As the New Year starts, I hear way too many athletes vowing to “knock off carbs” for their nutrition resolution. Most intend to eat less sugar (OK). Some plan to cut out bread, pasta, potato and starchy foods (not OK), and others plan to also limit fruits and veggies (bad idea). The reality is, carbs should be the foundation of your sports diet.
By carbs, 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 word “carb.”
- 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 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 also in the liver (where it gets released, as needed, into the bloodstream to prevent your blood sugar from dropping).
- Some carbs 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 carbs. Obviously, you want to eat more of the best 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 carbs are targeted at unfit people, not athletes.
Reasons to keep carbs in your sports diet
Here are five reasons why you, a physically fit athlete, want to include carbohydrate in your sports diet.
1. Carbohydrates fuel muscles.
Athletes who restrict carbs 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 carb recommendations for an optimal sports diet:
Amount of exercise/day
gram carb/lb. body weight
gram carb/kg body weight
|1 hour moderate exercise||2.5 to 3||5 to 7|
|1-3 h endurance exercise||2.5 to 4.5||6 to 10|
|>4-5 h extreme exercise||3.5 to 5.5||8 to 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 carb/day. That's at least 90 g (360 calories) carb per meal and 50 g (200 cals) carb at each of two snacks. This is more carbs 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 balances 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 Tbsp 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)
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 carb 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 carb intake?
2. 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.
3. Avoiding carbs 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.)
4. Quality carbs (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.
5. 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.
Carb abuse is the bigger problem than carbs 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 carbs a bad name in the first place. Give it a try?