Carbohydrates are the focus of a lot of fad diets, but whether they want you to go low carb or high carb depends on that specific diet. What are carbs, and why are they important? How do they affect athletic performance? What is fiber, and why is it so important? What are some good sources of carbohydrates? These are some of the questions I’m going to answer in this article. My goal is not to make you an expert on carbohydrates, but to answer the basic questions to build your base of knowledge so you can know where to start when evaluating your diets, but more on that later.
Carbohydrates are the preferred energy source in the human body and contain four calories per gram. Carbohydrates are comprised of sugars and are split into two different categories of carbohydrates: simple carbs and complex carbs. Simple carbs are broken down quickly in the body and are composed of one or two different sugars. Complex carbs on the other hand are composed of at least three sugars and are not digested as quickly as simple carbs. Fiber is a type of complex carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are absorbed in the small intestine and are used to fuel the central nervous system and provide energy to working muscle groups. Carbohydrates’ function of providing energy to muscles is why they are such a critical macronutrient in performance nutrition, especially in strength athletes and athletes engaging in any high intensity training.
There is a trend in the fitness industry towards low carb diets which can be very helpful in certain types of athletes, but it is important to understand the reasoning for such diets and how each diet affects physical performance. For example, a low carb diet would be beneficial for someone trying to lose fat. When an individual consumes a lot of carbs and provides the body with more energy than it needs to facilitate whatever that individuals caloric burn is, the body stores the extra energy as fat. That being said, as with all things related to the human body it is not a black and white “eat this and this will happen”. Carbohydrates are shown to have a correlation with fat burn during exercise, but there is more research needed in this area due to the fact that the mechanism responsible for this correlation is not well understood. For an athlete looking to build muscle or maintain a high level of physical activity, we would recommend a diet that is higher in carbohydrates. Although fat is a more energy dense macronutrient, carbohydrates are utilized much more readily in the body which will help athletes maintain a high level of performance. In addition to this, appropriate carbohydrate intake will prevent the body from using protein as an energy source, which means that more protein will be available to build and maintain muscle mass. It is important to understand WHY you are fueling the body the way you are when considering which type of diet will be most beneficial.
Regardless of which type of diet you are going with, there are several things to consider when it comes to tracking your carbohydrate intake. First and most importantly, TRACK YOUR FIBER INTAKE. This is a critical part of tracking carbohydrates that many people overlook. We recommend that each athlete consumes around fourteen grams of carbs for every one thousand calories in the diet. Fiber is important for digestive health and has also been shown to reduce cholesterol in the blood stream. In addition to this, tracking fiber will ensure that your carbohydrates are coming from healthy sources of carbohydrates such as fruit and vegetables. Because fiber is a complex carbohydrate and contains polysaccharides that can not be digested in the human body, fiber helps you feel fuller longer, which will aid people on calorie restrictive diets who start feeling hungry between meals.
Now that we have covered the basics of what carbohydrates are, lets look at some good sources of carbohydrates along with sources of carbohydrates to absolutely avoid. As we discussed early, foods that are high in fiber are going to be the best sources of carbohydrates. These are usually going to be fruits and vegetables. Some examples are fruits, vegetables, sweet potatoes, rice, yams, plantains, quinoa, whole wheat, and oats. Examples of carbs that are okay but you would want to limit are pastas, white potatoes, cereals, and cream of wheat. Finally, the carbs that you want to avoid are things containing a lot of simple sugars such as soda, chips, candy, white bread, and sugary baked goods. As always, if you have any questions or would like to dive into the rabbit hole of performance nutrition, be sure to let us know!
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