Carbohydrates seem to be a source of confusion for athletes and fitness exercisers alike. Due to the Paleo Diet, Grain Brain, Wheat Belly, and other trendy diet books, many active people don't know what to eat. They just think they should avoid pasta, bagels, juice, bananas and sugar—even if these foods are non-problematic for them.
Yet, most of the carbs are evil, fattening & bad for you hype is targeted not to athletes but to the masses of overfat, underfit people whose bodies do not handle carbohydrates as healthfully.
What Are Carbs?
Some athletes are confused about carbs because they do not even know what carbohydrates are. One marathon runner claimed he "stayed away from carbs." Yet, he routinely ate oatmeal for breakfast, whole wheat wraps for lunch, and sweet potato with dinner.
He failed to understand that oatmeal, wraps, and potatoes are carbohydrates. He was actually limiting his intake of refined sugars; there is a big difference.
Here's what he needed to know about carb biochemistry:
- Carbohydrates include both sugars and starches. Carbs are in fruits, vegetables, grains, and milk (lactose). These carbs all digest into the simple sugar glucose. Glucose travels in the blood and, with the help of insulin, is taken up for fuel by the muscles. Athletes who restrict carbs pay the price—"dead legs" and inability to perform at their best.
- All carbs—both sugars and starches—are equal sources of muscle fuel. Regardless of whether you eat a starchy potato or sugary candy, the end product is the simple sugar glucose. Some of that glucose feeds your brain; some of it fuels your muscles; and some gets stored in muscles as glycogen, ready to be used for fuel during hard and extended exercise.
- Sugars and starches are biochemically similar. For example, an unripe banana (or any fruit) is starchy. As it ripens, it becomes sweeter; the starch converts into sugar. In comparison, peas (and other vegetables) are sweet when young and their sugar converts into starch as they mature.
More: 9 Tenets of Clean Eating
Are Carbs Bad For You?
Regarding health, some carbs are better for you than others because they offer more nutrients. For example, the sugar in sport drinks provides "empty calories" with no nutritional value (unless they are fortified to give a healthier appearance). The sugar in orange juice is accompanied with vitamin C, folate, potassium, and many other vitamins, minerals, and plant compounds that contribute to good health.
While juice offers slightly less nutritional value than you'd get by eating the whole fruit, most anti-juice hype is targeted at overfat people. Liquid calories from juice, soda and sports drinks do not contribute to satiety (fullness). Hence, drinking sugary beverages with meals adds extra calories that can contribute to undesired weight gain. Yet, for active people who want to gain weight, juice can help a skinny athlete easily boost calorie intake while simultaneously adding carbs for fuel that enhances muscle-building workouts.