"I stay away from bagels and bread. They have too many carbs."
"I'm on the Paleo Diet; I don't eat wheat or other grain foods."
"I don't eat pasta dinners any more. I have a big salad instead."
Too many of my clients are "staying away from carbs." One woman, an Ironman triathlete, was trying to train on a diet based on protein powder, almond butter, egg whites, and chicken, with a few spinach salads and apples on the side.
No wonder she was struggling to complete her workouts. Her diet was short on wholesome grains that can easily fuel her muscles and help her perform at a high level.
The definition of that enemy carbohydrate varies from runner to runner. For some runners, carbs means bagels, bread, and pasta. For others, carbs means any food made with white flour and sugar. For me, carbs includes grains, fruits, vegetables and all forms of sugars and starches.
These all digest into glucose, feed the brain, and get stored as glycogen in the muscles. If you eat too few carbs, your muscles will feel needlessly fatigued.
As I mentioned in last month's Carbohydrate Confusion article, some popular diet books (including The Paleo Diet, Grain Brain, and Wheat Belly) have convinced many runners to avoid carbohydrate-rich foods. The authors paint the picture that carbs are inflammatory, fattening, and bad for you. Their hype fails to clearly explain that the anti-carb message is not appropriate for athletes who are lean, fit & healthy.
The carbs-are-bad messages are targeted to the masses of over-fat, sedentary people who consume excessive amounts of calories, often from sweets and treats. For those unfit (often unhealthy) people, excess carbohydrate can contribute to elevated blood glucose, which triggers the body to secrete extra insulin.
Consistently high insulin can be inflammatory and lead to nasty health problems. Yet, well-trained runners can handle carbs with far less insulin than the average American—and without carbs causing "sugar crashes" or weight gain.