Top 5 Carbohydrates that Keep You Lean


Carbohydrates (carbs) are easily the most misunderstood macronutrient. With the recent popularity of paleo, gluten-free, and grain-free diets, it's easy to fall into thinking that all grains and grain-based carbs are bad.

That's simply not the case. At least not in the philosophy we use here at Devoted Strength. 

I prefer to teach our clients that carbs must be chosen and used strategically. That means choosing the right carbohydrate sources at the proper time.

Cereals, crackers, pretzels, granola bars, and a wide variety of other processed carbs don't make the cut!

Before I go too much further, however, it's prudent to discuss how we classify our carb intake into two distinct types; Vegetables & Fruit sources versus Starchy carb sources.

Vegetables and Fruit

Vegetable and fruit sources are simply that; veggies and fruit. They're extremely powerful carb sources in that they provide a tremendous amount of vitamins, minerals, and fiber at a relatively low calorie and sugar ratio. 

In other words, for the amount of calories you eat from veggies and fruit, you get a ton of bang for your buck!

How much veggies and how much fruit you ask?  

This will depend on your goal. As an overall recommendation, we like to have our clients try to eat at minimum 5-7 total servings of veggies and/or fruits per day. 

From there, if you have a fat-loss goal, we recommend eating those veggies and fruits at a ratio of about 5:1.  For every serving of fruit you eat, you should eat 5 servings of veggies.

For a muscle gain or performance goal, that ratio can look a little more like 3:1. 

In general though, eat a wide variety of veggies and fruits throughout the day and week. "Eat the rainbow" sounds a bit cliche at this point, but it's true.

Serving sizes

single servings of broccoli and berries

single servings of broccoli and berries

So what does a serving of veggies of fruit look like? Make a fist. The size of your fist is one serving of veggies or fruit. Yes, it's that simple.

Starchy Carbs

Starchy carbs still can provide a high fiber, vitamin, and mineral content for your body, but they typically come with a higher ratio of calories. 

These are things like pastas, breads, potatoes, oatmeal, quinoa, rice, and other whole grains.

Serving size

serving-size potato

serving-size potato

A single serving of starchy carbs should fit in the cupped palm of your hand. Potato the size of football? Unless you're the Jolly Green Giant, I suggest downsizing.

Earn Your (Starchy) Carbs

We teach the phrase "Earn your carbs" here at Devoted Strength. This refers directly to starchy carbs, but can also include some of the more carb-dense fruits like bananas. 

Think of carbohydrates at the energy your body uses to do hard work. If you had or have planned a tough workout for the day, then you will be earning those carbs. If not, then it's a day to use them more sparingly.

Timing is critical.

Here's how I use the "earn your carbs" mantra...

post-workout shake and banana

post-workout shake and banana

My day begins at 4:00AM and I typically workout between 7:30 and 9:30AM. Usually for just over an hour. One those days, I eat a diet slightly more dense in starchy carbs... I'm earning them without a doubt. 

On those hard training days, I like to focus my starch around my workouts. As I recommend that both my muscle-gain and fat-loss clients do. 

This means I will eat about 1-1.5 servings of starch with breakfast at 4:30AM. I will have a banana with my post-workout shake, then I wait until dinner time (7-8PM) to have another serving of starchy carbs. 

Why do I do this? I've learned over the past 15 years of experimenting that my body functions best for my workouts if I have a quality starch at dinner time. That way my body is fueled and ready to go the next day. 

I typically recommend a starch with breakfast, just to be sure your body is good-to-go for the day. But, if lifestyle, workout schedule, and family dynamics dictate, the recommendations will change to Post-Workout and Dinner time or some other combination. 

The rest of the day

Chicken breast, green peppers, rainbow carrots

Chicken breast, green peppers, rainbow carrots

During the middle of the day, my diet focuses on a large intake of fresh veggies and moderate amounts of fruit. While my goals are to gain muscle and strength, I find that I stay leaner this way. In order to increase my overall calorie intake for gaining strength and muscle, I simply increase the servings of starch at breakfast or post-workout. 

The most important thing to remember is that you have to be observant to how your body reacts to the timing and adjust accordingly. This is something I work with clients in detail on.

Top 5 Carbs that Keep You Lean

So what are my top 5 Carb sources?

  • Vegetables and Fruit
    It seems obvious that I will look to these guys first. As should you. The wide variety of vitamins and minerals will keep you body feeling healthy and your metabolism peaked.
  • Old Fashioned and Steel Cut Oats
    Old fashioned oats are still able to be cooked rather quickly in the microwave, but they not nearly as process as instant oats. Steel Cut Oats (slow oats) need to be cooked for a while on the stove top of over night in the croc-pot.

    Old fashioned oats are my go-to. I will eat them at breakfast or add them to any meal that's missing a high-quality starch to fuel my workouts. Last night, for example, I had a giant spinach salad with chicken and other veggies. I added oatmeal to round it out for today's workout. 

    Just stay away from the instant flavored stuff. There's way too much sugar in there!
old fashioned oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa

old fashioned oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa

  • Quinoa and other whole grains.
    Quinoa, Long-grain/wild rice, brown rice, barley, etc. These guys are all power-packed and high quality. They typically show up at dinner time for me, but I know some who like them with breakfast. 
  • Ezekiel Bread and products
    Toast, english muffins, tortillas, sandwiches... these guys are great for all. Sprouted grain breads are probably the single best type of bread you can eat. A sprouted grain has superior nutrient content and will digest more readily than even whole wheat products.

    These are my go-to breads for toast at breakfast or the occasional panini at dinner.
  • Potatoes
    Last but certainly not least, these guys are at the bottom of my list for one reason. The simply don't give me the same energy levels for my morning workouts as the others on this list. I'm not sure why, it's just something I've discovered over the past year or so.

    With that being said, potatoes are certainly a top-notch starchy carb and they taste awesome! 
  • (BONUS) Kodiak Cakes
    These are a recent discovery for me and I've yet to make a final determination as to if they will stay in my diet. I'm a huge pancake fan though, and these guys make a rock-solid protein pancake mix that's definitely worth a solid look. 

Until next time