No doubt, nutrition is a complex and confusing topic for many, especially our personal training clients. It is further complicated and “muddied” by the constant creation and perpetuation of myths and misconceptions that ultimately drive the development of trends and fads. One of the biggest myths and nutrition falsehoods is that “carbs are bad” or “carbs make you fat.”. No. Just, no.
As certified personal trainers, it’s our responsibility to help educate our clients about best practices related to food and nutrition. While we can’t prescribe a diet, perform a sophisticated dietary analysis, or provide medical nutrition therapy, we can and should teach clients fundamental nutrition principles that will help them fuel their bodies and pursue their health and fitness goals.
A carbohydrate is
- one of the three macronutrients our bodies need to survive (along with protein and fat). All three of our “macros” are necessary for the body to function optimally.
- the preferred energy source of the body (namely, muscles)
- is made up of chains of sugar, contains 4 calories per gram, and includes both sugars and starches (simple and complex sugars respectively).
A carbohydrate isn’t
- simply classified as “good” or “bad”. Think of carbs (and this applies to all foods, in reality) as existing in a hierarchy where some provide better nutrients and fuel (fruits and veggies) than others (cakes and candies).
- a devil-created food designed to pack on the pounds
- something to be eliminated from the diet out of fear of gaining weight
What carbs do for us
Carbohydrates provide the main source of fuel for the body; they allow us to perform mechanical work. This commonly feared macro fuels the brain, the heart, the muscular system, and the central nervous system. Complex carbs are high in fiber and benefit the digestive system and help keep cholesterol at an optimal level. Carbs are necessary.
Truthfully and scientifically, consumption of carbohydrates does not make a person gain weight. Excessive eating (of any macro) and a lack of caloric expenditure cause weight gain. So, why do many fear this necessary macro? Or, more frequently, why do many make a conscious effort to limit or reduce overall intake to a point of obsession?
Mostly, misinformation and a classic misunderstanding of what carbohydrates do for us are the culprits (and celebrity diet dogma and popular supplement ads don’t help).
Additionally, many people have success losing weight quickly when carbs are initially cut because of the amount of water weight that is shed when carbohydrates are limited. However, long-term success should be account for this, with a focus on fat loss and a change in body composition.
Note that some individuals might indeed need to limit carbohydrate intake if the balance of macronutrients tips too heavily towards breads, pastries, and pasta versus lean proteins and healthy fats. In this case, a healthy balance needs to be reached, not overt restriction. Also, some others need to follow a specific eating pattern for medical or lifestyle reasons.
For example, diabetics or individuals who are physically inactive and, therefore, do not readily metabolize carbohydrates may need modified approaches to food consumption. However, this is to be done under the supervision of a qualified medical professional and/or registered dietitian.
What can I do as a personal trainer?
You can benefit your clients and remain within your scope of practice by taking the following steps.
- Help your fitness clients reframe their mindset about carbohydrate consumption. In doing so, your clients will ultimately reject the anti-carb rhetoric in favor of adopting an enjoyable eating style that is satisfying and fueling.
- Share reputable sources of nutrition information (not just any .com site). For instance, share the following
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (eatright.org)
- Canada’s Dietary Guidelines for Health Professionals and Policy Makers (https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/guidelines/)
- Harvard University’s Healthy Eating Plate (hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy- eating-plate/)
- MyPlate (https://www.choosemyplate.gov)
- Teach clients to focus on nutrient-dense versus calorie-dense foods
- Share with them the role and function of carbohydrates in the body and why they are part of a balanced diet
- Help clients evaluate the credibility of the nutrition information they read online
- Teach clients how to read and evaluate a food label and ingredient list to look for hidden and unnecessary sugars
- If necessary, refer clients to a registered dietitian for further information and education
Because nutrition is a complicated and dynamic topic, it’s your job to help clients ascertain the truth when it comes to fueling for performance and a healthy lifestyle. Carbs are not the enemy. Misinformation and nutrition “quackery”, however, are. Arm your clients with the skills and tools necessary to fuel their bodies (and minds) in the most optimal way and in absence of fear and carb confusion.