Sunday, February 15, 2015

Carbohydrates Are Not The Enemy

Somewhere between the gluten-free movement and the Paleo push, being carb-free became the hip new thing.  Whether you were a weekend warrior or endurance junkie, carbohydrates, mostly grain-based carbohydrates, seemed to be conspicuously left off the menu. 

As a registered dietitian and CSSD, I thought this was especially interesting considering we’ve been preaching for decades that there is and always will be value in consuming carbohydrates.  Carbohydrates are one of the three principal types of nutrients used as energy sources (calories) by the body.  Carbohydrates can also be defined chemically as neutral compounds of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.

Not all carbohydrates are created equal.  They have different structures and can be classified as simple or complex, which impact the absorption rate of the body and concurrent rise in blood sugar.  Complex carbohydrates come from foods such as spaghetti, potatoes, lasagna, cereals and other grain products. Simple carbohydrates are found in fruits, milk, honey and sugar.  Regardless of the type that is consumed, the body eventually works to break carbohydrates down into its simplest form called glucose.  It then stores its excess as either glycogen in the liver and muscles, or fat depending on the body’s energy needs at the moment. 

The confusion about carbohydrates appeared on multiple fronts.  The first was the verbiage.  The term “carb” and even “sugar” became synonymous with “bread” or “grain-based” carbohydrates.  Sure, breads, pasta, barley, quinoa, popcorn and other grain-based items are in fact carbohydrates.  However, carbohydrates are also a major macronutrient in fruits, vegetables, lentils, beans and low-fat dairy.

Recently there has also been a big push toward gluten-free, which is an absolutely necessary dietary modification for those who have celiac disease.   Certain individuals who do not have celiac disease or a gluten-intolerance undertook this modification as a lifestyle choice for various reasons.  During this time, they not only lessened their grain-based carbohydrates, but also increased their intake of other highly nutritious vegetables, fruits, nuts, lean proteins, seeds, legumes and other antioxidant rich elements.  Over time, they might have found their energy increased and they may have even lost weight because these higher fiber and protein elements aided in satiety.  In turn, they made better choices in terms of portion size, and therefore, matched their energy expenditure more closely.  It was easy to attribute the way they felt to the lack of grain-based carbohydrates, but considering the number of changes that were made, it is hard to isolate the actual variable that made the difference. 
In essence, when I hear individuals and even “nutrition experts” talk about the elimination of carbohydrates or “junk” as I most recently heard it on a podcast, I’m concerned about the over simplification of the issue, that it will cause additional confusion and may remove valuable nutrients, antioxidants and other phytochemicals from the diet of athletes. 

As I work with athletes on an individual basis, I encourage them to tailor their overall energy intake, as well as their macronutrient needs (carbohydrates, proteins and fats), to their current training phase.  This dietary periodization can also become another element for positive adaptations within the training program and therefore, produce elements of stress necessary to make long term gains.  At the beginning of general preparation or base training, I may suggest a carbohydrate ratio of 55% of their total diet because of the many long endurance based sessions.  This percentage may increase slightly as the season wears on and the intensity of sessions gradually picks up.  Again, the appropriate amount is based on the athlete and their individual needs.  A place to start for individual guidelines is 3 – 4.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound body weight (with endurance athletes being on the upper end of this equation).  

There are also ways to individualize the diet based on both the type and timing of carbohydrate consumption.  The type of carbohydrate as either simple or complex should be adjusted in relation to exercise.  If an athlete is preparing for a training session, the goal is to include simple refined carbohydrates that are easily digested and low in residue to prevent gastrointestinal problems.  Research has shown that the consumption of carbohydrates before, during and post activity aids in fueling the muscles and even improving concentration to assist in performance.  These carbohydrates prevent early fatigue and the goal of any athlete is never to be nutritionally limited during their training session.  Examples of simple more easily digested carbohydrate sources are tortillas, non-whole grain bread, rice cakes, crackers, pretzels, bagels, English muffins or applesauce.  If an individual is not preparing to be active or recover from activity, then choosing whole-grain sources with a slower absorption rate and other valuable antioxidants is a great choice such as barley, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, bulgur, faro, kamut, millet or other whole grains.  These whole grain foods and whole grain flours contain the bran, germ and endosperm which provide a range of vitamins and minerals and in turn, can provide health benefits from lowering cholesterol to promoting healthy gut bacteria. 

The timing of the carbohydrate consumption within the daily schedule can be modified based on the body composition goals of the athlete and length of time until their “A” race of the season.  In addition, if an endurance athlete has nearly maximized their training volume and they are in their aerobic general preparation or base phases, they may also benefit from a limited number of individual sessions in either a fasted or low-glycogen state.  Often times, I find this occurs naturally because many endurance athletes train twice daily and are therefore already in a slightly glycogen depleted state.  Becoming a fat adapted athlete is certainly a key part of the endurance equation.  However, heart rate training / intensity of sessions is a bigger portion of this equation than just what you consume.  Regardless of how trained at utilizing fat you become, athletes will always utilize large amounts of stored glycogen during exercise lasting longer than one hour.  Choosing specific sessions to work on this variable is best done by working with a sports nutrition registered dietitian as picking the appropriate training session and duration is of the utmost importance. 

In summary, to say a person or athlete should “avoid all carbohydrates” is not only an oversimplification, but can even be a detrimental health decision as many food groups would be eliminated, as well as the many health benefits provided by these elements.  Instead, let’s choose not to demonize any macronutrient and realize that even simple carbohydrates like sweet treats  or other foods people enjoy can be included if the rest of the diet is generally good.  Instead of reinforcing absolutes, it’s best to make choices based on informed decisions that take into account the individual needs of each person.  Eating should be a joyful experience that has less “rules” and should occur without guilt.    

With that said, I’m excited to be working with Ultragrain® for a second year to help support their recipe development efforts, product promotion and to assist in getting the word out about substituting this amazing product for your regular flour to provide the benefits of whole grain.
Here’s a great recipe I just made with Ultragrain® Flour to kick the whole grains up a notch while providing a lean protein source to assist you with recovery after a long day of work and workouts!

Chicken Marsala made with Ultragrain® Flour
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 Tbsp. Ultragrain Flour
4 Tbsp Olive oil
2 cups fresh mushrooms, washed and sliced
¾ cup Marsala cooking wine
¼ cup water
¼ tsp rosemary
2 Tbsp fresh parsley
1 oz feta cheese

Pound chicken until thin. Dredge lightly on both sides with Ultragrain® flour. In large skillet, add 2 Tbsp olive oil and heat to medium.  Saut√© mushrooms over medium heat until browned, about 10 minutes. Remove mushrooms and set aside.

Melt remaining 2 Tbsp. olive oil in skillet. Add chicken and cook through, 4 minutes on each side. Remove to serving platter. Return mushrooms to pan, stir in cooking wine, water, parsley and rosemary. Heat and pour over chicken.  Top with feta cheese. 

Makes 4 servings.

Per serving, with chicken: 330 calories, 28g protein, 10g carb, 15g fat (8g sat. fat), 105mg chol, 430mg sodium, 0g fiber

Recipe Adapted from:

Disclosure:  I am a sponsored athlete working with Ultragrain®.  However, the opinions expressed in this post are 100% my own and were not influenced by this affiliation in any way.

1 comment:

Alison said...

Great post - I appreciate the info!