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Are All Carbs Created Equal? A Practical Examination

Can do no wrong.

So here’s the thing. I’m in the truck the other night helping a buddy move some stuff and we’re talking about working out and eating and stuff and here’s the conclusion I came to.

Clean carbs are a myth.

Like unicorns or a bad Will Ferrell movie.

I mean, really? Do you really believe that Marky Muscles from the internet who prescribes only broccoli and brown rice actually only eats broccoli and brown rice? What do you think happens behind closed doors?

Okay, I know, there are probably people who actually follow the clean carb protocol. But I’m not sure that strict carb cleanliness is 100% necessary to success, at least in terms of body composition and performance.

Carbohydrate Digestion.

Here’s two examples: brown rice and Sour Patch Kids. The former is a “clean” carb. The latter, made entirely out of sugar. After you consume them, they’re broken down by the time they reach the small intestine into monosaccharides (it’ll take longer for brown rice than the Sour Patch Kids, but they end up at the same place).

From here, these monosaccharides are absorbed into the bloodstream and taken up by muscle and fat tissue. That’s where insulin is hanging out. The Sour Patch Kids will undergo this entire process more quickly, thus producing an insulin spike. Brown rice will take longer to digest and therefore provide a more consistent release of insulin. After these broken-down carbs reach their destination tissues, they’ll be converted to glycogen (glycogenesis) to be stored or shuttled into fat cells when stores are topped off.

But in both cases, carbohydrates must be broken down into monosaccharides first.

Energy and Satiety

We know that quicker digesting carbs promote a quick, prominent release of insulin followed by rebound hypoglycemia. Slower digesting carbs do not have this effect. So if you’re looking to keep your energy up, avoid that 2:30 feeling, and eat carbs throughout your day, you’d be better off sticking to slower digesting carbs (i.e. oats, wheat, brown rice).

Too many Sour Patch Kids for lunch.

As far as satiety (how full you feel), there are a couple reasons that we feel full after a meal:

  • The actual volume of the food consumed (i.e. vegetables or lean proteins).
  • The effect of insulin (i.e. white potatoes).
  • High-fiber content (i.e. whole grains, legumes, nuts, vegetables, and certain skins)

Assuming that satiety is something good that we want to strive for (which it is, because nobody wants to feel hungry all day long), we can conclude that the best way to feel full after a meal is to seek out foods that have a low calorie:volume ratio or a high fiber content. Because, as I just mentioned, foods that are accompanied by an insulin spike will leave you with that 2:30 feeling.

The exception to this rule (and I’m hesistant to write this) is in the case of an intermittent fast/feast structure. In the case of the Renegade Diet (or other similar structures) where carbs are eaten almost entirely at the end of the day, that 2:30 feeling is a good feeling to have at 9:30 pm when you need to fall asleep.

Insulin and Peri-Workout Carbs

A big meal right before a workout is probably a no-no. One of two things will happen: either your meal will be full of slow-digesting carbs and fat and just sit in your stomach while you jump rope (a combination that you do not want) or your meal will contain a large amount of sugary, refined carbohydrates and will give you that 2:30 feeling in the middle of your workout.

Personally, I recommend maybe a small piece of fruit and a light protein shake 30-60 minutes before your workout. It’ll get some glucose and amino acids into your system and make sure you don’t get distracted by hunger during the workout. Note that I said a light protein shake, not a blender full of three scoops of protein, a half cup of peanut butter, and heavy cream.

I like some simple carbs post workout as well. Pure protein doesn’t really provide much of an insulin response, so logic tells me that a some carbohydrates would assist the body in shuttling amino acids into cells. Here’s a good article for you to read if you’re doubting my logic.


I stand by my original point. I think clean carbs are a myth (kind of, so bear with me here). I think you’d be more likely to be hit by a car in the parking lot walking into your gym than walking in and finding anybody that eats clean all day, err’ day.

If you’re hitting the weights and your body needs to replenish it’s glycogen stores, it doesn’t honestly care where those carbs come from. If you want to be full all day, probably avoid sugar more often than not. It won’t leave you full.

I’d also like to address the whole brown rice vs. white rice debate. I know everybody’s all like, “Brown rice is healthier for you because it digests slower and the glycemic index is the end-all, be-all of healthy eating!” But I’m not convinced. I don’t eat rice to feel full (except that the volume of rice I typically down in one sitting generally leaves me feeling full). I don’t eat rice for the nutrients. I eat rice to replenish my carbohydrate stores after the day’s workout. And besides, brown rice has the hull and the bran still intact, which makes white rice easier on the digestive system.

For these reasons, I eat jasmine or white rice (as we speak there’s a solid 25 lb bag of jasmine rice sitting in my kitchen).

I eat Triscuits every day because I heard that brown rice is good for me.

So if we just think logically, we can determine that, for all intents and purposes, a carb is probably a carb in terms of it’s actual function (supporting energy needs). If we want to eat frequently and avoid insulin spikes or feel fuller during the day, our carb choice probably matters a bit, but all types of saccharides will accomplish the ultimate goal: fueling your body.

As another side note to end the article, this is not a case for IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros). I do not believe that all protein or all fatty acids are created equally and I pay attention to the type and source of both. I also recognize the importance of obtaining valuable vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables, so this is also not a case for the Sour Patch Kids diet. If you’re looking for more information, go click on the link in the Insulin and Peri-Workout Carbs section, it’ll lead you to Lyle McDonald’s site where you’ll find more detailed analyses of these topics.

Anyway, this was just some food for thought. So feel free to let me know your thoughts.

As another side note, hope everyone gets my joke in the title picture. I think I’m pretty damn funny.

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