There are only three macronutrients, yet one of them continues to befuddle nearly everyone. You know which one: To carb or not to carb, that is the question.

Depending on who you ask, carbohydrates are either a fantastic energy source or the macro most responsible for making us fat. A must-have for hard-training individuals or a no-go for anyone who wants to get super lean.

So, what gives? Can you eat carbs and still be lean and slender? One nutrition expert, who consults some of the finest athletes in the U.S. Military and first responders, answers this burning question to help end the carb conundrum once and for all.

Featured Expert: Susan Lopez, RD, CSSD, LD

Susan Lopez is a tactical performance dietitian who specializes in working with some of America’s bravest — from military athletes to firefighters, police officers, and first responders. Lopez is a military veteran and special operations spouse whose unique experience and knowledge help elite war fighters and community heroes stay fit and healthy. She is also the team dietitian for Bravo Sierra.

This is a question we get on a daily basis: “Do I need to stop eating carbs to get shredded?”

The short answer is no. Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy, particularly during high-intensity bouts of training when energy needs to be supplied quickly to the muscle cells. Carbohydrates should be consumed according to one’s physical training demands.

Most people consume more overprocessed carbohydrates than they need for a bunch of reasons. These foods are cheap, easy to source, easy to digest, and, let’s be honest, are often delicious. Even “healthy” carbohydrates contain calories and can contribute to overeating, which is the main reason we gain weight over time.

To lose weight — body fat ideally — we need to obtain a calorie deficit. For most of us, that means eliminating calories from foods that we consider the culprits behind our weight gain, most of these being high in carbohydrates (fat and sugar, too!). By eliminating a food group that appears to contribute to weight gain, we inadvertently also create a calorie deficit.

For both high-performing and recreational athletes, carbohydrates should be a part of a high-performance diet, even when attempting to cut weight or body fat. For individuals who exhibit insulin resistance or other issues related to blood sugar management, a modified carbohydrate diet may be more effective at helping with body fat loss. That said, caution should be taken by these folks to work with a knowledgeable and qualified dietitian or physician.

So, what’s an appropriate amount of carbs to take in each day for someone who wants to drop body fat?

Many of the athletes I coach follow a modified carbohydrate diet during their shredding cycles, but they still take in at least 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight in carbohydrates each day (around 3 grams per pound), while also creating a calorie deficit through nutrition and physical activity.

At 3 grams per pound, that’s around 600 grams of carbs daily for a 200-pound person. With that level of carb intake, are you talking about young athletes who train multiple times a day? What about someone who’s in his or her 30s or 40s (or even 50s) who only trains once a day for 45 to 60 minutes, plus maybe some light activity like walking? Should that “non-athlete” be consuming fewer than 3 grams per pound per day?

Yes. The higher the training demand for the person, the higher the carb intake may be, even if the goal is fat loss. For someone who has a higher amount of body fat to lose, it may be closer to 200 grams of carbohydrate, or less — as little as 1 to 1.5 grams per pound. A general rule of thumb for lower activity is a 1:1 ratio of proteins to carbohydrate (in grams).

You mentioned that most people consume too many overprocessed carbs. What specific carbohydrate foods do you recommend?

Whole carbohydrates or minimally processed carbs are the best options — potatoes, vegetables, rice, quinoa, couscous, oats or quick oats, and fruit. Carbohydrates that have more fiber (>3g per serving) should be utilized during cuts to help with fullness and satiety.

And what about the timing of these carbohydrate foods? Should a person be mindful of what time of day he or she consumes carbs (i.e., consume more post-workout), and/or should fewer carbs be consumed on non-training days versus training days? Or do you favor a more consistent carb intake from day to day?

Lower fiber, or more “processed” carbs can be used pre- and post-workout if desired to help with speeding recovery and nutrient delivery. This would include fast-digesting carbs like white rice or bread, or more “sugary” carbs like bananas, oranges, and packaged snack foods like goldfish crackers. For someone who’s possibly on a lower-carb diet, or who’s carb cycling from day to day, I would focus on getting most of those carbohydrates around training windows, taking into consideration schedule, sleep times, personal comfort level, etc.

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