Athletes need to think of carbohydrates as essential nutrients. Technically speaking there is no such thing as an ‘essential’ carbohydrate like there are essential proteins, but this is only because carbohydrates are defined by their energy and we can get glucose (energy) from protein. Nevertheless, for high performance from the active individual, they are basically essential.
Quick refresher: Carbohydrates are the bread, pasta, rice, grains that you first think of. They are also the fruits, vegetables and legumes that come to mind later. Additionally, carbohydrates are the sugars in all dairy. Actually, they are all of the sugars you know. Unless a food is 100% protein or fat, whatever you eat is going to have some carbohydrate in it. Phew, we need them and they are easy to come by. 😉
We generally think of carbohydrates as an energy source. They do offer us energy, but they also offer so many other things including fiber, vitamins, minerals, enzymes and the phytonutrients that are essential to an athlete’s performance.
So let’s talk about all of this and then get it down to practical application: how much, when and what kind
In comparison to fat and protein, carbohydrates provide us quick energy. Within the classification of carbohy rates, however, there is a range of how quickly they provide energy to the body. This is important to think about because as athletes, we need or want very quick energy sometimes- Energy fuels performance. Other times, however, we want a slower distribution of energy. The quickest energy sources are the sugars. I remember being on the swim deck eating jello out of a packet. No scientific study was needed to know that the sugar was giving me a quick burst of energy- almost immediately. I was 6 years old and my parents had it all figured out for that evening meet: Sugar -> race -> crash -> bed.
Perfect. More seriously, though, there are times when there is great value in that quick hit of energy to your brain and muscles. For example, right before the final race of meet when your muscles readily grab the sugar and put it to use. Or, just after a workout, we want carbohydrates with our protein to refuel the muscles. Great! Most of the time, however, the body can’t use a surge of sugar and so most of the time we want to eat carbohydrates in a way that doesn’t cause a surge of (blood) sugar. If we give the body an extra large surge of energy or the muscles are not depleted and therefore can’t absorb the energy right away, the body stores this extra fuel. This is where carbohydrates get the bad rap. When we eat simple carbohydrates, such as breads, sugar, pasta, juice, and we eat them in abundance or poorly timed, we create this blood sugar rollercoaster. It is taxing on the body to have to handle this surge, and puts our energy cycles on a rollercoaster of excess blood sugar to low blood sugar, over and over again. And we are forced to store this excess energy. It is healthier for the whole body to have a more consistent energy source. So how do we do this?
Consistent energy from carbohydrates
Eating carbohydrates that are fibrous and eating a carbohydrate with protein and fat slow the absorption and digestion rate, thus slowing the rate that sugar is available for the body. In these circumstances the body can better prepare and handle the energy. When we eat like this we get a more continuous flow of energy, less surges, and less rollercoaster effect. So, we don’t store the excess and we don’t tax the body with the highs and lows.
So what does that look like?
An apple offers a slower surge of energy than apple juice.
An apple with cheese or peanut butter offers an even slower surge of energy.
A bagel offers a quick surge of energy but a bagel and cream cheese offer a slower surge.
Fresh hot white rice offers a quick surge of energy but pair that with chicken and bok choy for a meal and it slows the absorption and energy availability.
Complex grains like quinoa, farro and buckwheat, as well as legumes all have slower absorption rates. These are complex carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates without fiber, protein or fat can be enjoyed pre or post workout or in moderation.
“Fresh hot white rice” What is that all about – why did I write that?.
Well now the fun begins with food and science. Some grains can become resistant starches. The human body can not break down resistant starches into energy. In many situations this is favorable because they don’t give that dreaded surge of energy. Additionally, these resistant starches feed the good bacteria in our guts. Thus, eating these starches helps our overall health.
Some foods such as plantains, lentils, white beans, are high in resistant starch. Others however, create a resistant starch when they are cooked and then cooled. These foods include, white rice, pasta and potatoes. Yup- I make white rice all of the time. We warm it up for meals and to get the benefit of a resistant starch. The rage about overnight oats is also because they are resistant starches.
We also benefit from the fiber in other complex carbohydrates such as beans and lentils and vegetables. Again, the fiber is good for our digestive systems, our microbiome, our overall health, and as a means to slow the absorption and release of energy from the food to the body. So now that we know a bit more about carbohydrates and can see how they got a bad rap, but you can also see how to enjoy them and avoid the hyped negative consequences.
Carbohydrates are more than just energy
Eat a rainbow!
Carbohydrates are colorful, full of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that the body needs. Phytonutrients are what gives the plant color. Furthermore, the provide our bodies antioxidants, anti-inflammatory agents, immune and hormone support, to name a few benefits. Different colors are different phytonutrients supporting the body in different ways. Thus, we need a diverse selection of carbohydrates for a diversity of these micronutrients. See the chart attached here to see some of the micronutrients and health benefits associated with different colors and foods. Our athletes desperately need antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents in their food because their workouts inherently create oxidative damage and inflammation. We give the body the resources it needs to heal and be stronger from the workout, with food. And the more color we can have on our plate, in our grocery carts, the better.