What Are the Best Carbs for Building Muscle?


by Sean Nalewanyj

It’s a diet trend that just won’t go away. Back in the 1980’s and 90’s, everyone was pointing the finger at dietary fats as the “bad stuff” that everyone should avoid to stay lean and healthy. From the late 90’s onward, carbs have become the new enemy. Forget the basic, fundamental cause of fat gain, which is a net calorie surplus where energy consumption consistently exceeds energy expenditure.

Eat that piece of fruit, or that slice of bread, or, God forbid, those two cookies, and you’ll gain fat no matter what. It’s not just about the carbs themselves either. You’ll also hear recommendations ranging all over the map as to which types of carbohydrates you should eat and which ones to avoid. There’s the issue of simple carbs versus complex carbs… low glycemic carbs versus high glycemic carbs… “insulin spikes” and crashes… fructose… sucrose… lactose… the list goes on and on.

In reality, the issue of proper carbohydrate selection for your muscle building or fat loss program is actually very straightforward, and in this post I’m going to break it all down into simple step-by-step terms for you. What ARE the best bodybuilding carbs to include in your diet? Let’s go over it.

The Basics Of Carbohydrate Selection

When it all comes down to it, carbs are ultimately just sugar. Whether you have a bowl of rice, a potato or a large mocha frappuccino with extra whipping cream, the vast majority of the carbohydrates that you eat are broken down into the simplest and most preferred form of glucose one way or another. (A smaller percentage also ends up as fructose which is metabolized by the liver)

That glucose is then used to provide energy for your muscles and brain. Now, some people will hear this and then ask. “If a carb is a carb, why can’t I just hit my protein and fat needs for the day and then use ice cream, cake and cookies to fill up all of my carbohydrate macros?” The reason why this type of approach would be far from ideal for your bodybuilding results and overall health is pretty simple…

Although the majority of carbohydrates themselves are ultimately broken down into the same end product, the foods they’re “packaged up in” are NOT the same in terms of their nutritional content. Some carbs are found in high fiber, high vitamin, high mineral, phytonutrient dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, oats, potatoes and whole grains, and some are found in less nutritionally dense, lower fiber foods… like gummy bears.

It’s not the carbohydrates themselves that are the major cause for concern; it’s all the “extra stuff” they either do or don’t come with. Fiber matters. Vitamins and minerals matter. Phytonutrients matter. You can’t sit around eating processed, nutritionally void carbohydrate sources all day and expect to maximize your muscle growth, fat loss, energy and health, since you’ll miss out on all of those valuable nutrients your body needs for optimal functioning.

Eat 50 grams of carbohydrate in the form of sweet potato and you’ll also be getting a good dose of vitamin A, vitamin C, B vitamins, potassium and fiber, whereas those same 50 grams of carbs in the form of Mountain Dew would deliver next to nothing in terms of additional nutrition.

What About “Fast-Acting Carbs” Vs. “Slow-Acting Carbs”?

“Wait, but what about the absorption speed of each different type of carbohydrate? Fast-acting carbs will spike your insulin and end up as stored fat.” To put it simply, this really isn’t something you need to worry about from the perspective of overall fat loss versus fat storage. This topic always reminds me of the Harvard Professor, Mark Haub, who wanted to prove this by eating nothing but Twinkies, Nutty Bars and powdered donuts for 10 weeks (and simply focused on maintaining a calorie deficit instead) and ended up losing 27 pounds in two months while improving all of his blood health markers at the same time.

At the end of the day, your net gains or losses in body fat will be dictated by your overall net energy consumption versus energy expenditure; NOT by the “speed” of the carbs you consume. Even if a fast absorbing carbohydrate does end up as stored body fat at a faster rate in comparison to a slower absorbing carbohydrate (since the body won’t be able to use all of it right away), it will still eventually be broken down and released for energy later on when it’s needed.

It’s important to keep in mind that fat loss is not an “on/off” switch. Fat gain and fat loss are both happening simultaneously in your body all the time. It makes no difference to your overall body fat levels if your carbs are stored now and burned later, or if they’re burned immediately without being stored at all. Instead, it’s the total energy you consume versus the total energy you expend over the course of the day as a whole that will determine your bottom line gains or losses in fat.

Besides, there’s no way to determine exactly what a “fast-acting carb” or “slow-acting carb” really is anyway, since carbohydrate absorption speeds are dramatically altered when protein and fat are added into the mix. The glycemic rankings of various carbohydrate sources (which indicates how fast they raise blood sugar levels after consumption) are based on consuming them alone in a fasted state.

You’ll rarely be eating carbohydrates in isolation in a fasted state, and when you consume them as part of a complete meal (or when there’s already food in your stomach), those specific glycemic rankings go straight out the window.

So, we’ve established that:

1.) Regardless of where they come from, the majority of carbohydrates themselves are broken down into the simplest form of glucose.

2.) The primary difference between various carbohydrate sources is the nutritional content of the foods they’re contained in.

3.) Carbohydrate absorption speed is a non-issue assuming your overall 24 hour calorie intake remains constant.

Given all of this information, what are the best bodybuilding carbs to base your diet around?

The Best Carb Sources For Muscle Growth & Fat Loss

Choosing the proper sources of carbs for bodybuilding diets is actually very straightforward, and these are the 3 basic steps I’d recommend following.

Step #1: Aim to get at least 80-90% of your total daily carbohydrate intake from minimally processed, higher fiber sources.

These foods will provide your body with the fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients needed to optimize your body composition and gym performance, while keeping your appetite under control. Here’s a good sample list of foods that fall into this category:

-Whole grain bread
-Whole grain cereals

Step #2: Of that 80-90%, get in at least 2 servings of vegetables and 1-2 servings of fruit per day.

These are the ultimate in “healthy bodybuilding carbs” as they’re high in fiber and loaded with valuable micronutrients. Any veggies of your choice will ultimately be fine, but green fibrous vegetables like broccoli, lettuce, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, kale, green beans, spinach, zucchini and cabbage are especially nutrient dense. The same holds true for fruits, though berries such as raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and blackberries are especially nutritious.

Step #3: As long as you’re following steps 1 and 2, the remaining 10-20% of your carbohydrate intake can come from whatever foods you’d like.

Since carbohydrate absorption speed isn’t something you need to worry about within the context of an overall well-balanced diet, and since your fiber and micronutrient needs will already be met by this point, you can feel free to include a bit of “treat food” to fill in the remainder of your carb intake if you’d like. These types of foods will not have any negative impact on your bottom line body composition when eaten in moderation, but just make sure you’re tracking them and that they fit into your overall calorie and carbohydrate totals for the day.

The Best Bodybuilding Carbs Sources: Quick Recap

We can sit around all day endlessly analyzing and over-complicating the issue of bodybuilding carbohydrate intake all we want, but for practical purposes it’s just not necessary. Just get 80-90% of your carb intake from minimally processed/high fiber sources, get in 2 servings of vegetables and 1-2 servings of fruit per day, and then fill in the remainder of your carb intake with any carbs of your preference as long as they’re being tracked. This type of approach will ensure that your nutritional needs are met in terms of fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, while at the same time giving you the dietary flexibility to enjoy your favorite carb sources on a consistent basis without hindering your results.