Cutting back on carbs for the carbohydrate-sensitive athlete

Sugar digests quickly and becomes instant energy for the body, but it does not always become a usable source.

by Karen Langston — 

Whether you are a runner or a bodybuilder, as an athlete you require quality protein, essential fats and complex carbohydrates from grains, fruits and vegetables. Or, that is what most experts, books and magazines catering to the average population recommend. But what if you are gluten intolerant or sensitive to wheat?

We are bombarded with refined carbohydrates, most of them hidden in prepared food products. Many of us have become addicted to carbohydrates, and trying to go a day without them is like a smoker going without a cigarette — total misery.

Why do we need carbs anyway?

We get our energy from carbohydrates; they power every part of our bodies, including the brain, which needs the most. There are two types of carbohydrates: sugar, and starch from root vegetables, pasta and rice.

Sugar digests quickly and becomes instant energy for the body, but it does not always become a usable source. Starches, on the other hand, break down into sugars, but at a slower pace, allowing the body to continue using the energy for longer periods of time.

Carbohydrates are also distinguished as either complex or refined. Complex carbohydrates take the form of whole grains like brown rice, nuts, seeds and vegetables, like yams and celery root. Refined carbohydrates are all the evil no-no’s you hear so much about: essentially any white flour such as white rice, white pasta, white bread and all bakery items.

Athletes require higher amounts of energy from their food in order for their bodies to maintain lean muscle mass, to allow for the repair and rejuvenation of their cells, and so that their muscles and organs work properly. However, if you are sensitive to certain carbohydrates, you can still get superior nutrition.

Eat healthy carbs at restaurants

When dining out, look for simple foods such as poultry or fish. Ask for brown rice, steamed or grilled vegetables, and small salads with the dressing served on the side.

Salad dressings are, for the most part, laden with sugars, high-fructose corn syrup and sometimes contain wheat as a thickener. Ask for olive oil and any type of non-white vinegar. White vinegar is a synthetic made from wood that is great for cleaning, but not for eating.

If you really want a pasta dish, bring your own pasta for the restaurant to prepare. Most restaurants will accommodate this small request. If you are gluten intolerant, speak with the manager to be sure that they use a clean pot with freshly boiled water. Some restaurants will accommodate you, but many of them will cook your pasta in water that just had wheat pasta in it.

If the restaurant cannot accommodate, order something else and move on. Plenty of owners would love your business, especially repeat business. My favorite restaurant in Toronto was not only accommodating, but they also ended up carrying a whole line of gluten-free pastas for all their patrons.

Lunch can be challenging at a restaurant because the menu is often heavy on sandwiches. Get creative. Bring your own high-fiber, high-protein kamut, spelt, sprouted Ezekiel or pita bread. Or if you are unprepared, most sandwiches can be served without the bread or bun. Order a side salad and raw vegetables, and skip the chips and fries. You can make great lettuce wraps, as well. Ask for large leaves of romaine lettuce and use them to wrap your sandwich makings.

Fruits and vegetables

Remember to pump up the fruit and vegetables. Both contain vital vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids that are needed to maintain a healthy body — athlete or not. They provide fuel and fiber and take longer to break down in the system, generating a good source of energy. Fruits and vegetables low on the glycemic index convert slowly to sugar over several hours, maintaining insulin levels and reducing carbohydrate cravings. These include berries, apples and leafy green vegetables.

Consume carbs before 5 p.m.

Eat all of your carbohydrates before 5 p.m. Ideally, carbohydrates are better served with a high-quality protein for breakfast to provide energy from your night’s sleep and to drive glucose into the brain to make you alert. If you are exercising, good quality carbohydrates will provide you with energy for the workout and also provide the energy necessary for muscle recovery afterwards.

As we enter the evening hours, our bodies start to slow down to prepare for rest. Carbohydrates are used for energy to keep us going. We use less energy at night; therefore, excess energy is stored as fat. If you find you are hungry at night, eat lean protein that your body will be able to break down and utilize for cellular repair and growth.

Everyone, whether an athlete or not, needs carbohydrates on a daily basis. We can choose quality complex carbohydrates for health or refined carbs that are, essentially, empty calories. Athletes who are building muscle, training or just working out, require more quality carbohydrates than the average couch potato. Do not become a hostage to carb cravings and the endless cycle involved therein. Get carb smart and make good choices.


Karen Langston is a chief body reorganizer and extreme food whisperer. or 623-252-HEAL (4325).

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 29, Number 5, Oct/Nov 2010.

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