…and are carbs really what you think they are?

When you hear the word carbs, what immediately pops into your brain?

This day and age, it may be a skull and crossbones.  Or maybe that little devil that sits on the shoulder of a cartoon character when he’s contemplating breaking the rules.  In the culture that we live in, with keto and other low to no-carb diets being hugely popular, carbs have become synonymous with weight gain.

But carbs are your body’s main fuel source, so why are we so afraid of them?

Like everything else we put into our bodies, we must regulate the amount of carbs we eat and when we eat them, but it is important to fuel our bodies with carbs in order to have the energy we need to complete the tasks before us each day.

ESPECIALLY if you are an athlete.  The American College of Sports Medicine says carbs should comprise 58% of a healthy person’s total calorie intake.  And the Institute of Medicine published the recommendation that 45-65% of total caloric intake be carbs.  

Here’s why.

Carbohydrate literally means “hydrated carbon.”  Carbs provide us with calories for energy by producing heat in the body.  This occurs when carbon in the body unites with oxygen in the bloodstream.  According to the NCCPT, “Carbon meets oxygen and things get heated.”  

Obviously, carbs are important for athletes looking for a boost of energy to be at peak performance for their sports.  But carbs also play an important part in regulating protein and fat metabolism.  Not only do fats require carbs for their breakdown in the liver, but glucose (the most abundant sugar in the body) is necessary to assist in the digestion of other foods.  And carbohydrates ultimately provide that glucose.

In a nutshell, we need carbs to 

*fuel our bodies

*digest our foods

*regulate our blood sugar levels

So what do we do with this info?

First of all, it is important to recognize that there is a time and a place for certain carbs.  Carbohydrates have a “glycemic index” (GI) which can help you in determining when and what to eat before an exercise session.  The glycemic index of a food ranges from 1-100.  The lower the number, the longer it takes to break down.  The higher the number, the faster.  So, if you need energy for a two hour football practice, it is important to fuel your body with a food that is low on the GI scale.  If you need a quick supply of glucose, such as after an intense workout or if you are feeling lightheaded because lunch was hours ago, you should go with a higher GI food.

The cool thing about the glycemic index is that a high GI food can be modified to break down more slowly by adding a protein or fat to it.  For example, a bagel has a high glycemic index, but by adding peanut butter to it (peanuts have a low glycemic index), the overall glycemic index of the meal will be lowered and converted into glucose at a slower rate.

Here are some foods with a low glycemic index…

  • Sweet potatoes
  • Cherries
  • Brown rice
  • Grass-fed beef
  • Free-range chicken
  • Salmon
  • Cod
  • Beans
  • Milk
  • Shrimp
  • Soybeans
  • Flaxseeds
  • Nuts
  • Berries
  • Avocados
  • Asparagus

These are foods with a medium GI…

  • Whole wheat bread
  • Raisins
  • Bananas
  • Corn
  • Wild rice

And these foods have a high glycemic index…

  • White potatoes
  • White rice
  • Baked goods
  • Cookies
  • Sweets
  • Cereals
  • Gatorade

So, what is a good idea to eat and when?

The night before a big event:

Eat more carbs than you normally would to load up on your glycogen stores.  Choose foods that are low in fat and moderate in high quality protein.  Pasta is a good idea, but remember to add some protein in the mix (grass-fed beef meatballs are a good choice).  And skip the dessert.

2-4 hours before the event:

Choose a meal with a low to medium glycemic index.  Some good choices are oatmeal and fruit,  baked sweet potato and chicken, or whole wheat toast and bananas slices.  You are looking for foods that are slow to digest and keep you fueled. 

30 minutes before the event:

Choose mostly high-glycemic foods just before a workout.  This is the time for fruit juices, cereal, and sports drinks.  During a particularly intense workout, you may also be able to handle raisins, gel, and/or sports drinks to replenish your stores of glycogen.

So these are the recommended foods, now what’s off the table?

  • Foods high in fat
  • High fiber foods
  • High protein foods 

If carbs are not available for energy while you’re working out, your body will resort to breaking down fats or proteins. Protein is too complicated of a nutrient for your body to break down while you’re being active, and the energy won’t be ready for your body to keep up with your intense workout.  

Have I sufficiently convinced you how important healthy carbs are to your performance?  Good!  I will leave you with one of my favorite meals for fueling my body before a workout.  It’s yummy and satisfying!

Sweet Potato, Egg, and Avocado Hash