The Simple Breakdown on Carbs

February 09, 2017

Carbohydrates: the nutritional enigma. Some diets avoid them like the plague but for athletes, they are critical. Let’s get the basics down so you can be sure to fuel your athlete right.


Carbohydrates = Fuel

Carbohydrates are the body’s main energy source. Yes, the body can burn fat for energy when carbohydrates are depleted, but for young athletes, we’ll put that aside. Carbs are broken down by the body into simple sugars to be used as energy. While all carbs meet a simple-sugar-fate in the bloodstream, how the body breaks them down makes all the difference.
Your goal is to keep your athlete’s blood sugar level steady and consistent so they can perform at their best without peaks and valleys.


Simple Carbs

There are two categories of carbohydrates that are critical to distinguish between. Simple carbs are already in the form of sugar, and therefore your body can break them down very quickly. You get a quick burst of energy followed by an insulin response; insulin is like the body’s blood sugar police. The downside is you'll often experience a "crash" (moody, lethargic, hungry) shortly after eating simple carbs. Examples of simple carbs include fruits, syrups, table sugar, and candy.
Simple Carbs
Complex carbs, on the other hand, need to be broken down further by the body, which takes time. Because of this, sugar is released into the blood stream over a longer duration, providing more sustained energy. Examples of complex carbs include whole grain breads, vegetables, potatoes. 


Complex Carbs

Complex Carbs
Here’s a handy chart to visualize the difference. Note, a refined carbohydrate is a complex carbohydrate that has been processed, stripping away many of the beneficial vitamins, minerals, and fiber (think white bread, white rice, white pasta).
Blood Sugar Chart

The Young Athlete Takeaway

Again, your goal is to keep your athlete’s energy or blood sugar level consistent. How do you know if they’re in the performance zone illustrated above? Take out a needle, grab their finger...KIDDING! Simply observe them- if they’re lethargic or tired, they might be below the performance zone. If they're running around, bouncing off the walls, they've probably overshot it. If there's a question, ask them how they're feeling.
Remember, neither simple nor complex carbs is necessarily better, they simply serve different functions. Now that you're clear on how the body processes them, use that knowledge to your advantage. If your athlete needs a quick pick-me-up, a simple carb like fruit is a good idea, but think of it as a more temporary solution. If however, you need to something to keep your athlete going over the course of a long meet day, stick mostly to complex carbs to maintain a nice steady blood sugar level.
Have questions? Reach out if you need any clarification or would like input on a specific food for your athlete. 

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