An Athlete's Guide to Carbohydrates

There is a lot of nutritional information out there, but carb confusion still reigns supreme. Fad diets constantly send us the message that carbohydrates are fattening. But this is just plain untrue!

The truth is, any food can be fattening—if you eat too much of it. Excess calories, regardless of the source, cause weight gain. If you eat too much of any food, without using those calories for activity or metabolic function, your weight will increase. It’s as simple as that.

Unfortunately, our culture still vilifies the carb. But think about how carbohydrates are usually prepared and served—pasta, rice, and potatoes are served with high-calorie sauces or cooked with a lot of fat: butter on bread, sour cream on potatoes, and creamy sauces on pasta. The carbs can become a vehicle for more caloric foods, and when eaten in excess can indeed be fattening.

Carbs are your body’s main source of fuel and are essential for life—especially an active life! They are the preferred fuel source for your brain, body, and nervous system. When your carbohydrate intake is too low, your body will break down muscle for fuel—not a good idea for an athlete wanting to get stronger, improve peak performance, and boost muscle recovery. In other words, athletes NEED carbs! 

But what kind of carbs? Carbohydrates are divided into two categories: simple and complex. Simple carbs are metabolized quickly, spiking your blood sugar and delivering a fast boost of energy (sugar high, anyone?). Simple carbs include table sugar, corn syrup, and honey, while more naturally occurring simple sugars are found in fresh fruits, vegetables, and milk products. These are the carbs to eat before, during, and immediately after exercise, because they quickly replenish your body’s ready-to-use energy supply.

Michael Scott carbo-loading before a race.

Michael Scott carbo-loading before a race.

Complex carbohydrates—generally thought to be the more nutritious carb—include starch and fiber, and take longer for your body to break down. Fiber is found abundantly in plants, cereal grains (no, not Coco-Puffs), fruits, veggies, and legumes. Rich sources of starch include rice, whole-grain wheat, and corn. And because they take longer to break down during digestion, they provide a controlled release of energy throughout the day, rather than a huge spike and subsequent drop. But while their effects on the body are different, simple and complex carbohydrates both have a place in an athlete’s diet

A diet rich in carbs, starches, and fibers is important to any performance nutrition and weight management plan. Fill up on complex, nutrient-dense carbohydrates throughout the day, and reserve simple carbs for just before, during, and immediately after exercise. And remember: carbs in and of themselves don’t cause weight gain—but eating more calories than your body will use does. Just another reason to fuel your body with energy, and stay active!

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Mike Bewley, MA, CSCS, C-SPN, USAW-I is a guest contributor to the Volt blog. He is a Strength and Conditioning Coach at Clemson University, a specalist in sports nutrition, and the founder of online nutrition platform NutraCarina.