by Mike Arnold
Our knowledge of bodybuilding nutrition has come a long way since the days when Vince Gironda first advocated a red meat and egg only diet. Dietary concepts we now consider basic, such as macro ratios, nutrient timing, and meal frequency were rarely considered just a couple generations back. In those days, there was a heavy reliance on protein and calories, while pre-contest “prep” consisted primarily of carb cuts and reducing overall food intake. The whole process was much more simplistic, without any of the complex dietary manipulations we see today.
Despite the massive increase in knowledge that’s transpired over the last 40-50 years, bodybuilders today are eating unhealthier than ever. While I could point out major flaws in literally every facet of modern bodybuilding nutrition, I am now going to turn my focus to just one—carbohydrates. When it comes to the typical muscle building diet, no macronutrient is more prevalent than carbohydrates. While protein is essential, carbs make up the bulk of our off-season diet and play a critical role in optimizing the recovery and growth process. In brief, short-changing oneself in this area is not only going to negatively affect the physique, but one’s entire mental and physical well-being as well.
Although many of us may have been desensitized to the old saying “we are what we eat”, it is no less true today than it was back when our elementary school teachers first tried to instill it in us as children. Anything we put in our body, whether good or bad, is going to affect one or more bodily systems for the better or the worse. Knowing this, common sense dictates that those foods we eat the most of are also the most likely to affect the way our body functions. With muscle growth and fat loss drawing on the combined efforts of numerous bodily systems, it is logical to conclude that the more efficiently these systems run, the easier it will be to achieve goals which rely on them.
Without doubt, one of today’s most pressing dietary concerns is the over-consumption of refined carbohydrates. Sadly, modern society has become so accustomed to their inclusion within the diet that in many cases they are viewed, even if only subconsciously, as more natural than their whole-grain counterparts. Making matters even worse is that most people have been programmed from childhood to prefer the taste of refined carbohydrates over the latter, making them more likely to gravitate to these food choices even when superior options are available. So deeply habituated to this dietary lifestyle have most of us become, that even the typical bodybuilder who prides himself on being nutritionally sound has fallen prey to this dietary pitfall.
So, what is it that makes the overconsumption of refined carbs so problematic? In order to answer that question we first need to know the difference between refined and unrefined carbs and what makes the unrefined versions so good for us. Generally speaking, unrefined carbs are those which retain all of their natural components, whereas refined carbs have been subjected to extensive processing, resulting in one or more of its natural components being removed. Unfortunately, in almost all cases it is the parts which have been discarded that contain most of the food’s nutritional value.
Aside from fruits, which I will not address here, the majority of carbohydrate containing foods fall into one of three categories. These are grains (ex. rice, oats, barley), tubers (potatoes and other root vegetables), and legumes (beans, lentils, peas). Of these, grains are the most frequently consumed, comprising the bulk of a bodybuilder’s complex carb intake. These are followed by tubers and then legumes, which traditionally have not been too popular with bodybuilders. Tubers and legumes are usually consumed in their unrefined form, as they lack the 3-layer make-up characteristic of most grain foods. On the other hand, grains are usually consumed in refined form. Examples or refined grains include food such as white rice, most breads, regular pasta, cream of rice, pancakes, and any other white flour-based foods.
All whole grains are technically the seeds of various plants. Each seed, known as a kernel, is comprised of 3 edible layers and an outer, protective husk. The three edible parts are known as the bran, germ, and endosperm. The bran is the surface layer and contains most of the fiber, as well as some of the grains’ antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. The germ is the embryo, or reproductive part of the kernel. This is the part of the grain which will sprout into a new plant if germinated. It’s also a nutritional powerhouse, containing dozens of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, healthy fats, and amino acids in concentrated form. Lastly, we have the endosperm. The endosperm serves as the germ’s food supply post-germination, helping the plant to grow to full maturity. Aptly referred to as the energy portion of the grain, it contains most of its carbohydrate content, but is sparse in overall nutrients.
The problem with refined grains is that the bran and germ have been completely removed, leaving us with nothing but the starchy part of the grain, the endosperm. Essentially, refined grains have been raped of their nutritional diversity and density, leaving us with little other than a source of calories. As with most plant-based foods, grains grow in a form naturally suited for human consumption, providing us with not only the plant’s full complement of nutrients, but with everything required to maintain whole-body health. However, rather than focusing on the benefits of whole-grains, I am going to spend some time talking about the ill effects of refined grains on the body and more specifically, how they can negatively affect the goals of a bodybuilder.
Although common sense tells us that any food which has been robbed of its nutrients is inferior to those which remain intact, it may at first be difficult to accept that many of the carbohydrates we’ve been eating are nutritionally destitute in comparison to their unrefined alternatives. On the surface, our intellect testifies to this fact, but years of familiarity and indoctrination through example have made it difficult to accept this on a deeper level, causing us to continue eating foods which are less than optimal.
