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December 04, 2022 7 min read

For many years, carbohydrates have been called the culprit of two- or three pounds of unwanted weight and blamed for undesired fitness results. This typically happens when people have trouble losing weight or building muscle.

Therefore, it’s not uncommon for fitness enthusiasts, strength builders, and other gym rats to want to follow a low-carb diet or at least question the impact of carbs on their fitness goals.

The most commonly asked question by strength builders is, “Do you need carbs to build muscle?” In this article, we will explore the effect of carbohydrates on muscle building.

Carb critics and carb lovers have always been in a tug-of-war, with critics saying carbs are unnecessary, while carb lovers sing the praises of carbs. Yet, the truth is that reducing carb intake could negatively impact your ability to reach your muscle gain goals — but why?

Carbs & Muscle Building – Image from Shutterstock

The key is eating the right carbs. You might have heard that you should eat complex carbs and avoid simple carbs, but what does that mean?


Carbohydrates are macronutrients that your body needs besides fats and proteins. Carbs are your body’s energy providers. The carbs you consume are broken down into glucose by your body. Cells use glucose for energy production when they are transported in the bloodstream to tissues, muscles, and organs.

The glucose your body stores is called glycogen. When you really have a hard time getting through a resistance training workout your body’s glycogen levels are likely too low to provide sufficient energy. Carbohydrates fuel glycogen stores, supporting more intense exercise sessions.

If you are a powerlifter you may struggle to push your muscles to the max, and you may have a lower one-rep max, and hit failure quicker. Even if you have less intense strength training routines you may find it more difficult.

Muscle Builder – Image from Shutterstock

Adequate glycogen stores are not only necessary for performance, but it is also crucial for muscle recovery. This is of particular importance for bodybuilders and others who are working on building lean muscle mass.

Make no mistake—protein intake is also important, but if you want the best results, an increase in carbohydrates may do the trick. Researchers found that carbohydrates are necessary for the proper metabolism of proteins.

Therefore, a low-carb diet could limit the ability of your body to use the protein you consume.

A considerable percentage of calories in your diet come from the carbs you consume as a part of your normal diet. They are present in veggies, fruits, fruit juices, beverages, dairy, and rice. While your body needs carbs, not all carbs are created equal, and it is important to understand the difference between simple carbs and complex carbs, the two main types of carbohydrates.

Simple Carbs vs Complex Carbs Explained

Your first step to healthy eating that will also benefit your fitness goals is understanding that not all carbohydrate sources are healthy, nor do all support muscle mass gains. Learning more about the different types of carbs can help you make healthy dietary choices.

Your body breaks down simple carbohydrates more quickly than complex carbs, giving your body a much faster energy dose.

Simple carbs elevate your blood glucose levels quickly, potentially causing significant swings in blood sugar levels, a risk not as serious when you consume complex carbs. The consequences of these spikes may lead to mood swings and increased food cravings.

Consuming too many simple carbs can lead to serious health problems like type 2 diabetes.

In contrast, the effect of complex carbohydrates on the body is quite different. Digestion of complex carbs is slower, so the energy they provide is delivered slowly over time. Their fiber content is also typically higher than simple carbs, making complex carbs a much healthier source of nutrients.

Which is Better Simple or Complex?

Carbohydrates are the providers of energy to your body. They digest slower than simple carbs, making them better for when you are working out. Simple carbs are short-lasting sources of energy and cause sugar rushes or blood sugar spikes while complex carbs provide longer-lasting raised glucose levels, and thus longer lasting energy elevations.

Common Simple Carbs

Not all simple carbs are unhealthy. The best way to explain the difference between healthy and unhealthy simple carbohydrates is by comparing single sugars and compound sugars.

Simple sugars, also called monosaccharides, include glucose, fructose, and galactose.

Compound sugars, also called disaccharides or double sugars, are molecules made of two bonded monosaccharides; common examples are sucrose (glucose + fructose), lactose (glucose + galactose), and maltose (two molecules of glucose).

Fruits and vegetables are simple carbohydrates, but they are part of a healthy diet because along with simple sugars, they also contain fiber and macronutrients, making them compound sugars. Likewise, milk and other dairy products contain simple sugar and lactose, a simple carbohydrate.

Another example of disaccharide, or healthy simple carb, is high-fructose corn syrup, used as a sugar-based sweetener, a mixture of glucose and fructose. However, it is often combined with corn starch and used as a sweetener in processed foods, which changes it from healthy to harmful.

In contrast, unhealthy simple carbohydrates are those with added single sugar molecules like candy, syrups, table sugar, baked goods, etc.

