Nancy Clark, Author of Sports Nutrition Guidebook
The Athlete’s Kitchen on Why Carbs Are Confusing
Sports Nutrition: What are carbohydrates and why are they important for athletes?
Times change -- and so does nutrition advice for soccer players. Author and nutrition expert Nancy Clark explains what all the hype about carbs really means and how these nutrients are important to athletes, and especially youth soccer players.
Carbohydrates seem to be a source of confusion for recreational and elite soccer players alike. Due to the Paleo Diet, Grain Brain, Wheat Belly, and diet books, many soccer players 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. What is the difference between trendy diets and nutritional requirements for success on the soccer field? 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 soccer athletes are confused about carbs because they do not even know what carbohydrates are. One player 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 101:
- 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. Soccer players who restrict carbs pay the price with “dead legs” and the 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 as the starch converts into sugar. In comparison, peas (and other vegetables) are sweet when young and their sugar converts into starch as they mature.
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 (a feeling of 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 soccer player easily boost calorie intake while simultaneously adding carbs for fuel that enhances muscle-building workouts.
Even though refined sugar adds “junk calories” to a sports diet, you need not eat a sugar-free diet to have a good diet. A fit and healthy athlete’s menu can accommodate 10% of calories from refined sugar (according to the World Health Organization's guidelines).
Yet, if you frequently consume sports drinks, gels, and sports candies – as well as other sweets – you can easily consume more than 250 to 350 calories (10% of calories) from refined sugar. Please don’t displace too many fruits, veggies and whole grains with empty calories from sugar.
What about high fructose corn syrup?
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS), also deemed evil and fattening, is less evil and less fattening than portrayed by the media (1). Ninety percent of 567 media reports on HFCS since 2004 replaced science with opinion and were biased to the erroneous (2). HFCS is a double molecule comprised of 45% glucose and 55% fructose – the same as honey and similar to white sugar (50% glucose, 50% fructose). The negative hype about HFCS applies primarily to overweight folks who consume excessive calories of sweets, soda, candies and processed foods sweetened with HFCS. While no one needs excessive, lack-luster calories that could be better spent on nutrient-rich fruits, veggie and whole grains, does an athlete really need to fret about a few calories of HFCS in ketchup?
Are carbs fattening?
Despite popular belief, carbohydrates are not inherently fattening. Excess calories are fattening. Excess calories of carbs (bread, bagels, pasta) are actually less fattening than are excess calories of fat (butter, salad oil, cheese).
That’s because storing excess calories of sugar as body fat requires more energy than does storing excess calories of dietary fat as body fat. This means, if you are destined to be gluttonous and want to suffer the least weight gain, indulge in (high carb) frozen yogurt instead of (high fat) ice cream!
What about sugar “highs” and “lows”?
Sugar “highs” and “lows” can easily occur in over-fat, under-fit people. Most soccer players, however, can metabolize sugar without problems. That's because exercise enhances the transport of sugar from your blood into your muscles with far less insulin than needed by the body of an unfit person.
The unfit body contributes to the rise in blood sugar, which triggers the need for excess insulin and leads to the “crash.”
The most common reason for “sugar crashes” (hypoglycemia) among athletes relates to running out of fuel. The shakiness and sweats are because the athlete did not eat enough carbs to maintain normal blood glucose levels, and the brain is now demanding sugar. One soccer player thought the 100-calorie gel he took at half-time caused him to “crash.” More likely, he crashed because he needed 200 to 300 calories to meet his energy needs due to consuming inadequate pre-game fuel.
You are an experiment of one
If you have intestinal distress relating to wheat, gels, onions, milk or any of a multitude of fruits, veggies and grains, your best bet is to figure out how much (if any) you can tolerate. The dose might be the poison.
If you need to eliminate wheat due to celiac disease or gluten intolerance, you might have trouble getting enough carbs to fuel your muscles. That is, you’d need to eat three cups of blueberries to replace one bagel. Not only is that expensive, but also puts you at high risk for undesired pit stops. Consulting with a registered dietitian (RD) can be a smart idea! The referral network at SCANdpg.org can help you find a local sports RD who can address your food concerns and take the confusion out of carbohydrates.
1. Lowndes, J, S Sinnett, S Pardo, V Nguyen, K Melanson, Z Yu, B Lowther, J Rippe. The effect of normally consumed amounts of sucrose or high fructose corn syrup on lipid profiles, body composition and related parameters in overweight/obese subjects. Nutrients 2014. 17; 6(3):1128-44
2. Butterworth, T. Sweet and sour: The media decided fructose was bad for America; but science had second thoughts. Forbes. February 6, 2014. http://www.forbes.com/sites/trevorbutterworth/2014/02/06/sweet-and-sour-the-media-decided-fructose-was-bad-for-america-but-science-had-second-thoughts/
Nutritional and medical advice changes with new discoveries and interpretations. Always check with your medical provider and/or nutritionalist for what is best for you and your family.
And research and read information on nutrition!
Boston-area sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes. Her private practice is in Newton, MA, 617-795-1875. For information about her new Sports Nutrition Guidebook and her food guide for marathoners, cyclists, and soccer players. More information on Clark's website.
Want to learn more? SoccerNation News recommends Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook new 2013 edition and Food Guide for Soccer: Tips and Recipes from the Pros. Also available at Human Kinetics.