Carbs 101

June 13, 2018, 10:22 a.m. (ET)

By Nicole Hagen, U.S. Women's National Team Nutritionist

It’s no secret that food fuels the body. There are many factors that contribute to success in a sport and nutrition is one of those crucial factors, with the potential to make or break the difference between victory and defeat.  What an athlete eats has the ability to affect her performance, recovery and injury prevention, both on and off the field. If you’ve been following the USA Women’s Field Hockey Team this year you know that the intensity of their training is high - requiring a diet that supports optimal performance, recovery and injury prevention. This year, in an effort to perform at their absolute best the athletes have set their sights on a key nutrient for energy and high intensity effort – carbohydrates.

In an effort to cope with the demands of training and competition, each athlete’s nutrition has to be designed in such a way to meet their energy expenditure and sustain good health. A large part of well-balanced nutrition for endurance athletes is the amount and type of carbohydrates they consume.

Carbohydrates are the primary source of immediate energy for all of your body’s cells. To touch on the science a little bit, carbohydrate consumption causes a release of insulin in the body. From a sport nutrition perspective, larger insulin responses can be very beneficial at certain times, like after an intense game or workout. From a general health and wellbeing perspective, consuming a sufficient amount of carbohydrates can help to ensure that hormone production is operating as it should be. Research has shown that female athletes are very susceptible to the disruption of hormone production as a result of low-carb diets. Eating an insufficient amount of carbohydrates as a female athlete can result in:

  • Amenorrhea (stopped or irregular menstrual cycle)
  • Blood sugar swings
  • Increased body fat
  • Muscle loss
  • Decreased bone density
  • Chronic inflammation and pain
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety and depression get the idea. Carbs are our friends.

Does this mean you can eat all the carbs you want? In short, no. There’s a little more to it than that.

Let’s take individual differences for example. People differ in how they handle carbohydrates. Some bodies respond well to a diet high in carbohydrates, whereas other bodies prefer a low to moderate carbohydrate intake. The biggest factor when considering how your body responds to carbohydrates is the type of carbohydrates you’re eating.

There are two types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Simple carbs are sugars and refined carbs that the body can break down quickly (think of packaged or processed foods you might eat). Eating too many of these types of carbohydrates can produce undesirable side effects and won’t help to improve your performance. On the other hand, complex carbs – or what I like to refer to as “smart” carbs - are digested and absorbed much slower by the body. Smart carbs include things like whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Eating these types of carbohydrates can result in improved energy levels, a leaner body composition and better health outcomes.

Each athlete is unique when it comes to the specific amount of carbohydrates she needs to fuel her body and her sport. Your individual carb requirement will depend on your goals (fat loss, maintenance, muscle gain), your genetics (thanks mom and dad), the type of carbohydrates you’re eating and your activity level (endurance athlete, power athlete, sedentary).

In order to figure out what your body responds best to, experiment. Play around with adding more smart carbs to your diet and eating fewer simple carbs. Assess how you look, feel and perform. Are your workouts feeling better? Has your energy level changed? There’s no right or wrong answer. All feedback is helpful in deciding what works best for you and your body.

And of course, we can’t forget, carbohydrates are only one important part of a well-balanced diet. Most of us will look, feel and perform at our absolute best when we eat a balance of lean proteins, smart carbs healthy fats and veggies (which, are technically a smart carb but they’re so good for you we list them twice).

The bottom line:

- Most of us require some level of carbohydrates to function at our best over the long term. Don’t overly restrict.

- The type of carbs we eat matters. Choose a wide variety of minimally processed, whole foods.

- Experiment. Be objective. Observe how you look, feel and perform.

- Decide what works for you based on the data you collect about yourself, not based on what you think you “should” do.

- Don’t sweat the small stuff. Eating well-balanced meals 80% of the time allows for a few tasty, less-nutritious treats, when eaten in moderation.

As a high-school athlete, trying to juggle getting ready for school, classes, practice, homework and extracurricular activities, taking time to eat healthy and incorporate smart carbs into your routine can be tough. Try using a few of these suggestions to ensure you’re getting what you need to feel and play your best every day:

  • Eat a well-balanced breakfast before school. It might mean waking up a few minutes earlier (I know, I know), but starting your morning off with breakfast can impact how you feel for the rest of the day. Go for an easy pairing of protein and smart carbs like Greek yogurt topped with fresh fruit and granola, or eggs with whole grain toast. If you’re rushed and need something on the go a protein shake can be a great convenient option too!
  • Carry a water bottle with you. If school policy permits, carrying a bottle of water with you throughout the day can reduce your juice, sweetened coffee beverage and/or sugary soft drink consumption (most of which contain simple sugars that don’t offer much nutritional value). Feel free to add some fresh fruit, like lemon, lime or orange, to your water for some natural flavor!
  • Pack healthy snacks. Have you ever noticed that when you go a long time between meals you tend to make less healthy choices? You feel so ravenous that you grab whatever you can to ease your hunger? We’ve all been there. In an effort to make sure you’re making the best choices and staying well fuelled throughout the day, (especially if you’re planning to be active after school) you want to make sure you have snacks on hand. Fresh fruit is always a great option and can be easily paired with a healthy fat such as a handful of nuts or a cheese stick to help keep you fuller for longer. Another great option is homemade trail mix. Try mixing your favorite wholegrain cereal with nuts, seeds and dried fruit for a high-energy treat. Packing healthy snacks like these that can be prepared in advance and don’t need to be refrigerated can make your school day a little easier. Granola bars and whole grain crackers can also be quick energy-boosting snack options, but watch out for added sugars and sweeteners, as these less nutritious simple carbs tend to leave you feeling sluggish and tired.
  • Pack your lunch. It might require a little extra time each day (or night – packing your lunch the night before is a great way to plan ahead), but knowing that you have all the nutrients you need to feel and play your best is always worth it. Focus on lunches that are easy to transport, pack well, are filling and healthy. Remember the important nutrients to consider when looking to create a well-balanced meal: 
  • Lean protein (chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, etc.)
  • Smart carbs (whole grains like brown rice, oats, quinoa and whole wheat breads/wraps and fruit)
  • Healthy fats (nuts, nut butters, oils, avocado, etc.)
  • Vegetables (leafy greens, peppers, carrots, etc.)

Focusing on these four things – whether you’re packing them in your lunch or looking for a healthy option at the school cafeteria - will ensure that you stay satisfied until your next meal/snack and that your body has everything it needs to feel, look and perform at its best.

This article is featured in the Fall 2017 issue of FHLife Magazine. To read more inspiring, knowledge-packed and fun features revolving around hockey, fitness, healthy eating and how to strengthen your game, subscribe to our quarterly publication by clicking here.