By Nancy Clark
As the New Year starts, I hear way too many athletes vowing to “knock off carbs”, or at least eat far fewer carbohydrates for their nutrition resolution. Most intend to eat less sugar (OK). Some plan to cut out bread, pasta, potato and other starchy carbohydrate foods (not OK). And, others plan to also limit fruits and veggies (bad idea). The reality is, carbohydrates should be the foundation of your sports diet.
By carbohydrates, I mean primarily fruits, vegetables, beans and grains. But little is wrong with a sprinkling of added sugar (less than 10% of your total daily calories) or enjoying a meal with refined white flour (as long your other meals include whole grains). To be sure we are all on the same page, let’s define this much-maligned words “carb” and “carbohydrate .”
- Carbohydrates include both sugars and starches. They are biochemically similar. For example, green peas (and other veggies) are sweet when young; their sugar converts into starch as they mature. Unripe bananas (and other fruits) are starchy when young and become sweeter as they ripen. Their starch converts into sugar.
- Both types of carbohydrates – sugars and starches – are equal sources of muscle fuel. Whether you eat a starchy potato or sugary candy, the digested end-product is the same: glucose.
- Glucose feeds your brain, gets stored as glycogen in muscles (for fuel during hard, extended exercise) and in the liver (where it gets released, as needed, into the bloodstream to prevent your blood sugar from dropping).
- Some carbohydrates are more nourishing than others. Added sugars (white sugar, maple syrup, honey, agave, gels, chomps, sport drinks, etc.) lack the vitamins and minerals that invest in good health. Fruits, veggies, beans and dairy, however, are health promoting sources of carbohydrates. Obviously, you want to eat more of the best types of carbohydrates and less of the rest.
- Physically fit athletes easily metabolize sugars and starches. Unfit people, however, often end up with high blood sugar and pre- or Type II diabetes. Note: Most messages to cut out carbohydrates are targeted at unfit people, not athletes.
Reasons to keep carbohydrates in your sports diet
Here are five reasons why you, a physically fit athlete, want to include carbohydrates in your sports diet.
Carbohydrates fuel muscles. Athletes who restrict carbohydrates pay the price: “dead legs” and inability to exercise at their best. If you routinely train hard 4 to 6 days a week, carbs should be the foundation of each meal. Here are the International Olympic Committee’s research-based carbohydrate recommendations for an optimal sports diet:
|Amount of exercise/day||gram carb/lb. body wt.||gram carb/kg body wt.|
|1 hour moderate exercise||2.5 to 3||5-7|
|1-3 h endurance exercise||2.5 to 4.5||6-10|
|>4-5 h extreme exercise||3.5 to 5.5||8-12|
For a 150-lb athlete who trains hard 1 hour a day and remains somewhat active the rest of the day, the target intake should be 375 to 450 grams carbohydrates/day. That’s at least 90 g (360 calories) carb per meal and 50 g (200 calories) carbohydrates at each of two snacks. This is more carbohydrates than in the ever-popular (low-carb) breakfast protein shake with a few berries, a lunchtime spinach salad and a dinner with a pile of broccoli but no rice. Here’s what 375 grams of carbohydrate looks like (without the protein and fat that balance the diet):
B: 1 cup dry oats (50g) + 1 banana (25g) + 1 T honey (15g)
L: 2 slices whole wheat bread (46g) + 1 can Progresso lentil soup (60g)
Sn: 1/3 cup raisins (40g) + 1 T dark chocolate chips (10)
D: 1.5 c cooked brown rice (65g) + 14-oz bag frozen broccoli (20g)
Sn: 8 ounces vanilla Greek yogurt (20) + 1 Nature Valley Granola Bar (30)
How much better can you train with an appropriate carbohydrate intake?
While I am sure many of you are rolling your eyes right now and thinking, “I could never eat that many carbs without getting fat,” this is an appropriate carbohydrate intake, believe it or not, and these 1,500 carb-calories can fit into your day’s 2,500+ calorie budget. I invite you to be curious and experiment. How much better can you train with an appropriate carbohydrate intake?
Summary of why you want to eat carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are not fattening. Despite popular belief, carbohydrates are not inherently fattening. Excess calories at the end of the day are fattening. Excess calories of carbs (bread, bagels, pasta) are actually less fattening than are excess calories of fat (butter, salad oil, cheese). That’s because converting excess calories of carbohydrate into body fat requires more energy than does converting excess calories of dietary fat into body fat.
Avoiding carbohydrates can lead to food binges. By routinely including carbs in your daily sports diet, you take the power away from them and will be less likely to binge. That is, if you “cut out carbs” but then succumb to eating the entire breadbasket and the mountain of pasta when at a restaurant, you are doing what I call last chance eating. You know, last chance to eat bread and pasta so I’d better stuff them in today because my no-carb diet restarts tomorrow. (Ugh.)
Quality carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, grains and beans) promote a healthy microbiome, which reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Fiber-rich carbs feed the zillions of microbes that live in your gut. These microbes have an incredible influence on your mood, weight, immune system and overall health. Every major medical association recommends we consume a strong intake of fruits, veggies and whole grains. Do athletes on a low carb diet miss out on these health benefits? TBD.
Carbohydrate adds pleasure to your sports diet. Is something wrong with eating some yummy foods, like pasta and bagels? How about chocolate milk for a fun recovery food? Given that 10% of daily calories can come from refined added sugars, most athletes have about 240-300 calories (60 to 75g) of added sugar a day in their calorie budget. You can easily ingest that sugar via sport drinks, gels and sweetened protein shakes. You can also enjoy one or two cookies or a slice of birthday cake—guilt-free.
Carbohydrate abuse is the bigger problem than carbohydrates in moderation. The easiest way to prevent carb abuse is to eat satiating breakfasts and lunches (with carbs + protein) that fill your tummy, prevent afternoon hunger and curb cravings for sugary sweets later in the day. Preventing hunger minimizes the cravings that give carbohydrates a bad name in the first place. Give it a try?
You will find training in areas such as senior health and fitness, fitness assessment, senior strength training, back stability, nutrition for special dietary needs, lifestyle wellness coaching and cancer exercise. The home study continuing education course Nutrition for Special Dietary Needs is definitely one not to miss if you are interested in fitness nutrition for special populations!
- Below, P. et al. Fluid and carbohydrate ingestion independently improve performance during 1 hour of intense exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc 27:200-210, 1995.
- Neufer P. et al. Improvements in exercise performance: effects of carbohydrate feedings and diet. J Appl Physiol 62(3):983, 1987
- Schabort, E. et al. The effect of a preexercise meal on time to fatigue during prolonged cycling exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc 31(3):464-471, 1999.
- Hawley J and Burke L. Carbohydrate availability and training adaptation: effects on cell metabolism. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 38(4):152-60, 2010.
Technically speaking, Nancy is a registered dietitian (RD) and board certified specialist in sports dietetics (CSSD). Practically speaking, she is a food coach and nutrition educator. She offers one-on-one personalized sports nutrition counseling to casual exercisers and competitive athletes at her private practice in the Boston-area (Newton) as well as online in her virtual office. She teaches her clients how to have more energy, lose undesired body fat, enjoy a winning sports diet—and feel confident about their food choices.
Nancy’s best-selling Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook has sold over 750,000 copies. It is now available in its 6th edition (2019) and available via her website, and also Human Kinetics and Amazon. Her food guides for new runners, marathoners, soccer players and bicyclists, are handy resources. They include tips on daily eating and how to effectively lose weight.