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Are you eating enough carbs?

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Getting the right balance of fuel can make a big difference to your energy, but there is a lot of conflicting information about diet and exercise - especially when it comes to carbohydrates. Personal trainer Andrew Cate reviews the latest research to help sort the facts from the fiction.

The carbohydrate debate

Carbohydrate foods such as bread, rice, pasta and starchy vegetables are broken down into glucose, and stored in your liver and muscles.

So why is it that such an important fuel source is often prescribed as one of the first foods to minimise when you're starting out on a path for health and wellbeing?

The confusion over carbohydrates often stems from generalisations and individual differences. What's prescribed for one person may not be suitable for the next. This can be highlighted by:
  • Your goals - Different health goals (eg. weight loss vs. fitness) demand very different strategies in both the way you eat and train
  • Your activity levels - Carbohydrate needs vary dramatically depending on the intensity and duration of your activity. What's more, this may even vary on a daily basis depending on your activity
  • Carbohydrate quality - Not all carbs are the same. Carbohydrate foods vary dramatically in the rate at which they are absorbed by the body, which can have differing affects on your energy levels

Carbohydrates and athletic performance

An Australian study published in The Journal of Physiology examined the impact on performance of a low carbohydrate, high fat diet in endurance athletes.

While all subjects achieved substantial improvements in measures of cardiovascular fitness during a period of intensified training, a low carbohydrate diet failed to deliver improvements in athletic performance.

On the flip-side, training with a diet rich in carbohydrates during both training and competition was associated with improved race times.

While athletes who followed a low carbohydrate diet were more efficient at using fat as a fuel source, their performance didn’t improve.

Getting the right balance of carbohydrates in your diet

1. Know your goal

It's important to recognise that there is no "one-size-fits-all” when it comes to health. Cutting back on carbohydrates may be a wise strategy if your exercise program is based around walking, and your goal is to reduce body fat.

However, carbohydrates are an important fuel source for intense exercise, and they provide energy to fuel your workouts when trying to achieve maximum athletic performance. If you are uncertain about the ideal quantity and timing of carbohydrates for your chosen activity, it helps to consult with a dietician.

2. Focus on quality

Low glycemic index (GI) carbohydrates found in beans, wholegrain pasta, oats and vegetables will digest slowly. This results in a small and continuous release of glucose into the blood stream, providing long-term energy.

Combining carbohydrate foods with lean protein and quality plant fats will also slow down the absorption of glucose.

Processed carbohydrates foods such as white bread, rice bubbles and soft drinks are absorbed faster, and are not as effective at providing long-term energy.

3. Get organised with your food

Whatever your goal - athletic performance, weight management or general wellbeing it helps to be organised and well prepared. Take control of your diet to ensure you eat low GI carbohydrates in moderate portions, along with plenty of vegetables and whole foods.

Foster habits such as planning your meals in advance, freezing healthy meals for a later date, shopping to a list, and always having healthy ingredients close at hand. It will save time, and reduce your reliance on last-minute food choices where healthy options can be hard to come by.

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