The Rundown on Carb-ing Up

Dr. Tiff and Jennifer Bender, MS Candidate (Yay!)

We live in a fast-paced world where every little thing seems to be pressing or immediate. Work, school, and the media operates on a “right now” schedule. It requires a high-energy drive to keep up with these demands. Where does this readily accessible energy come from? The answer is all three macronutrients: carbohydrates, fats, and protein. However, the body extracts energy from each substrate in a different way. Carbohydrates are the primary source which efficiently supplies the body with immediate energy.

Carbohydrates are organic molecules which are broken down in the body and used for energy. The body relies primarily on glucose from carbohydrates to supply muscles with energy, nourish the brain, and carry out general body functions. The rate at which these molecules are broken down depends on the type of carbohydrate source. There are two main categories of carbohydrates: 

simple and complex.

What Carbs, When?

Simple, Quick-burning Carbs

Simple carbohydrates are also called monosaccharides due to their composition of a single (“mono”) sugar (“saccharide”)molecules. Essentially, simple carbohydrates cannot be broken down any further than their original molecular structure (e.g., one sugar molecule) and are thus more readily available to be absorbed and used for energy. This type of “quick burning” carb is best consumed during and immediately after intense exercise to fully stock and replenish the muscles with glucose.

Simple carbohydrates are found in sugar, fruit, milk, as well as processed and enriched grains.

Complex, Slow-Burning Carbs

Complex carbohydrates contain disaccharide and polysaccharide molecules, which must be broken down into single monosaccharide units before it can be used for energy. This process takes the body longer to fully digest complex carbohydrates and supplies the body with a steady release of energy.

Image result for Carbs and breakdown

Another benefit of adding complex carbohydrates to the diet is that the majority of these sources are complimented with fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. These “slow-burning” carb sources are best consumed evenly distributed throughout the day to maintain stable blood sugar and satiety levels.

Sources of complex carbohydrates include whole grains, rolled oats, quinoa, legumes, starchy vegetables, and fruit.

Carb-Up or Break Down

Carbohydrates are vital for optimal athletic performance because glucose is more easily obtained from carbs rather than fat and protein sources. It takes more time and work for the body to breakdown fat and protein into glucose as opposed to carbohydrate. Not only is it important to consume an adequate amount carbohydrate before training, replenishing depleted energy stores after exercise is equally important for performance. After a long or strenuous workout, glycogen (glucose stored in the body) is depleted and must be replaced to continue supplying working muscles and tissues with energy to meet demand. The quickest way to restock these energy stores is by eating simple carbohydrates as glucose is rapidly absorbed during this state.

Studies show that an ideal absorption window of 45-60 minutes post training exists to most effectively prime muscles. Ivy and colleagues found that cyclists who consumed a recovery snack within 60 min after exercise replenished glycogen stores at a faster rate than cyclists who consumed the same snack 2 hours post-exercise. The period immediately following exercise appears to increase the absorption rate of glucose and facilitate the recovery process. Adding moderate protein also aids this recovery phase. Multiple studies have suggested a carbohydrate to protein ratio of 3:1 or 4:1 stands as the ideal proportion to promote glycogen replenishment, reduce muscle protein breakdown, and neutralize oxidative stress within skeletal muscle. This 30-40 min window is when simple carbohydrates with protein is the preferred recovery food. Depending on your overall macro needs this might look something like…60g carbs and 20g protein. Again, this is all relative to body weight, body composition and training volume. Always consult your nutrition coach to determine you ideal post workout macro needs.

Immediate Recovery Fuel:

  • PB&J sandwich
  • Mini pretzels with a serving of cheese, nuts, or guacamole
  • Greek yogurt or Cottage Cheese with fruit and honey
  • Chocolate milk or Whey/Casein Protein Shake

Integrating in the Recovery Meal

While simple carbs are optimal immediately pre and post workout, A full meal containing complex carbohydrates, fat, and protein should be consumed within 1-2 hours after exercise to maintain steady blood sugar levels and facilitate tissue repair and recovery.

Choosing whole, slow-burning carbohydrates over processed, simple sources are recommended due to the inclusion of fiber and other vital micro-nutrients commonly found in complex carb sources. This difference is due in part that whole grains contain all parts of the grain: bran, germ, endosperm. Processed and refined grains only contain the endosperm and are stripped of many vital nutrients during processing. Eating a variety of foods helps to ensure your body receives all the necessary vitamins and minerals. Fruits and vegetables are well known superstars for their abundance of nutrients such as folate, potassium, and vitamins A & C. Whole grains are rich in magnesium, manganese, selenium, iron, and certain B vitamins. This information sounds great for attaining nutrition goals, but what are some easy ways of adding them to our menu?

Post Training Meal Ideas

  • Whole grain, rolled oats with berries and nuts
  • Whole wheat toast with avocado and salsa. Top with egg (whites)
  • Banana protein pancake
    • Mash 1 ripe banana with 1 egg and cinnamon for batter. Cook in skillet and top with yogurt or fruit
  • Cottage cheese or yogurt topped with fruit and whole grain granola or rolled oats. Also try adding chia seed or ground flaxseed for some added omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Kale or arugula salad with ½ cup quinoa, ½ cup beans, chicken, salsa, and cilantro
  • Corn or whole grain tortillas with lean turkey or beef, tomatoes, onion, and jalapenos. Top with salsa or a dollop of Greek yogurt
  • Whole wheat pita filled with lettuce and tuna salad: tuna, celery, onion, Greek yogurt, and spices
  • Black bean burger prepared with chopped veggies and oats (instead of bread crumbs). Serve on lettuce wrap or whole grain bun
  • Grilled white fish, chicken or extra lean turkey breast with vegetables and baked sweet potato “fries”

Cuz they did the work…

Ivy, J.L., Katz, A.L., Cutler, C.L., Sherman, W.M., Coyle, E.F. 1988. Muscle glycogen synthesis after exercise: effect of time of carbohydrate ingestion. Journal of Applied Physiology,64(4), 1480-1485.

Kerksick, C., Harvey, T., Stout, J., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C., Kreider, R., Kalman, D., Ziegenfuss, T., Lopez, H., Landis, J., Ivy, J., Antonio, J. 2008. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Nutrient timing. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition,5(17), 1-12.

Poole, C., Wilborn, C., Taylor, L., Kerksick, C. 2010. The Role of Post-Exercise Nutrient Administration on Muscle Protein Synthesis and Glycogen Synthesis. Journal of Sports Science Medicine,9(3), 354-363.