Simple carbs without added sugars, but with naturally occurring sugars are also healthy, for example, molasses, honey, dairy, vegetables, and whole grains.

Which Simple Carbohydrates Should You Avoid?

Unhealthy Simple Carbs – Image from Shutterstock

It is not difficult to overdo simple carbs and added sugars; most people do.

The carbs you should make a point to limit include:

  • White rice
  • White bread
  • Refined pasta
  • Refined cereals
  • Sodas, Cola, and other sweetened beverages
  • Chocolate candy bars
  • Sports drinks
  • Baked goods and pastries
  • Cookies and crackers
  • Junk food or processed foods

Ways to Reduce Simple Carbs in Your Diet

The first rule — always hydrate. Staying hydrated does not only avoid dehydration. It also promotes digestion and reduces those hunger pains that can drive you to consume simple carbs because they are so handy. Water has zero calories and makes you feel full.

Cola vs. Water

Simple carbs like cola and sodas will raise your insulin levels, and they can harm your health in other ways. Foods rich in simple carbohydrates also raise blood triglyceride levels, referring to blood fat.

In addition, having high blood triglyceride levels increases the risk of diabetes, pancreas problems, heart diseases like cholesterol problems, coronary artery disease, and fatty liver,

Instead of the unhealthy versions, you can replace sugary drinks with lemon-flavored water and promote weight loss.

Most baked foods and pastries have loads of simple carbs and sugars which harm your body. Instead, reach for salads or fruit if your sweet tooth wants to take over.

Substitute foods made with white flour with whole grain versions. For example, substitute white rice with brown rice, and white bread with wholewheat brown bread. Adopting a nutrient-rich diet can also promote a healthy weight.

However, do not focus on carbs only. It is important to ensure every meal includes the right amount of healthy fats and protein to keep you feeling full and further prevent hunger pains.

Another way to maintain health by optimizing the nutritional value of your meals is proper planning.

If you pre-plan your meals, there won’t be situations like last-minute rushing to eat simple carbohydrates. All this doesn’t mean you can never have your favorite foods. Instead, it means that you should ensure that most of the carbs you consume are complex carbs, and limit the simple carbs to special occasions.

If you keep that balance, you should not have problems building muscle mass.


Complex carbohydrates are so-called because they have longer sugar molecule chains than simple carbs and are also called polysaccharides. Complex carbs provide a stable source of energy because they take longer to digest.

During the digestion process, your body breaks down sugar molecules in the complex carbohydrates into glucose which your body uses for energy. Most complex carbs provide minerals, fiber, vitamins, and phytochemicals.

Which are the Best Carbs for Muscle Growth?

Healthy Complex Carbs – Image from Shutterstock

Your individual goals will determine which types of carbs would be best for you. Do you need fast spurts of energy or sustained energy?

Foods typically regarded as “healthier” carbs include:

  • Millet

  • Cucumber

  • Black beans

  • Whole wheat pasta

  • Oatmeal

  • Corn

  • Spinach

  • Quinoa

  • Cantaloupe

  • Sweet potatoes

  • Fruit

  • Vegetables

  • Sweet potatoes

  • Starchy Vegetables

  • Legumes like Chickpeas, Lentils, Peas, etc.

  • Whole grain foods like whole wheat bread and whole wheat pasta

Do Complex and Simple Carbs Have Different Effects on Weight?

If you are working out for weight loss, you should understand that your body breaks down both types of carbohydrates into energy, and stores them in limited quantities. However, if your body doesn’t use the stored energy for exercise or other physical activities, it is converted and stored as body fat.

Since your body breaks down simple carbs easier, you have limited time to use the energy before it is converted and stored as fat, causing weight gain.

Therefore, you would do much better if you consume complex carbs if your goal is to lose weight. Your body takes longer to break them down, and they don’t cause blood sugar spikes and mood swings. You also have more time to work out and use the energy before your body converts it into fat.

In a Nutshell

The most important takeaway is that your body needs carbohydrates to provide energy. However, it is up to you to manage your carbohydrate intake in a way that will help you reach your goals. For long-lasting energy, simple carbs are best replaced with complex carbs.

You can achieve long-lasting energy by switching simple carbs for complex carbs. At the same time, you will have control over hunger and reduce the buildup of stored body fat.

Ultimately, it’s all about maintaining a healthy and balanced diet.

Optimal body function needs carbs, protein, and fat. When you provide your body with the necessary nutrients, it can respond more effectively to the physical exercises you perform.

Although there is no bad food, simple carbs are always better consumed in moderation.

Arrange a consultation with a dietitian on your carb intake for building lean muscle mass. Likewise, ask for guidance to create a muscle-building or weight-loss meal plan with health benefits.