Unless You’re an Athlete, Be Careful with Carbs


* This is part of a year-long series called “52 Weeks to Eating better than Ever”. Click on the side bar for more information and to read the previous essays.

Unless you’re an athlete be careful with carbs, because their sweet and salty addictive nature and highly concentrated calories can get you in trouble.  Most people eat too many total carbohydrates, and choose the worst types of carbohydrates, in the form of bread, pastas, rolls, cereals, pastries, sweets, sodas, and other sugary drinks.  Unless you’re an athlete, you don’t need a ton of carbs, mainly because you don’t need a lot of calories!   
If you aren’t actively competing in a sport, you don’t need to be eating a large amount of carbohydrates. Excessive carbohydrates are converted into stored glycogen in the liver and muscles, but once this maximum is reached, excess carbohydrates are stored as fat.  Unless you’re training for a sport, you don’t need as many carbs or calories as you think you do.  This is one reason so many people have success on lower carbohydrate diets.  Too many unhealthy carbs could lead to problems with insulin resistance, weight gain, fat storage, fatigue, and possibly even other health problems related to inflammation.  
One of my Master’s thesis supervisors was Dr. Dan Benardot, Nutrition advisor for the US Olympic Team. In his excellent book, Nutrition for Serious Athletes, Dr. Bendardot states that the biggest single mistake athletes make is not eating enough.   Not eating enough is a much different problem from what the ordinary person struggles with, which is eating way too much!
Carbohydrates are essential for athletes, because for those involved in training for a sport, they serve an important purpose: providing a quick source of energy in the form of muscle and liver glycogen, and sparing muscle protein from being broken down into an energy source.  If you are playing basketball, soccer, or martial arts competitively, or any other sport, you need more energy, and thus you need more carbohydrates and more total calories.  That way you don’t break down your muscle tissue as an energy source of last resort and you can train hard.  This doesn’t mean as an athlete you can eat junk food, it just means that you need to fuel yourself:
a) through tough workouts, and…
b) enough to recover from training.  
That way as an athlete you don’t break down precious muscle tissue as energy, in a process called catabolism, which could hinder your performance significantly.  
If you ARE NOTan athlete:

  • Limit your carbohydrate intake, to 30-60% of total calories.
  • Eat meals at times with no carbohydrates at all, like a salad and protein with fruit for desert.
  • Choose whole grains, fruits, legumes, beans, quinoa, brown rice, and starchy vegetables. 
  • Keep your total calories down by keeping your carb intake moderate and really focus on making good choices.

If you AREan athlete:

  • Eat healthy carbs at every single meal.
  • Make the same healthy choices as a low-carb eater (whole grains, fruits, legumes, beans, quinoa, brown rice, and starchy vegetables) BUT eat more carbohydrates.
  • Eat a light snack 45 minutes before you train, with some carbohydrates, about 25-35 grams depending on your size and weight.
  • Consume some carbohydrates after you train for recovery.
  • Consume 50-75%+ of your total calories as carbohydrates.
  • Consume more total calories.  
  • One day a week, eat whatever you want to.  

Carbohydrates are a great fuel source, but plan accordingly for your goals, and eat the right kinds. Little things add up!


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