less capable of ‘soaking up’ those carbohydrates and other nutrients.
On the opposite end of the spectrum we have the hard-training athlete or bodybuilder who has just finished a grueling 90-minute leg workout and drinks a whey protein isolate shake with, say, 50g of dextrose in the mix.
The dextrose will spike the athlete’s insulin levels, and in the presence of ample quantities of protein or amino acids the body will be equipped with what it needs to get those nutrients to the muscle tissues for growth and recovery. Even better is the fact that the athlete has broken down their muscle tissues, causing increased insulin sensitivity and meaning that their body will be far more likely to shuttle those proteins and carbohydrates to said muscles rather than storing them as body fat.
To summarize: Carbohydrates in the form of sports supplements fuel workouts, enhance recovery, and boost overall anabolism by increasing insulin levels.
Assessing the Quality of Carbohydrate Supplements vs. Other Sources of Carbs
There are a variety of supplements, particularly mass gainers, which contain carbohydrate sources such as oatmeal, dextrose, maltodextrin, and so on.
These are all high-quality carbohydrates that serve their purpose but if we are looking for a carbohydrate powder that will help us either in the gym or directly after our workouts then we should be concerned with digestibility.
Digesting food, including protein, carbohydrates, fats, and fiber, requires that blood be supplied in ample quantities to the digestive system. During and immediately after our workouts we want as much blood available for our musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems as possible, meaning that we should be using supplements that will require little, if any digestion.
For this reason, it would be advisable to use free form amino acids or hydrolyzed proteins, alongside a rapidly-digesting dextrose or maltodextrin powder. Even better would be a low-osmalarity carbohydrate such as highly-branched cyclic dextrins as this would require essentially no digestion whatsoever.
Who Can Benefit from Using Carb Supplements and How?
Given what we have discussed so far we can see that carbohydrates are highly beneficial to any aspiring bodybuilder or athlete, especially those who are looking to improve performance and develop or retain as much muscle mass as possible.
Which Foods Contain Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates can be found in a wide range of foods, the most popular of which are:
- Potatoes and sweet potatoes;
- Bread and other wheat products;
- Oatmeal; and
Rather than concerning ourselves with which of these foods are the ‘best’ or which are ‘better’ than others, it would be a better idea to think about application.
For example, after a tough workout some people find it difficult to digest, say, a big bowl of fibrous oatmeal, which would make jasmine or short grain white rice far more suitable because of its lack of fiber and ease of digestion.
On the other hand, a meal on a non-training day or outside of the period around our workouts will benefit more from a more slow-digesting carbohydrate source, the reason for which we will see below.
Do Carbohydrates Have any Side Effects?
One of the reasons we are concerned with using the right source of carbohydrates at the right time is that a rapid rise in insulin levels can result in what is commonly known as a ‘sugar crash’ or ‘carb coma.’
This occurs because the spike in insulin causes our body to quickly remove the glucose from our bloodstream, resulting in low blood sugar levels which manifests as feelings of lethargy, grogginess, and so on.
If you’ve ever felt drowsy after eating a big meal or a whole bunch of sugary foods then you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about here.
Note: We highly recommend speaking to a doctor before taking any supplements.
Do Carbohydrates Cause Obesity / Diabetes / Inflammation…?
With the advent of nutritional trends such as the Atkins diet, Paleo diet, and other forms of low-carb, very-low-carb, and ketogenic diets, there have been large swathes of people essentially demonizing carbohydrates.
Without comparing one nutritional approach to another (which is a highly subjective and individualized issue) you are urged to bear in mind that context is the most important factor here.
Sedentary folks do not strictly require an abundance of carbohydrates because they do not require that kind of energy substrate, but athletic individuals and gym warriors who are training on a frequent, consistent basis need to replenish their glycogen stores to make any kind of significant progress.
With this in mind, take a look at your own lifestyle, be willing to implement a little trial and error, and then decide for yourself what the best approach is for you personally.
How and When Should I Use Carbohydrates?
To recap on what we’ve covered so far regarding timing your carbohydrate intake:
- Use slow-digesting carb source such as oatmeal
- Approximately 60-90 minutes prior to workout
- Use fast-digesting, low-osmalarity carb source such as highly-branched cyclic dextrins (Glycofuse by Gaspari Nutrition) or potato starch
- Begin sipping your drink 10 minutes before training and continue while training
- Not as necessary if you are using an intra-workout carb source
- In the absence of intra-workout carbs, use a fast-digesting carb source such as dextrose, maltodextrin, or potato starch
- Timing can be anything from immediately post-workout to 30 minutes post-workout depending on the intensity of your workout and your personal tolerance levels
Please note that this advice is largely anecdotal and you are strongly advised to experiment with your own carbohydrate sources and timings to find an arrangement that works well for you.
Also remember that as you progress in your strength levels and physique development your needs may change, so complete beginners may not require an intra-workout carb source but more advanced bodybuilders may find it highly advantageous.
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How Much Carbohydrates Should I Take?
The amount of carbohydrate you use is going to vary drastically depending on factors such as your fat intake, your training intensity, frequency, and volume, and your metabolism.
Some people do not tolerate carbs well and will therefore fare better with a more low-to-moderate carbohydrate intake of around 100 – 200g per day, whereas others can easily consume 400, 500, or even 600g of carbs per day without gaining excess body fat.
What’s more, if you are training on a low-volume program such as HIT, Doggcrapp, 5×5, or some other kind of strength-orientated or ‘powerbuilding’ routine then you may not require as many carbohydrates as someone who is training on a high-volume, high-frequency program such as GVT, Mountaindog, MI40, or similar.
Choosing the Right Carbohydrates Supplement
Please refer to the How and When Should I Use Carbohydrates? section for more on this.
Please note: This FAQ has not been written or reviewed by a doctor or medical professional and is therefore not to be used to prevent, diagnose, or treat any disease or illness. Nor should it be used as medical reference.