Updated: Dec 13, 2019
Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients (in addition to protein and fats) your body needs to have every day. Carbohydrates are not our enemy, in fact they're our friends. Our bodies need them to live and thrive. Are there not-so-healthy carbohydrates? YES! And those should be avoided and/or limited when possible. I generally limit processed foods in my diet and so avoiding unhealthy carbs isn't usually an issue for me. Foods like cookies, white bread, pastries, white rice, candy, and sugary drinks are considerably less healthy carbohydrates then foods like yams, peaches, quinoa, and broccoli.
Sugars, starches, and fibers are all considered carbohydrates. Our digestive system breaks down carbohydrates and eventually releases them into the bloodstream in the form of glucose. Glucose is essential to life: it provides fuel for the brain and central nervous system. Carbohydrates are commonly found in vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes.
Since carbohydrates provide the body with energy, a deficiency can cause you to feel tired and sluggish. You may also experience:
Physical weakness/lack of stamina
Poor immunity (you may find yourself getting sick a lot)
Delayed healing of wounds
Feelings of sadness/irritability/depression
In the book, ROAR: How To Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Female Physiology got Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life, Stacy Sims recommends that women need a daily intake of 40%-45% whole food carbohydrates (veggies, fruits, ancient grains). I view this recommendation as a place to start, as we all have different dietary needs based on many factors including age, activity level, medications, intake levels of other macronutrients, genetics, etc.
For performance fueling, Sims recommends topping off your stores with carbs and of course, protein. During exercise she states that we have enough stored carbohydrates to run a moderate intensity for about 15 miles, which of course will vary based on your performance and endurance. So how much should you consume while moving? She suggests aiming for a calorie count and using mixed macronutrient foods to avoid overloading any one macronutrient receptor at one time. For active women, that is 0.9 to 1.13 food calories/pound per hour while participating in a non-jostling sport. Though carbohydrates are paramount during long endurance events, don't forget to consume a little protein, as the amino acids can provide up to 10% of your total energy.
For much of our carbohydrate intake, complex carbohydrates should be the bulk of our carb intake. However, for endurance athletes, especially on race day, fast-digesting carbohydrates that come from processed food sources may be a better option as they enter our systems faster and are used for replenishment and oxidation, rather then storage.
According to Matt Fitzgerald, author of Racing Weight: How to Get Lean for Peak Performance, for endurance athletes, carbohydrate is the most important because carbohydrate needs increase drastically as training increases, whereas fat and protein needs increase more moderately. I've increased my protein intake a bit the last year or two to meet the metabolic changes in my body as I age, and to make sure I can meet the demands of my training load for when it increases. Protein is key in recovery and muscle repair, and because I don't recover the way I once did, the additional protein (combined with carbohydrates) should aide with recovery.
Unlike fat or protein, carbohydrate is not incorporated structurally into any body tissues. Carbohydrate is stored in the liver and muscles for glycogen, but these stores are small. As endurance athletes, keeping our intake higher then someone who is more sedentary is critical to our performance and success. However, the amount of carbohydrate in our daily diet should fluctuate depending on the training load and cycle.
When ever possible, choose less-processed, whole foods with slow-digesting carbohydrates such as complex starches and fiber. I eat a diverse variety of carbohydrates, including: brown rice, oats, kale, spinach, swiss chard, squash, carrots, mushrooms, apples, grapes, blueberries, strawberries, sweet potato, sprouted whole grain/seed bread, and more.
So go ahead, shake hands with carbohydrates and make them your friends. Your body (and your brain) will thank you.
Check the new move of the week video on the home page: Side Plank Elbow to Knee Crunch on Slam Ball