Several years ago I stopped eating white bagels and was faced with questions like, “What do you mean you don’t eat bagels? What do you eat then?” As a marathoner and endurance athlete, my training partners looked at me incredulously. Pasta and bagels are staples in every runner’s diet… how else do you carbo load?
Yet on the other end of the spectrum, at least half the women at the gym reel in horror at the thought of carbs. Oatmeal, fruit, and bread are all banned from their shopping carts. No-carb fad diets became the norm over the past decade as fears of obesity and rising blood sugar levels turned all carbs into the enemy. There seems to be more confusion than ever.
First and foremost, let’s not forget the crucial role that carbohydrates play in our bodies. Our liver breaks carbohydrates down to glucose, which is then either used immediately as energy or stored as glycogen in our muscles and liver. Excess levels are converted to fat, hence the fears about the link between carbs and fat. Glucose is used by every cell in the body and is the primary fuel source for your brain. If you’re feeling a little fuzzy-headed by mid-afternoon it could be because your brain is starving. Exercise, of course, also needs to be fueled by carbs. This is true for everyone from elite athletes to weekend warriors. The bottom line is that we need to consume carbohydrates in order to keep both our mental and physical energy tanks topped up.
So why did I stop eating bagels? Really, it’s about the power of whole foods. Carbohydrates are not all alike and our body distinguishes between simple and complex carbs. The Standard American Diet (SAD), with its reliance on processed, packaged convenience foods has left many of us nutritionally depleted. White flour and sugary products are simple carbohydrates that have been stripped of their naturally occurring vitamins, minerals and fiber. They are digested and enter the bloodstream quickly, which explains that boost of energy followed by the crash an hour later.
As an athlete, my food is my fuel. The nutrients that I consume (or don’t) will affect my health, my energy and my performance levels. Digestion and absorption of nutrients, restful sleep and recovery from hard training are all dependent on what we eat. Why would I choose to fuel with empty calories over nutrient-dense whole foods? Artificial and processed foods (including many breakfast cereals, packaged granola bars, cookies and white rice) with their high glycemic loads, can leave you feeling hungry and sluggish within an hour. That’s because sustained energy can only come from the complex carbs that release glucose into your bloodstream more slowly (the higher the glycemic load, the more rapid the effect on your blood sugar). Whether you’re trying to get through a yoga class, a spinning class or an afternoon run, you don’t want to run out of steam half way through.
Complex carbohydrates in the form of whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables are nutritional powerhouses. High in fiber, they will keep you feeling fuller longer, promote healthy digestion and keep blood sugar in check. Legumes, fruits and vegetables are loaded with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that combat inflammation and free-radical induced damage (common in all levels of athletes). As a runner, they will give me all the energy I need when I’m facing that final set of intervals on the track or my next 15 mile run.
Here are 3 carbs I can’t live without:
I can’t say enough about this superfood. High in both fiber and carbohydrate content, sweet potatoes provide sustained energy and will satisfy the hungriest appetite. They are brimming with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds in the form of Vitamin C, beta-carotene and anthocyanins. High levels of potassium help maintain fluid and electrolyte balance in our bodies and can help alleviate muscle cramps. Also as a great source of iron, manganese, folate and vitamin B6, sweet potatoes will give your immunity a boost. They are easy to enjoy when baked whole but are particularly good if you slice them up, drizzle a little olive oil and sea salt and pop them into the oven. Yummy sweet potato fries!
In all the hype against sugar and fructose, somehow fruit has also been lumped in as one of the bad guys. Consider that a white bagel will have a glycemic load of 24 whereas an apple comes in at 6 and even the often-feared banana has a glycemic load of 11. While whole fruit does contain fructose, it also is packed with fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. What could be easier to eat on the run than an apple? With an amazing array of phytonutrients, apples promote healthy blood-sugar balance and offer anti-asthma, anti-cancer and cardiovascular benefits along with 21 grams of complex carbs. Enjoy 3-4 servings of fresh fruit every day.
Technically quinoa is not a grain, but a protein-packed seed. Its benefits, however, are very similar to those of whole grains. Its fiber and mineral content can reduce the risks of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity. With 10 grams of protein and 58 grams of carbs in a half cup serving, it not only fuels your body but will also aid in tissue repair and growth. Served with a dollop of maple syrup, cinnamon and a handful of berries, quinoa is a great alternative to cold breakfast cereals.
For health, vitality and peak performance you won’t find white bagels, but you will find lots of carbs in my shopping cart!
Image: Avelino Maestas