Complex topics are difficult to write about and carbohydrates are very complex – even when they are simple. Athletic people are frequently told how important carbs are to fuel the body. Carbo loading before a big race will help fuel the body in the long, hard race – right? I am not a doctor nor a nutritionist. I am a regular person who leads an athletic life. My experience comes from trial and error. I have carbo loaded for races and I have eaten a balanced diet before races. I do know for me, carbo loading didn’t help at all. I do know that a consistent diet of 40% carbohydrates, 30% protein, and 30% fat has helped me feel better than I ever have after long runs and hard rides. I am recovering faster and I have less muscle aches. My last post covered fat. Now I am taking on carbs.
The human body is a fascinating study. When carbohydrates are digested the body breaks them down to sugars. There are more complex terms, for this post I will keep as much simple as possible. I was once asked by another triathlete when it comes to nutrition how do I get sugar for energy? My answer is simple – my body makes enough sugar, I do not need to eat additional. Carbohydrates are basically found in two forms – simple and complex. Click the link to go to a very helpful article by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I used it quite a bit for this post. Simple carbs are also simple sugars. Natural forms are found in fruits, vegetables, milk, and milk products. Note – this is why I stay away from skim milk products, take away the fat and it is a sugary drink like soda pop. These foods provide enough simple sugars that foods with added sugars I avoid. Added sugars are in many processed foods and drinks. Added sugar is also a byproduct of refining – white breads and pastas for example.
Complex carbs are found in two types – starch and fiber. Starchy carbs turn to sugars a bit faster than foods higher in fiber, so I limit them. Starchy foods include white potatoes, white pasta, beans, corn, and some cereals, breads and grains. Many beans are also high in fiber and protein -these I don’t limit as much. A rule of thumb on carbs is this – the only white carb to eat is cauliflower. I don’t count bananas since at first sight they are yellow. (Or green!) Complex carbs high in fiber are found in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. How much fiber? On average for adults 30 grams a day is the standard. The link above contains a chart that is more specific.
Okay – carbs are found in simple and complex forms, choose complex over simple and higher fiber complex carbs. The US Dietary Guidelines suggest 45% to 65% of calories come from carbohydrates. (See page 15) I follow the 40/30/30 plan that was made popular by the Zone Diet and Dr. Barry Sears. It is within 5% of the government suggestion and there are many tools to help count and calculate. My favorite is found at My Fitness Pal. What to eat? That is a difficult topic to recommend on a specific level. When it comes to complex carbs, I keep it simple – the less processing involved and the more whole the form is, the better. Personally, the vast majority of my carbs come from fruits, vegetables, beans, and sprouted grain breads and tortillas (my favorite brand is Ezekiel Bread). For fuel in training and racing I use energy bars and I have been making my own “Zone” bars. Yes, I turn to gels too – Honey Stinger and GU primarily. Training and racing nutrition is another post of information!
A final note- one eating plan I would have never chosen intentionally was forced upon me when I came down with the norovirus in February. For five weeks my diet consisted of white potatoes, saltines, eggs, chicken and chicken soup, bananas, Lorna Dune cookies, and Honey Stinger waffles. No vegetables, other than bananas – no fruit, and nothing complex at all. My stomach had a difficult time digesting anything, so I also did not take the vitamins I usually take. This diet weakened me – both my energy and my immune system. I am sure that the two terrible colds I have had were a result of my weakened immune system. This unfortunate “experiment” drove home to me the importance of diet along with exercise. I am back to eating my regular plan, this latest cold is just about completely gone, and I am slowly returning to my regular training plan.
The body needs carbohydrates to function, along with fat and protein. (Which is up next) What makes up those carbohydrates matter – not only for an athlete, but for everyone who does not like going to the doctor. Proper nutrition and exercise is the best way to stay healthy and away from the doctor’s office, giving us all the more time to seize the day.