Thank goodness the low carb mania has died down again for what I’m hoping is forever, but probably not – it seems to creep up every few years. The repudiation of the keto diet in the recent diet rankings has definitely taken it out of the news for a while. Honestly, I don’t think I can answer any more questions about it without rolling my eyes, so that’s a good thing.
The carbohydrate – or “carb” for short – has always taken a hit in diet circles. I get it, too much pasta and white bread can pack on the pounds if you’re not careful, but is it bad for you? You might be surprised that the answer is a big NO. They are not bad for you.
We just have some habits that make us convinced that we need to remove them from our diets. Habits like eating giant servings of pasta and eating only white bread.
WHY ARE CARBOHYDRATES ESSENTIAL FOR ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE?
- Carbohydrates effectively fuel the brain, central nervous system, and muscles. The body can easily use this energy source to provide a quick energy source for all intensities of exercise.
- While carbohydrate storage is limited, you can store it in your muscles as glycogen. These are your reserves.
WHAT FOODS CONTAIN CARBOHYDRATES?
Believe it or not, carbs are not just bread and pasta. Fruits, vegetables, and dairy also have carbohydrates. So there you have it. Every fruit, vegetable, legume, nut, seed, grain, and dairy food has carbohydrates. They may also contain other nutrients such as fat and protein, but that’s good news – it means that you get more nutrition and that’s a good thing.
HOW MUCH DO I NEED DAILY FOR PERFORMANCE?
The guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the Dietitians of Canada suggest the following for carbohydrate intake each day. The recommendations are based on the intensity of the exercise and duration of exercise.
Low Intensity Exercise (less than 1 hour of exercise per day): 3-5 grams/kg/body weight/day
Moderate Intensity Exercise (about 1 hour/day): 5-7 grams/kg/body weight/day
Moderate to High Intensity Exercise/Endurance exercise lasting 1-3 hours/day: 6-10 grams/kg/body weight/day
High Intensity Exercise (4-5 hours per day – marathon, ironman, Tour de France): 8-12 g/kg/body weight/day
So, how does this translate into real information?
For a 125 pound (~57 kg) runner participating in 1 hour of running and 30 minutes of heavy calisthenics, she will need anywhere from 340-568 grams of carbohydrates spread throughout the day.
What does that look like*?
1 cup rolled oats for breakfast with 1/2 cup milk, 2 tablespoons honey and 1 cup fresh blueberries: 113 grams carbs
Turkey Sandwich on 2 slices whole wheat bread, 1 banana, 1 cup carrot sticks with 2 tablespoons ranch dressing, 5 ounces greek yogurt: 78 grams carbohydrates
4 ounces Roasted chicken breast, 1 whole wheat dinner roll, 1 cup roasted potatoes, 1 cup steamed broccoli, 1 homemade brownie: 81 grams carbohydrates
1/4 cup peanuts: 6 grams
granola bar: 16 grams
1 orange: 15 grams
8 ounces chocolate milk: 24 grams
The total amount for the day: 332 grams of carbohydrate (pretty close)
WHAT HAPPENS IF I DON’T EAT ENOUGH CARBOHYDRATES?
There are diet trends that are not immune to finding themselves into the athlete’s world. There is a trend to “train low” or to train after you’ve skipped a meal, repeated a training session after draining your glycogen reserves, or maintain a low carbohydrate day while training. You may think that this will help your body use carbs better when you have them available, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite.
Training in the absence of carbohydrate in the body can impair performance, increase the risk for getting sick, increase damage to your muscles, and increase the possibility that your body will use protein for fuel. It can also impact your mental clarity, which impacts feelings of fatigue and mood.
Carbs are important, but that doesn’t take away the importance of all nutrients (protein, fats, fiber, vitamins, minerals) – they all work together.
Carbs are the most efficient form of fuel for the body for athletes and those eating for performance.
Choose nutrient dense, high quality carbohydrates during periods of training.
*All carbohydrate counts are approximate
Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance