Why Carbs Aren't the Enemy

STACK Expert Kait Fortunato explains why athletes need carbohydrates in their diets.

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Low-carb, slow-carb, no-carb. I've heard it all when it comes to diets. Carbohydrates are often seen as the enemy, because they are so abundant in our society and easy to overeat. But it is impossible for our bodies to go without them.

Although cutting out carbohydrates entirely may be a temporary solution to weight loss, it is both unhealthy and unsustainable. You might lose weight at first, but it will be short-lived. Better to forgo unhealthy carbohydrates—potato chips, sodas and sweets—for the healthy ones. Some of my favorite healthy carbohydrates are fruit, whole wheat bread, oatmeal, whole grain cereal, sweet potatoes, beans, brown rice and quinoa. These are all low-glycemic carbohydrates, which help you stay energized longer and do not cause your  blood sugar to spike.

If you don't get enough carbohydrates, you may experience fatigue, loss of focus, headaches and cravings, because your brain, muscles and nerves turn to carbohydrates first. When you slowly add carbohydrates over time, your body will store them since it has been deprived for so long. This can actually cause you to gain weight more easily—not to mention that you are likely to overeat carbohydrates because you have restricted them.

Carbohydrates are the body's main source of fiber, which helps keep you regular, promotes gut health and reduces stomach pains from constipation. You do not want to be caught on race day or game day with severe cramps!

Since carbohydrates are the body's main source of energy, a low-carb diet can have a serious impact on your athletic performance. Carbohydrates break down into glucose, and any glucose you don't need right away gets stored in your muscles and liver as glycogen. You need glycogen for both short bouts of exercise and to help break down fat (which is the body's source of energy for longer workouts). Carbohydrates also work with protein to help build muscle. Without carbohydrates, your body will turn to protein for energy and break down muscle.

One gram of carbohydrate provides four calories of energy, which again gets stored in your muscles. If you don't replenish these stores, you can run out of fuel and become dizzy or lightheaded during or following your workout.

Many people mistakenly think carbohydrates cause weight gain and raise body fat. But if you cut out carbohydrates, you can end up storing food and therefore increasing your body fat. This can also cause weight gain because you are more likely to overeat at night if you're not getting enough carbohydrates during the day.

Without carbohydrates, you might over-consume fat and protein, which can take a toll on your heart. The fiber from carbohydrates helps lower cholesterol and protect against heart disease.

As with everything, food intake comes down to portion control. Athletes should strive to eat balanced meals with carbohydrates, protein, vegetables and healthy fats. They should also consume carbohydrates before, during and after exercise to help prepare glycogen stores and refill them to be ready for their next workout. The recommendation for carbohydrate consumption for athletes is 43 to 46 percent of total calories.

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