Glycemic Index – Using Carbohydrates To Your Advantage
We’ve all heard that brown is better, right? Whole wheat, whole grain…it’s more nutritious to fuel your body. Right? Well, why do so many athletes consume white grains, sugary substances, and so many carbohydrates in general? The answer, they fuel your muscles more so than whole wheats and whole grains. WHAAAT?! Sounds crazy, right? It sort of is. But the science makes sense.
You see, our bodies primarily run on carbohydrates. Those as well as fats and protein. To the point, carbohydrates regulate blood glucose (aka blood sugar). The higher a carb is listed on the glycemic index (GI), the higher your blood glucose will rise. And that’s exactly what “glycemic index” means… a measure of how high your blood glucose will be in relation to a specific carb that you ate. So, how does this work? Carbohydrates break down into sugar in the blood stream, which is then transported in the body via insulin. Typically, if blood glucose levels are too high for the body to break down, that blood sugar then turns to fat. You may be thinking, well if carbs high on the glycemic index cause higher blood glucose, how could that possibly benefit anyone? The answer is this: it’s only beneficial if the person consuming those high glycemic index carbs uses their muscles enough to induce a sort of hyperactive metabolism, which ultimately causes a faster relocation of blood sugar from the blood to the muscles.
Athletes may choose to consume high GI carbs so that the nutrients from those carbs are quickly transported through the blood stream and to the areas that need the sugar (i.e. muscle). Carbohydrates higher on the glycemic index actually break down faster than carbohydrates lower on the glycemic index. For athletes, this is important because their muscles need the fuel right away (typically within 30 minutes after a workout, no more than 2 hours). Within this time frame, carbs have the greatest benefit to athletes, because carbs ultimately break down in the body to make energy to do work and to generate and restore muscle. Outside of that 30-minute window, the benefit of carbohydrates diminishes and consuming them may actually be detrimental, as it may turn to fat since it wasn’t used when it needed to be.
Is this confusing? Here’s the gist of it: carbohydrates turn to sugar in the body. When those carbs are not used, the sugar they break down into turns to fat that is also not used, it is stored (p.s. this causes weight gain). When carbs are consumed after doing work (i.e. running, lifting weights, and even some professions like moving furniture), they are needed for the muscles to refuel, thus, the sugar that those carbs are broken down into does NOT turn to fat because those sugars were being used for a purpose. The difference in high and low glycemic index carbs for people who do more “work” than the average couch potato is that high GI carbs produce more sugar and are transported more quickly. So, when someone who works out at a high intensity consumes high GI carbs post-workout they are more likely to build muscle in addition to restoring it, rather than a person who works out at the same intensity but consumes low GI carbs.
So, if you’re an athlete looking to boost your muscle growing/resynthesizing process, consume carbohydrates low on the glycemic index prior to a workout, but switch to carbs higher on the glycemic index after your workout. This will inevitably provide more energy, restore muscles, and increase your muscle building potential.
Factors Effecting a Carbs GI
Preparation: The way that a food is prepared alters its nutritional value. For example, the longer a food cooks, the more the starch is broken down, inducing a higher GI factor.
Example: Soft pasta vs. al dente pasta
Ripeness: The riper a food is, the more sugar it has, the higher the glycemic index number.
Example: Brown vs. green bananas
Processing: Processed foods will have a higher GI than foods prepared in their natural state.
Example: Mashed potato vs. whole potato
Examples of Low GI Carbs
Fructose (i.e. fruit)
Examples of High GI Carbs
Sugars (maltose, glucose, sucrose)
White rice, white bread
Corn, peas, carrots
Instant products (oatmeal, rice, etc.)