How Carbohydrates and Protein Play Together
There always seems to be a battle between the macronutrients; which one should dominate?
The truth is that all nutrients are continuously working together for optimal health. However, the ratio can fluctuate in certain scenarios, especially with carbohydrates and protein. So, how do carbohydrates and protein work and play together?
First, let’s review the role of each briefly.
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for your body, breaking into glucose. Glucose can be stored as glycogen to use later for energy. Or, if there is an excess amount of glucose in the body, it can be stored as fat.
Protein, which is broken down into amino acids, are known as the building blocks for your body. Protein can also be used for energy if needed.
Both macronutrients play important roles in our health. Our bodily needs are changing frequently depending on the demands of the day, so it is only natural for our nutrient needs to ebb and flow. Here are some common scenarios where the ratio shifts up, down, or stays stable.
More Carbohydrates than Protein
Contrary to popular belief, eating carbohydrates at night won’t make you gain weight unless you eat more than your body needs! Your muscles are actually better at shuttling glucose into your muscles at night for energy versus the morning. It also restores leptin levels, which is a hunger hormone. Restoring your leptin levels can help increase satiety for the next day. This is great for weight loss efforts!
After an intense workout is another opportunity for your muscles to shuttle glucose into muscles to restore glycogen levels. Your muscles immediately use it for energy versus storing it as fat in fat tissue. It will also speed up recovery time, which may help your ability to take the stairs after leg day.
Preparing for a big competition or race
Being able to prepare your body for the intensity and demand of a 26.2-mile run or triathlon, your body needs as much glucose as possible. Having a high-protein meal or snack before a race will slow digestion and therefore slow the process of the muscles receiving glucose. You definitely want a higher carbohydrate to protein ratio for this.
More Protein than Carbohydrates
Having a breakfast with higher protein than carbohydrates will help promote satiety and regulate blood sugar levels for the average person (one without diabetes). Many people have cereal, toast, bagels or a starchy pastry for breakfast, which will quickly increase your blood sugar, and what goes up must come down. This will results in a blood sugar crash which may make you feel fatigued and hungry within an hour or two. Try to have no more than 15 grams of carbohydrates for breakfast with at least 20 grams of protein.
Protein promotes satiety and supports muscle growth. After weight lifting and resistance training your muscles break down and your body repairs and rebuilds with the help of protein. Consuming at least 30% of your daily calories or meals from protein should help you progress to your weight loss goal and promote lean muscle mass.
If you are not engaging in any moderate to vigorous activity, then your body doesn’t need many carbohydrates. Having your meals with about 50% protein and less than 40% carbohydrates is a good range for rest days, especially if you are working towards fat loss.
General Health and Weight Maintenance
If you just want to be healthier but are happy with your current weight, then a relatively equal balance of carbohydrates and protein will serve your body well. It is recommended to have 40-50% of your calories from carbohydrates and 30-35% of calories from protein for a general healthy meal plan.
There is nothing wrong with getting plenty of carbohydrates and protein after a vigorous workout. It restores your glycogen levels so you are not fatigued the following day and it can also promote muscle repair. A protein shake with fruit is a great example of a balanced combination of carbohydrates and protein.
It’s important to always consult a physician and dietitian before starting any new workout plan or diet.
Clark, Nancy. Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook. 5th ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2014. Print.
Cordain, Loren, and Joe Friel. The Paleo Diet for Athletes: The Ancient Nutritional Formula for Peak Athletic Performance. New York: Rodale, 2012. Print.
Kelsey graduated with a Bachelor Degree in Dietetics and Public Health Nutrition and is currently working on her Master in Nutrition and Dietetics. Since becoming a registered dietitian, she works at a hospital providing medical nutrition therapy, teaches at Pure Barre, and dances for a professional cheerleading team in the NFL.