It is time to embrace carbohydrates instead of fearing them.
Carbs are your main energy source, whether you’re cycling, running, swimming, or simply sitting around breathing. When digested, they are broken down into sugar for energy, which your body either uses immediately, or stores in the liver and muscles as glycogen for later. But, like any other aspect of your nutrition, you need to use carbs the right way; eating too much or too little carbohydrates can of course cause problems. Here are the answers to the most common questions we have all had about this essential macronutrient.
It’s not so much “good” or “bad”: A better way to label carbs would be processed and unprocessed (or minimally processed). The latter choices include whole grains, starchy veggies, fruits, and beans. These are high in fiber and more slowly digested, and since they’re minimally processed, they also contain the most nutrients and antioxidants.
Highly processed carbs, like white bread and baked goods, contain little fiber and typically fewer nutrients. These are quickly digested and raise blood sugarfast, which is ideal when you need a quick boost during long rides or runs—but can send you crashing afterwards.
“You want most of your carbs from the minimally processed category,” says nutritionist Willow Jarosh, MS, RD, co-owner of C&J Nutrition. “Fruits can be a good choice for athletes, because they digest easily and offer simple sugars that are readily available for energy.” The exception is processed carbs likes gels and chews, which Jarosh says “should only be used as needed for specific situations like long, endurance events and races.”
A major reason carbs get this reputation is because they are often not as filling as fat or protein, says Jarosh. “Carbs stimulate your body’s insulin response,” she says, and “if they aren’t high in fiber, or eaten with foods that contain protein and/or fat, the blood sugar increase and decrease tends to be sharp, which can stimulate hunger. Eating a lot of carbs can make you feel less satisfied and more inclined to graze.”
Going low-carb is not the path to getting lean, says Jarosh, although she acknowledges the initial benefits. “When you cut carbs, you often cut calories, and that can help with weight loss,” she says. Cutting carbs also pulls water out of the cells, which can help you shed even more pounds. Yet “when you re-introduce carbs, that weight will often come back immediately,” says Jarosh. The key is to eat the right amount of carbs, especially if you’re engaging in a high-output activity like cycling. Which leads to the next question…
It depends—you may need more or less based on your level of activity. Jarosh suggests beginning with a combo of 50 to 60% carbohydrate, 15 to 20% protein, and 25 to 30% fat, and adjusting as needed. If you get hungry quickly after a meal, add more fat and protein. If you feel too full or heavy, ease up a bit. “Think of this as a per-meal balance, rather than a per-day balance, since the right combination leads to the most regulated blood sugar levels and the most sustained energy levels.” To eyeball the right ratios, fill half your plate with fruits and/or veggies, a quarter with high-fiber carbs, a quarter with protein, and a sprinkle high quality fats for flavor.
Recent studies have suggested that burning fat instead of carbs will improve performance, because the body’s fat reserve is much larger than its glycogen stores (an approach known as ketosis). Yet a 2015 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found the opposite effect—muscles rely more on carbs as their fuel source during prolonged exercise. In fact, the researchers found carbs contribute to up to 91% of energy used by runners. Fat might make great fuel if you’re willing to commit to switching your body into ketosis, but for the average athlete, carbs are the most convenient way to go.
Yes, but be smart about it. The purpose of carb-loading is to give your body the extra fuel it needs for activities that last 90 minutes or longer. Your muscles store a finite amount of glycogen, which after 90 minutes will be running low or be completely depleted—which can lead to bonking.
The key is to begin carb-loading about a week in advance. For most people, this is about four grams of carbs per pound of body weight. So a 150-pound person would need 600 grams of carbs (or 2,400 calories from carbs) spread across daily meals. (This fancy pasta pot is a great way to cook your carbs to perfection, every time.)
However, carb-loading does not mean calorie loading. “The carbs should replace other nutrients, mainly fat, otherwise it can result in weight gain that can be felt on race day,” says Jarosh. In general, a carb-loading diet would be 70% carbs, 15% protein, and 15% fat. You’ll also want to avoid heavy carb-loading the day or night before your event, as this can lead to gastrointestinal distress.
Like anything carbohydrates are great in moderation! Use them right and you’ll feel and perform better.