Whenever whole-grain proponents raise the argument of nutritional superiority and whole-body health, counter-arguments such as “refined carbs are easier to digest” and “they don’t keep me full as long” are provided in a failed attempt to justify their chronic consumption. While grains lacking the bran and germ are certainly “easier” to digest (meaning they digest more rapidly), they are not better for digestive health, nor do they provide the body with better a foundation from which to build muscle. After all, if digestion rate is always the overriding factor in determining which carbs are ideal, then we might as well just sit down to a bowl of dextrose at our next meal, or better yet, maybe we should just use a high molecular weight carb powder as our sole carb source.
Obviously, such a proposition is ludicrous and no one in their right mind would ever knowingly construct a diet based on such an approach, yet there are myriad bodybuilders out there who do just that by using refined carbs as the foundation of their carbohydrate intake. Just look at the number of bodybuilders use white rice as their #1 carb source and you will see how prevalent the problem really is. Now, I am not saying that refined carbs have no place within a bodybuilder’s diet because they do, but they are highly over-used, to the point where they have become a liability rather than a tool to accomplish certain objectives. Just as we wouldn’t use dextrose or a high molecular weight carb powder as our primary carb source, neither should we use refined carbs like white rice as the foundation of our diet.
One of the most important differences between refined and whole-grain carbs is their effect on insulin. Refined carbs result in a large, short-lived spike in insulin levels, while whole-grains produce a less dramatic, but more sustained elevation in insulin. There are benefits and disadvantages attached to both patterns of insulin release, but which is ideal will depend on the circumstances.
As a general rule, bodybuilders in muscle gain mode should endeavor to maintain moderate, sustained concentrations of insulin within the bloodstream rather than large, erratic spikes, unless there is a physiological need for such. Ignoring this rule will result in a barrage of negative effects within the body, one of which is a change in fat cell metabolism. In addition to being the body’s primary storage hormone, insulin also has a profound effect on fat cells, making them not only more likely to store excess calories as fat, but preventing them from releasing stored fat for use as energy. The higher insulin levels climb, the more pronounced this effect becomes. In essence, the irresponsible consumption of refined carbs makes it harder to stay lean as we grow.
As stated previously, there are exceptions to this rule. On example would be during the intra-workout period. At this time the body is more likely to use circulating macronutrients for energy production and protein-glycogen synthesis rather than fat storage. Furthermore, the anti-catabolic effects of insulin help to off-set the increased rate of muscle protein breakdown that occurs during weight training, while its anabolic effects help initiate the recovery and growth process through multiple different mechanisms.
Other acceptable times might be after a full night’s rest (assuming the individual is not eating in the middle of the night), or any other time the bodybuilder has not eaten for an extended period of time and requires a rapidly digesting source of carbohydrate. Aside from these limited instances, bodybuilders should abstain from refined carbohydrates, as the negatives begin to outweigh the positives when consumed without a legitimate need.
As if that weren’t bad enough, refined carbohydrates contribute to insulin resistance. In fact, carbohydrate intake and particularly refined carbohydrate intake, is the #1 cause of insulin resistance and Type II diabetes world-wide. In addition to the ill health effects associated with this condition, insulin resistance also works directly against the goals of a bodybuilder in numerous ways. Impaired nutrient delivery, increased rate of fat gain/reduced fat loss, visceral fat storage (i.e. insulin gut), increased risk of heart disease, and so many other problems that it would require a lengthy article just to briefly touch on each of these.
Ironically, insulin resistance even prevents us from receiving maximum benefit from our intra-workout nutrition (one of the only times a bodybuilder should be consuming refined carbs) by reducing our muscles’ response to insulin. The bottom line is that refined carbohydrate consumption reduces insulin sensitivity, and this is never a good thing, regardless of the circumstances.
In addition to undesirable effects on body composition and the hormonal profile, refined carbohydrates are injurious to the digestive system in a multitude of ways, all of which stem from their inadequate fiber content. Although considered a carbohydrate, fiber is not used as an energy source, but rather, plays a role in the digestion, absorption, and elimination of our food. In its absence problems can develop in all of these areas, having a negative, multifaceted impact on our bodybuilding progress. Impaired digestion, constipation, toxic waste build-up, distension, altered blood glucose regulation, damaged cholesterol ratios, and many other maladies are commonly encountered as a result of fiber deficiency. Knowing this, the bodybuilding community should be prioritizing the inclusion of fiber within the diet, but the reality is that most bodybuilders don’t eat anywhere close to enough of this important macronutrient. As long as this continues, bodybuilders will continue falling prey to the numerous ailments associated with this irresponsible dietary practice.
Although I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg on the issue of refined carbohydrates, it is my hope that everyone reading this article will begin taking steps to correct this dietary imbalance. There are literally dozens of inexpensive options available, making it easy to begin incorporating these foods into your diet. With so many benefits attached, it would be foolish not to.