What are carbohydrates

What is a carbohydrate?

Carbohydrate is a macro-nutrient that supplies a very usable form of energy or fuel to the body

  • 1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories of energy

The body breaks down carbohydrate starches and sugars into glucose, which can be used for energy or stored in the muscles and liver as a compound called glycogen. Starchy foods contain complex carbohydrates which are broken down more slowly than simple sugars, and give a more sustained release of energy. Simple sugars break down much more quickly and give an instant, but shorter supply of energy.

During exercise the glycogen in the specific muscle you are using is converted into glucose and a substance called ATP (adenosine triphosphate) is released. ATP is the actual unit of energy needed to fuel every cell in the body. Once your glycogen stores are depleted you run out of energy. It is therefore important to consume carbohydrates regularly to refill the glycogen stores if you want to get optimum energy reserves.

Where do I get carbohydrates from?

Healthy sources of complex carbohydrate include starchy foods such as Cereals, Potatoes, whole-wheat pasta, wholemeal Breads, and brown rice. Healthy sources of simple carbohydrates include sweet foods such as fruit, juices, root vegetables, honey and sweetcorn.

Carbohydrate requirements

Carbohydrate is an important nutrient during exercise, but the amount you need varies depending on your activity levels and your individual exercise goals. Generally for maximum performance in most sports you should consume around 60% of your calories from carbohydrate, which should be spread out over 4-6 meals per day. For example, if you normally consume 3000 calories per day, you should eat around 450grams of carbohydrate to get your required 1800 calories. This will ensure that muscle glycogen stores are always being replenished and help speed recovery.

If you have performed very strenuous exercise it can take around two days to fully replenish your glycogen stores. Some sports that require long periods of sustained endurance (long distance runners and cyclists) or extra calories to increase weight gain (skinny bodybuilders that are ‘hard gainers’) need very high levels of additional carbohydrate. Some athletes will also ‘carbohydrate load’ several days before an event to completely maximise glycogen muscle stores.

Other information

There are of course also many carbohydrate foods that contain very high amounts of unhealthy sugar such as cakes, pastries, sweets, chocolate and biscuits, but these should be avoided as they can cause an imbalance of blood sugar plus many other ill-effects on health. High sugar diets have been linked to many health disorders including diabetes, hypoglycaemia, Obesity, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Syndrome X, TATT, Tooth decay and Migraine to name a few.

Carbohydrate foods are utilised by the body and released as glucose into the blood stream at a certain rate. Some foods make this happen quicker than others (termed high glycaemic), which causes too much insulin to be released from the pancreas and results in low blood sugar levels resulting in lack of energy and sugar cravings. You then reach out for more sweet foods which repeats the whole process and causes blood sugar imbalance. This state can be avoided by eating foods with a low glycemic index (see our GI facstheet) and combining your carbohydrates with protein.

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