The Truth about Carbohydrates

I know a girl who refuses to eat a banana because it has too many carbs. A banana…..seriously? I was once scared to touch carbohydrates as well but never a banana. I think many people, athletes included, have a preconceived notion that carbohydrates are bad for you. I certainly thought they were when I started to change my diet. But then I read Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook. (Highly recommended.)

“Carbohydrates are fattening”

This is not true. Excess calories are fattening, not carbohydrates; in particular excess calories from fats are fattening. People are often scared to touch foods that contain carbohydrates (like a banana) because they have been brainwashed into thinking carbohydrates are bad. Look at the break down: there are 4 calories in 1g of carbohydrate, 4 calories in 1g protein, 7 calories in 1g of alcohol and 9 calories in 1g fat. So when you look at the caloric break down carbohydrates and proteins are equal. Yet protein gets all of the good press now a days and not carbohydrates. What gives?

You need carbohydrates to fuel muscles. According to Nancy Clark, a well known sports nutritionist, “Carbohydrates are necessary in any athletes diet to provide the energy needed for muscles to perform.” Glycogen is a key component for endurance athletes as it provides energy for the body. Clark explains, “The carbohydrate in the muscles is used during exercise. The carbohydrate in the liver gets released into the bloodstream to maintain a normal blood glucose level and feed the brain (as well as muscles.) These limited carbohydrate stores influence how long you can enjoy exercising. When glycogen stores get too low, you hit the wall. In a research study, cyclists with depleted glycogen stores were able to exercise only 55 minutes to fatigue, as compared with more than twice as long (120 minutes) when they were carbohydrate loaded. Food works!”

All carbohydrates are not created equal 

I’m not saying go binge on pizza because it contains 500g carbs. The carbohydrates you find in a pizza are completely different from the carbohydrates you find in vegetables. The absolute best option for carbohydrates would come from whole foods like fruits, vegetables and legumes. When you look at some options:

– 1 banana has 23g = 92 calories from carbs

– 1 cup of black beans has 40g = 160 calories from carbs

– 1 cup broccoli has 6g carbs = 24 calories from carbs

The next best option would be whole grain foods like whole grain rice, bread, pasta. The last option would be the processed grains like white bread, white rice and white pasta because these foods have been stripped of their nutrients essentially leaving you with very fast releasing sugars (which is good in some cases like race day nutrition.)

Carbohydrates in your diet 

Clark recommends athletes should consume 60% of their daily calories from carbohydrates. If you are on the Paleo diet (which I have tried before) or don’t really like eating processed carbs then your diet should consist of mainly fruits and vegetables, and a lot of them. If you like legumes include them too! Beans are a great way to get protein and carbohydrates into your diet. If you can accept the fact that whole grain bread and pasta are good in any diet (of course in moderation) then maybe include a couple meals a week with whole grain foods like a sandwich or pasta dinner. (Be careful of added sugar in these types of products.) Bottom line, eat your fruits (including bananas!), veggies and legumes with some whole grain foods and you should be good to go.

Resources: Nancy Clark MS, RD, Sports Nutrition Guidebook4th edition