“The BEST Carbs for Getting Leaner and Stronger” by James Barnum


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In recent years, while the rest of the world continued to live in fear of fat, the fitness community totally embraced it.  Carbohydrates became the target of our frustrations; we blamed them for making us fat, compromising our immune function, keeping us inflamed, and generally ruining our lives.  We’ve learned our lesson now and carbs have had their reputation restored.  It’s really about time, considering the role that carbohydrates play in the performance of nearly every sport.

NOTE:   This article discusses a lot of theory regarding physiology.  It’s important to understand that because an interpretation of the way things work on a micro level may not always be accurate as research evolves, and it may not make that much of a difference in the great scheme of things.  Still, if you’re already doing everything right and you’re looking for a way to tweak things to get an extra few percent-worth of muscle growth, fat loss, or performance, this is the article for you.

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Which Carb Sources are Best?

Without a doubt, one of the hardest things to tell someone that’s seeking improved performance and body composition is that fruit should not make up the bulk of the carbohydrates in your diet.  Hold on though –  I am in NO WAY implying you shouldn’t eat fruit.  It’s just not the easiest, most efficient way to fuel your body.  One last tme; FRUIT IS GOOD.  EAT PLENTY OF IT!

As valuable source of vitamins, minerals and fiber, fruits have definitely got their place in a balanced approach to nutrition.  As I mentioned in the first paragraph of this section, you’d have to eat a lot (and I mean a lot) of fruit to satisfy your carbohydrate/calorie requirements after training; it’s just not optimal (or in some cases, feasible) to rely upon fruit as an energy source.  Thankfully, there are other natural sources of carbohydrate available that are positively brimming with glucose as well as important micronutrients.

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Starches are an Athlete’s Best Friend

Starch is a glucose polymer found in most plants that is chemically similar to our endogenous glycogen; it’s literally just a long chain of glucose molecules bonded together.  Although humans have a tough time digesting the stuff raw, cooking breaks it down into pure glucose ready for utilization as a substrate to produce cellular energy throughout your body.  Of course, whatever you don’t use can be stored, preferably in your biceps, quadriceps or abdominals.  While some of the most widely-consumed sources of starch (and thus glucose) are grains, like corn, wheat and rye, plenty of Paleo-friendly alternatives exist if that’s your thing.  At the forefront, we have good ol’ fashioned tubers, like potatoes and carrots, as well as rice (preferably white because the fiber in brown rice actually impairs glucose loading a bit), but let us not forget chestnuts and acorns that are rich in starchy energy.  Squash, peppers, zucchini and cauliflower round everything out and give you a wide palette of flavors to choose from. Now, it is completely up to you whether you munch on sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes, or white rice over brown rice.  It’s worth considering however that the fiber content of potato skin, as well as the germ of brown rice, can slow digestion.  It’s not that big of a big deal.  Most people don’t need to think about the rate of absorption and how it’s affected by added fiber, but it’s potentially disadvantageous in situations where we need to shoot for quick glucose uptake (like when you train twice a day).  The most important take-away here is that you need dietary glucose to effectively replenish muscle glycogen.  If you’re really looking to optimize your carbohydrate strategy, you can take things a step further and get into supplementation through a few different means.

Carbohydrate Supplementation and Liquid Nutrition

Whole, natural foods should absolutely comprise the foundation of your nutrition.  I won’t argue against that, but I do think that there are a few unique situations where integrating supplements into your plan can really bring your performance to the next level.  The most important time to ensure you have adequate energy available is before training.  By prioritizing carbohydrate intake around your workouts with liquid nutrition, you can make a dramatic impact on your energy levels and recovery if it’s formulated properly, and you have a plethora of options available should you go this route.  On one end of the spectrum, you could throw a potato into a food processor along with some light coconut milk, and wind up with one of the most interesting-yet-effective post-workout drinks known to man.  Alternatively, a mottled banana with some dark chocolate in a coconut milk base may be slightly more appetizing (and socially acceptable!).  Add teaspoon of sea salt to either of these concoctions and you’ve got the perfect storm in terms of quick gastric emptying and nutrient absorption at the small intestine. If pureed foods aren’t quite your style, you can go the more traditional route and purchase a commercially available supplement.  At this avenue, your best bet is to go with modified starches like Vitargo, maltodextrin, dextrose and waxy maize; not only are they typically very affordable (especially if you buy in bulk), but they’ll blend right in with your favorite protein powder and provide you with exactly what you need to begin restoring glycogen within your muscles as soon as possible.  50-100g of maltodextrin or waxy maize will do the job but you can experiment with more or less based upon training intensity, duration, and the amount of muscle mass you carry around.  As far as taste is concerned, dextrose is very sweet, whereas waxy maize and maltodextrin are generally bland and flavorless unless you use A LOT at once.  This is worth considering, especially if you’d like to use a supplement as a means to beef up the carb content of an existing protein shake that you’re already incorporating post-workout.  You probably won’t want to add any dextrose under these circumstances, but if you’re starting completely from scratch, a little bit can go a long way towards making the maltodextrin/waxy maize palatable.  In addition, a bit of sodium to your post-workout nutrition can increase the rate of absorption of whatever other nutrients you’re ingesting, so throwing dextrose into the mix may be even more important (unless you grew up drinking salt water.) Hopefully this information will help you make more optimal decisions in regards to where you get your carbs from.  It really doesn’t make sense to exclude any one source, but the majority of your carbohydrates should come from starches and vegetables like potatoes, squash, quinoa and rice.  This will keep your muscles full and give you the energy you need to perform.  Fruit should be approached as a means to supplement your micronutrients and round out your carbohydrate intake.  To top it all off and make the most of your training, you should also consider implementing a liquid nutrition strategy post-workout.


