Make Your Carbohydrates Work for You—Work Out before Eating Your Pasta

balancing carbohydrates and using them to your benefit

By Michael Ormsbee, PhDFlorida State University
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Carbohydrates don’t have to be off-limits. Dr. Ormsbee explains how to monitor the carbohydrates we eat so that they serve the greatest benefit while minimizing negative impacts to our body composition and health.

Spaghetti on plate
By learning how carbs and exercise balance out, you can use carbs more effectively while maintaining a good body composition. Photo by Hitdelight / Shutterstock

Carbohydrate Type Matters

Understanding the relationship between carbohydrates and exercise will help you to use carbs more effectively, as will being more selective in what you choose to eat. Lower glycemic index, lower glycemic load, and lower insulin index foods have the best potential to improve body composition, keep you healthy, and avoid large spikes in blood glucose and insulin levels. 

On the other hand, many pre-packaged foods and other refined carbohydrates like cereal, many breads, candy, and soda will quickly get into your bloodstream. Over time, they have the greatest chance for causing negative health consequences such as insulin resistance, where your body has to produce more and more insulin just to have the same effect it normally should have.

Unprocessed carbohydrates like vegetables are high in fiber and nutrient density, meaning they have many beneficial nutrients compared to the calories that they contain. They should be a staple of our carbohydrate intake compared to overly processed carbohydrates and added sugars.

Eating this way regularly should improve your fiber intake, your micronutrient intake for things like vitamins and minerals, and increase your feeling of fullness or satiety for a longer period of time after eating.

Carbohydrates and Exercise

Another way to keep your blood glucose levels balanced is to exercise. Getting glucose from your blood and into your muscles and your fat cells for energy requires the help of the hormone insulin secreted from your pancreas. 

Cells use a small transporter protein to help glucose enter cells, and this glucose transporter is called GLUT-4. It becomes active when insulin is present, like after a high sugar snack. GLUT-4 is part of a large family of GLUT transport proteins that exists in different body tissues.

However, muscle contractions that occur with exercise also help shuttle blood glucose into your cells without insulin. During and after exercise, you have a greater ability to use blood glucose to produce energy, and after exercise to store glucose as muscle glycogen.

After exercise, you have used up at least some of your stored muscle glycogen. This depletion of stored glycogen and the exercise activity itself ramp up the activity of an enzyme called glycogen synthase, which is used to make glycogen in your cells.

At the end of exercise, your body is primed and prepared to store glucose as glycogen. What’s more is that the exercise increases your body’s ability to be insulin sensitive, meaning you are more responsive to less of this powerful hormone. Theoretically, then, the best time to consume any carbohydrate-heavy meals would be after vigorous exercise because you’ve metabolically prepared to handle them the best that you can.

Researchers have investigated what happens to a high carbohydrate pasta meal both after rest and after exercise. As you might expect, after rest, the high carbohydrate meal stopped the ability of these participants to burn fat. 

The authors wrote that this was because of the large insulin increase, which stops fat burning. However, after moderate intensity exercise—just 60 percent of maximal effort—eating the high carbohydrate pasta meal did not lower their ability to burn fat and no body fat was gained. Thus, the best time to eat a meal with a lot of carbohydrates to preserve your healthiest body composition is most likely right after you exercise.

Use Carbohydrates to Your Benefit

Overall, carbohydrates can impact your body composition and health in many ways. They are required for many physiological mechanisms, including providing our brains and nervous system with energy. 

Although excess carbohydrates will likely disrupt health and body composition, carbohydrates don’t have to be off-limits. We can choose to minimize added sugars in our diets as well as eat low glycemic index and glycemic load carbohydrates like vegetables and less processed grains that are ultimately full of nutrients and fiber.

Carbohydrates can and should be tailor-made to fit your activity level and body composition because carbohydrates play an important role in our overall nutritional intake. We don’t have to fear them, but we should choose them wisely, eat appropriate portion sizes, and be smart about when to eat them. 

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.

Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.

About Kate Findley 450 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.