Carbohydrate: Fattening or Fueling?

Carbohydrate: Fattening or Fueling?

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It is hard to avoid the hype and confusion around carbohydrate. Are carbs good or bad? How much is too much? Can I have a bagel at breakfast and a sandwich at lunch?  We hope this blog will help you to decipher fact from fiction!

Without question, carbohydrates from whole grain sources, fruits, vegetables, beans and dairy are wholesome choices for fueling performance and maintaining health.  Carbohydrates are the number one source of energy for working muscles and when combined with healthy fats and protein, create a balanced plan for fueling sport.


Are carbs fattening?

Carbohydrate itself is not “fattening,” but rather eating calories in excess of need can cause the body to store fat as fuel.  Carbohydrate is the preferential fuel source for a body in motion. Eating moderate amounts of carbohydrate throughout the day allows the body to utilize carbohydrate for fuel (thinking in class) and store excess as glycogen in the muscle and liver for later use (sports practice).  If we are careful to listen to our body’s hunger and fullness signals, overeating and thus fat storage will be minimized.


Does strength training require carbs?

Many athletes focus on protein exclusively for developing muscle. Building muscle is like building a wall; think of protein as the bricks and carbohydrates as the workers putting the wall together. If we restrict carbohydrates when trying to build muscle, we may limit the amount of muscle that can be developed and make the process more challenging as energy levels may be lower.


Can I get enough carbohydrate without eating pasta?

Yes!  A diet without The Spaghetti Factory is still a great sports-diet.  Focus on foods like oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa (keen-waah), beans, fruits, veggies and dairy for your energy producing carbs.  Distribute them evenly throughout your day and be ready for an energy filled performance!


Is there such a thing as “good carbs” and “bad carbs?”

Some health professionals and the media will identify foods as good and bad.  At WINforum we believe all foods have their place in a balanced sports-diet.  We prefer to identify foods as “everyday” foods and more “occasional” foods.  As we said above, eating whole grains and other wholesome carbohydrates (everyday foods) will fill your tank with the highest count of vitamins and minerals, and a well balanced diet will leave room for homemade cookies with milk or an ice cream cone.


Are sports drinks too high in carbs?

Sport drinks contain sugar, AKA carbohydrates, AKA ENERGY! If they didn’t, Sports Dietitians wouldn’t recommend them for fueling athletes.  The sugar in a sport drink is 5-8% in solution, compared with soda which is over 11% sugar.  Athletes use this sugar to fuel their play and to recover more quickly from long bouts of physical activity. It does not “build up” in the body, it is used to produce energy.  Use sport drink when exercise is over 60-90 minutes of continuous activity.

Carbohydrates are vital to fueling working muscles and research shows that a high carbohydrate diet is better for long-term athletic performance.  All foods can fit into a sports based diet. Use the 80:20 principle to help guide healthy choices — 80% of the time make healthy strong choices and 20% eat whatever your body desires.


Fact or Fiction:

White bread is nutritionally worthless and a total waste of calories.

Contrary to what some popular literature will say, white bread is not poison nor is it a “bad food.”  The white stuff does not provide the whole grain benefits of its counterpart with color, but it does provide energy, B vitamins and iron.  At least half of your grains should come from whole grains. So if you choose whole grain granola for breakfast and brown rice for lunch, having a slice of white bread with dinner can be balanced into the overall diet.

One B vitamin, folate, is found in enriched white breads and for people with sub-optimal fruit and vegetable intakes, enriched grains may be their main source of this cell growing vitamin.

Bottom line:   Eat mostly whole grains. If you love your tuna sandwich on white bread, eat it and enjoy.

About the author

Emily Edison, owner and founder of Momentum Nutrition & Fitness, is a recognized expert in the areas of sports nutrition and disordered eating, with over 17 years of experience as a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer. Her philosophy centers around fueling with whole foods and eating intuitively, empowering people to eat for performance, improve vitality, and develop a positive relationship with food and body.