  • For a time, carbohydrates have been demonized, but they’re a great source of energy and an integral part of any nutrition plan that’s aimed at keeping performance at peak (or improving it).
  • Fruits are not necessarily the best choice for fueling your muscles because the fructose they provide takes a while to become usable energy.  Fructose can only be stored in the liver as glycogen or as triglyceride in fat tissue.  Your muscles need glucose to refill their energy stores.
  • Still, fruits are packed with vitamins and minerals and are absolutely a part of a great nutrition plan.  Try to keep your fructose intake below 75g every day; it isn’t hard to do at all if you don’t drink juices/sodas/sweetened teas etc.
  • Starches are your best friend.  Rice, potatoes, ripe bananas and oats are additions you might consider.  Make sure that you eat plenty of these in the evening to replenish muscle glycogen.
  • Liquid nutrition in the form of pureed foods can be consumed before and during training; this can help you maintain performance during long training sessions or events.
  • Supplementing with a carb powder like maltodextrin during or after training can be a great way to maximize recovery.  If you drink a protein shake post-workout, adding maltodextrin is a great option.  Also, throwing a little salt to the mix will help keep you hydrated.

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6 Responses to “The BEST Carbs for Getting Leaner and Stronger” by James Barnum

  1. Becca March 21, 2013 at 2:38 pm #

    Hey Paul,

    Great post, I was just wondering how you mention fruits shouldn’t be a go to for carbs, and I completely understand why, but you are also very big on your fruit and coconut milk smoothies. I was just wondering since I restrict carbs during the day for the most part, and bring them in at night after training and before bigger training days in the form of sweet potatoes/squash and then have a small one of your smoothies (~1 cup of frozen fruit), is that too much fructose to be bringing in 4-5 nights a week? Should we be sticking to more starchy veggies instead of doing almost a half/half between sweet potatoes and fruit for carbs at night? Especially if we are just beginning to re-introduce larger amounts of fruit since going low carb and weight loss has plateaued recently? Thanks!! Love this information, I check it everyday for new posts :)

    • Paul Nobles March 21, 2013 at 11:56 pm #

      I actually didn’t write this, James Barnum did but I do agree with what he is saying, while the fruit in the smoothies might not be optimal it certainly isn’t bad and as long as I am getting starchy carbs at other times it all works out. Even he said in the article, there is a place for fruit. Too often people read the Fructose thing and go anti-fruit. I think that’s a bad idea.

      • James Barnum March 22, 2013 at 12:32 am #

        Fruit at night in a smoothie is definitely not a bad idea Becca. Depending upon how active you are and whether or not you cycle carbs in any fashion (back-loading is carb cycling for instance), you may not even have to consider any of the negative implications of fructose consumption by way of fruit. Sedentary populations who eat a lot of fruit/drink a lot of sucrose/corn syrup-sweetened drinks are in a different boat; their liver glycogen stores are almost always topped off and they’re constantly making new fat.

  2. Alyssa March 21, 2013 at 3:32 pm #

    Great post! Thinking about how I have been eating since going Paleo, I feel like the times I had sweet potatoes and squash in my diet, I performed best (not so much carrots–I had to eat A LOT of carrots to feel any “relief” of recovery).
    I like the approach you used in the supplementation portion. I think it’s important to know that kind of specific information if you have specific goals in mind. Reading it was reminiscent of reading Paleo Diet for Athletes by Dr. Cordain. However, this book was (disappointingly) for super endurance athletes. However, it seems that the principles still hold true about adding carbs in for glycogen restoration and even muscle growth.


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