Eating more carbs, not less, can improve your workouts – Here's why

Cutting back on carbohydrates makes us less active and can actually increase levels of harmful cholesterol

Person eating a high-carb Mediterranean soup with bread
(Image credit: Getty Images)

For decades, we were told that the secret to better health was dropping carbohydrates from our diets. But a new study has found that a high-carb diet actually improves your workout performance and helps you train for longer.

More recently, we've started to realize that learning how to eat healthily is about more than restricting what we eat. Cooking from scratch, reducing processed foods, and eating a mix of fruit, veg, and whole grains are far more important for our overall health.

But the idea that carbs are bad for us and the cause of many physical ailments is still pervasive. That's why some European researchers wanted to take a more scientific approach and explore the effects of high-carb and low-carb diets.

For the study, the team recruited 24 physically active women for two three-week trials. Six of the group were used as a control for the diet program, with the remaining 18 women trying out low carb vs high carb diets over nine weeks.

The participants stuck to the HC diet for three weeks, then had a three-week break before starting the LC trial. After analyzing the results, the researchers found that the HC diet increased the time to exhaustion during exercise, meaning you can train for longer.

Interestingly, it also seemed to lower overall cholesterol levels, including significant drops in LDL cholesterol. This type causes fatty build-ups in your arteries, leading to heart attacks and strokes.

The LC diet had the opposite effect, slightly increasing LDL cholesterol levels in the blood. So this research suggests that eating more carbohydrates helps us stay active for longer and improves our health while cutting back on carbs can be detrimental.

Healthy high-carb foods on a table

(Image credit: Getty Images)

But in that case, why have we all heard that carbs are bad for us? Foods high in carbohydrates, like bread, potatoes, or sugar, are also typically higher in calories, a measure of energy, and we do need some carbs to fuel us through the day.

Our bodies take the carbohydrate and turn it into glucose, a form of sugar used to power our muscles, support our brains, and help along other bodily functions. And while not all sugars are bad, foods with added sugar can contribute to weight gain.

The thinking went that if sugar is bad for our waistlines and carbs turn into sugar, cutting back on carbs should be good for us. But as this study found, HC foods like whole grains, potatoes, and brown rice are beneficial rather than harmful.

It's still best to avoid high-fat junk food, even if it is high in carbohydrates. According to one study, eating this type of food for just five days is enough to change how your muscles process glucose and could lead to insulin resistance or diabetes.

Importantly, if you want to drop pounds or gain strength, you need to couple a healthy diet with physical activity. The best exercise machines to lose weight make a great fat-burning addition to any home gym setup.

You'll also want to invest in a set of the best adjustable dumbbells to build muscle. These are an excellent space-saving option as they replace several weights and can be easily adjusted mid-workout.

James Frew
Fitness Editor

James is a London-based journalist and Fitness Editor at Fit&Well. He has over five years experience in fitness tech, including time spent as the Buyer’s Guide Editor and Staff Writer at technology publication MakeUseOf. In 2014 he was diagnosed with a chronic health condition, which spurred his interest in health, fitness, and lifestyle management.

In the years since, he has become a devoted meditator, experimented with workout styles and exercises, and used various gadgets to monitor his health. In recent times, James has been absorbed by the intersection between mental health, fitness, sustainability, and environmentalism. When not concerning himself with health and technology, James can be found excitedly checking out each week’s New Music Friday releases.