Also known as carbs or starches carbohydrates are the main food group eaten and enjoyed but the most misunderstood and abused. Carbohydrates are vital to human survival because they are packed full of disease preventing and fighting vitamins and minerals, essential energy and dietary fiber. Endurance athletes should appreciate that carbohydrates are a major source of fuel. If carbohydrate intake does not provide a sufficient amount of fuel for your training and recovery, you will not perform at your best. However, if carbohydrate intake exceeds the necessary amount for fueling training and recovery, your performance will be hindered and pack on unwanted pounds.
Carbohydrates’ number one purpose is to fuel our mind, body and spirit.
- Mind: The human brain runs exclusively off of glucose (carbohydrates in simple form). When the brain does not have enough glucose on board it begins to panic:
1. The brain causes us to crave foods high in sugar to replenish its fuel quickly.
2. If the brain goes long enough without adequate glycogen intake it will begin to break down muscle and convert it to glucose for fuel! A process called gluconeogenesis. This process causes very bad breathe...
- Body: Think of the human body as a Mercedes Benz and carbohydrates as the gas that runs our engine... A Benz would not be able to operate on an empty tank. If we deprive our bodies of its natural fuel (carbohydrates) we become fatigue, tired, weak and unmotivated resulting in loss of muscle tone and mass.
- Spirit: Happy people eat carbohydrates... Irritable people do not...Since our brains desire glycogen as fuel it rewards us for keeping it satisfied. We actually get a since of euphoria from eating carbohydrates along with a burst of energy that keeps us going all day long. This feeling of euphoria can also lead into an unhealthy relationship with sweets.
Most endurance athletes will not deny that carbohydrates are a vital part of their training success however; some do not give much consideration to the choice. Your carbohydrate choices should be of the highest quality possible.
Not all carbohydrates are created equal. Although there are many classifications of carbohydrates we will discuss two distinct types; simple vs. complex. It is important for endurance athletes to understand the diverse types of carbohydrates because they will need to incorporate the different types into their diet at varied times during training.
The majority of the time endurance athletes should be concerned about the quality of the carbohydrates they are consuming daily, focusing on nutritious and wholesome sources while limiting refined sources. Wholesome carbohydrates provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber while refined carbohydrates come from processed foods that only provide empty calories.
It has long been argued that there is a black and white view on carbohydrates:
Simple = Bad and Complex = Good.
However, the truth is wholesome carbohydrates are not always of the complex variety, and refined carbohydrates are not always simple sugars. Example: Fruit contains simple carbohydrates but is packed with nutrients, dispelling the argument all simple sugars are bad. Hundreds of food products line the grocery store shelf made from white flour, that label themselves as “Enriched Grains”, “Made with Whole Grains,” “Multigrain”, and “X grams of Whole Grains” often have much lower vitamin and mineral content and contain very little wholesome carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are easily found in the North American diet, but regrettably many of the most available ones are refined grains rather than wholesome grains. As a consumer and endurance athlete it is our responsibility to choose wholesome carbohydrates. Wholesome grains are good sources of carbohydrates, fiber, and B vitamins. They are excellent sources to replenish our body’s carbohydrate storage which become depleted after intense exercise.
A wholesome grain equals 100% whole grains. They simply come from the entire grain, which includes the endosperm, germ and brain portion of the grain, retaining all the desirable nutrients. These desirable nutrients can NOT be found in white bread, processed cereals, white rice, and or “enriched” multigrain products. The reason is during the refining process the bran and germ are separated from the starchy endosperm removing all the nutritional density.
Other magic powers of whole grains are the phytochemicals which have powerful antioxidant and disease fighting properties such as: oligosaccharides, flavonoids, lignans, phytates, and saponins. They are high in Vitamin E and selenium. These compounds can help prevent heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. Unfortunately, most Americans consume less than one serving of whole grains daily.
How you can get your recommended (3-6) servings of wholesome grains daily?
· Make whole grain cereals a staple for breakfast or snacks.
o Good choices: oatmeal, Fiber One, Go Lean, Heart to Heart, All-Bran, Raisin Bran, Original Shredded Wheat, and Grape Nuts.
· Read labels to make sure the FIRST ingredients is:
o Wheat bran, whole grain wheat, cornmeal, or whole oat flour.
· Read labels for the fiber content: Aim for at least 5 grams per serving, but 8 grams is best!
· Read labels and avoid ingredients:
o Cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, high-fructose corn syrup, and hydrogenated oils (we will discuss this further later on).
· Choosing bread is the trickiest. Be wary of labels that say “whole grain” “enriched” “multi-grain” and “7-grain”. Be sure to check out that ingredient list!
o Good choices: Nature’s Own and Ezekiel Breads
· Switch from white rice and pasta to whole wheat options.
Whole Grain Alternatives
High in protein and fiber
Good source of Vitamin E
Boil and eat as a cereal. Cook 1 c. grain in 2 c. water for 30 min.
High in soluble fiber
Cook 1 c grain in 3 c water for 45 minutes
High in fiber, folate, magnesium and iron
Cook 1 c grain in water or broth for 10-12 minutes
Excellent source of magnesium
High in fiber
Serve as a cereal, as pilaf, or in pancakes. Cook 1:2 part water for 15 minutes
A staple in Africa. High in minerals
Serve with meat or cook as cereal. Cook 1 c grain in 2 ¼ cup water for 25-30 minutes.
Source of cholesterol lowering fiber
High in protein
Avoid instant varieties; steel cut are more nutritious. Cook 1 cup oats in 4 cups liquid for 20 minutes.
Excellent source of B vitamins, copper, iron, and magnesium
Oatmeal like cereal. Rinse before cooking to remove bitter coating. Cook 1 cup grain in 2 cups water for 20 minutes.
A distant cousin to wheat. High in fiber and B vitamins
Used to make breads and pastas. Can be used in pilafs. Cook 1 cup grain in 4 cup water for 30-40 minutes.
Rich in protein. Good source of iron and calcium.
Cook 1 cup grain in 3 cups water for 15-20 minutes.
Table from Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes 2nd Edition