"Cutting Through The Carb Confusion" was written by Pip Taylor. Pip is an accredited sports nutritionist and accredited dietitian, professional triathlete, author and mother of two. Pip recently had her first book published, 'The Athlete’s Fix’. Check out Pip's favorite snacks for fueling workouts here.
Carbs have had a tough time as of late. They seem to have replaced fat as the dietary ‘bad guy’ and even amongst athletes, for whom the message for many years was about eating as many carbs as possible, support is wavering. And while it is certainly true that our fear of fat was unfounded, and indeed caused much harm in the diet and health stakes – it is also unfair to place the blame of our health woes solely in the camp of carbohydrates. The truth is that nutrient quality and the source and form our food takes may be more important than the actual macronutrient profile. In other words, there are carbs and then there are carbs. Just as there are different types of fats – some of which are beneficial and others which are detrimental to health – so too are there different forms of carbohydrates. And while they may all provide energy – something important for most athletes – the way they act and react within the body is not equal and it is these differences that are important to understand in the context of both health as well as athletic performance.
What is a carbohydrate?
Carbohydrates are nutrients found in a wide variety of foods. They are broken down by the digestive system to form glucose. The pancreas then secretes insulin to help move glucose from the blood and into the body cells where it can be used for energy, stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver or excess is converted to fat. It is a key fuel source, especially during high intensity exercise. Certain carbohydrates (resistant starches and prebiotics) are also needed to help feed healthy gut bacteria. A healthy gut microbiome is critical for many aspects of health, and of course a general platform of good health is key for consistent training and improvements in athletic performance.
Where are carbohydrates found? Carbohydrates are found as sugars and starches in all the obvious sources such as cereals, bread, pasta, potato, rice, sugars (and cakes, biscuits, soda, candy etc) but also all fruits and vegetables, legumes, dairy foods, nuts and seeds. In fact unless the food is a fat or oil or a meat (or fish or poultry) protein then it will always contain carbohydrates.
Do athletes need carbs?
Athletes have long been told to load up on carbohydrates but more recently there has been a shift. Modern guidelines no longer recommend high carbohydrate intakes for athletes but recommend a more considered approach in terms of intake and timing. High fat diets are gaining popularity for health as well as performance reasons especially amongst endurance athletes. And certainly there are some promising scientific studies as well as anecdotal reports in both health and athletic success utilising a low carbohydrate diet. And indeed there is plenty of evidence to suggest that endurance athletes can also benefit from training in a fasted state to maximize fat adaptation and encourage substrate metabolic flexibility.
However it is still recommended that when an athlete is under a high training load stress, and/or partaking in high intensity exercise, then carbohydrate availability is important. Supply of glycogen allows for maximal training efforts, (as well as supporting the immune system and is essential for adequate hormone production) and ultimately adaptations that lead to better performances come race day. This is not to say that diets need be high carbohydrate – carbohydrate availability is different to intake and depends on timing - merely that requirements of training and racing should be matched.
So how many carbs does an athlete need?
This depends. And varies. The simple, answer is that an athlete needs as many carbohydrates as best meets goals of training and fuel requirements as well as body composition and nutrition goals. Timing may be as important if not more so than a daily amount. In other words periodising and strategically timing the intake of carbohydrates, so that you are sometimes training in a state of low carbohydrate availability and at other times with high availability. (It is also important to note that there is no formal definition of what is meant by high or low carbohydrate – which can further confuse interpretation of study results.)
In practical terms then: For racing and key workouts where maximal efforts are the goal, ensure glycogen stores are optimized. At other times, carbohydrate intake can be moderated.
What types of carbs are best?
Even when energy needs are high, athletes need to find the balance between additional fuel and choosing foods that also support health and wellbeing. In other words refined carbohydrates and sugars will definitely provide energy but won’t add much in the way of nutrients and indeed will actively promote inflammation. Choose natural and whole foods as much as possible - and supplementing strategically with sports foods or more refined energy sources for races and key workouts where maximizing training adaptations is the goal. The simpler carbs will generally have a higher glycemic index – a rating of how quickly they will cause blood sugars to rise. Rapid supply of blood sugar can be beneficial if in the midst of a high intensity demanding workout or race, but at other times a more steady supply of energy that doesn’t spike blood sugars or prompt an insulin response is more beneficial to health. Planning intake of foods and timing wisely will help you align both health as well as performance goals.
Here are some of the best unprocessed carbs that will supply plenty of energy (as well as lots of other nutritional benefits – nutrients, anti-inflammatories and antioxidants) for athletes.
Is there a time when refined carbs or simple sugars are beneficial?
- Sweet Potatoes – orange, purple, white – different colors and different flavors but all provide potassium, manganese, Vitamins A, C and various B vitamins, fiber and 27g carbs in every cup.
- Banana – the perennial favourite of almost every athlete. Conveniently packaged and a great source of potassium, magnesium, Vitamin C and prebiotics. There are around 25g carbs in a medium banana.
- Dates – are relatively high in natural sugar for fast energy, but have it over refined sugar in the nutrient contents: potassium, iron, B vitamins, Vitamins A and K, copper, magnesium and plenty of fiber.
- Oats – high in beta-glucan (a type of fiber) which has been shown to help reduce cholesterol levels, oats supply slow energy as well as manganese and phosphorous and unique anti-inflammatories.
- Rice – lots of energy and fiber plus nutrients such as manganese and selenium. White rice does not boast the same levels of nutrients (much are stripped away in the polishing process) but is a great lower fiber, easily digestible and low allergen option for quick energy pre-race or pre-workout. Cooked and cooled rice is also a great source of resistant starch beneficial for healthy gut bacteria.
- Berries – packed with antioxidants, fiber and folate berries are a great source of carbohydrates for athletes.
- Yogurt – protein, Vitamin D, calcium, probiotics, healthy fats and carbohydrates yogurt makes a great choice for a post workout recovery snack.
During and/or immediately before/after intense exercise such as a key workout or racing then simple sugars and refined carbohydrates may be the best bet. The insulin spike is beneficial in forcing glycogen into depleted muscles and stimulating recovery. During exercise these refined sources are readily absorbed and utilized for energy – placing less stress on the digestive system and delaying fatigue and performance decline. Refined sources are also lower in fiber which may be easier on the digestive system immediately before and/or during exercise. This is when sports foods such as drinks, chews or bars can be helpful in supporting immediate energy demands.