Performance Nutrition Blog

  • Great Sources of Carbohydrates and How Much to Consume

    Knowing how to supply your body with great sources of carbohydrate is critical for high level sports performance and health. If you are wondering why to be concerned about the details of carbohydrates, reading our article, How Managing Macronutrients Can Help You Control Body Weight, will let you know why simply counting calories is not enough for high performance. In addition, before reading further you may want to take a gander at What You Need to Know About Carbohydrates to acquire a good definition of the term carbohydrates and learn why you need them in your diet.

    “Good” versus “Bad” Carbohydrates

    It was once thought that simple sugars were the “bad” form of carbohydrates because they are high on the glycemic index (GI) and complex carbohydrates were the “good” form. The glycemic index estimates how much each gram of available carbohydrate (total carbohydrate minus fiber) in a food raises a person’s blood glucose level following consumption of that food, relative to consumption of pure glucose. 1

    The effect that food and drinks have on blood glucose levels, defined as the glycemic response, is determined by the glycemic index and glycemic load (GL). GL is defined by the amount of carbohydrate in a serving of food or drink ingested and takes into account the volume of food or drink consumed. GL is dependent on the structure of the carbohydrate ingested; the amount of protein, fat and fiber in the food or drink; the amount of food consumed; the content and time of any previous food or drink; and the digestion and absorption process for each person’s own metabolism. GL is very different from GI.

    Research has shown that the glycemic response of both simple and complex carbohydrates can vary greatly and is dependent on a person’s own metabolism. So, rather than focus on GI and GL, another way to think about carbohydrate-rich foods is to consider which are of high quality. If you can determine which foods are wholesome and which, in contrast, are poor in macro- and micro- nutrient value, you can make better decisions about eating for sports performance and health.

    Sources of carbohydrates

    Carbohydrate-rich foods that are also rich in vitamins and minerals provide more than just empty calories. These should be the primary sources of carbohydrate in the diet. These are considered wholesome carbohydrate-rich foods, have the greatest nutritional value and contain only naturally occurring sugars. Wholesome carbohydrate foods include fruits, vegetables and whole grains which contain vitamins, minerals and fiber to aid overall body health. They also help ensure a strong immune system and contain antioxidants that help take care of damage done during training and competition.

    On the other hand, refined and highly processed carbohydrates such as candy, white breads, cereals high in sugar and other high-sugar products such as cakes and cookies are primarily composed by adding sugar to the carbohydrate that is already present.

    Grains, fruits and vegetables

    Most of your carbohydrates should come from wholesome grains, vegetables, fruits and milk. The grains provide some protein, B vitamins and iron as well as a more satiating source of carbohydrate than most fruits and vegetables. Whole grains also provide fiber and the minerals zinc and selenium.

    Processed grains (e.g. white bread) are typically lower in nutrients, phytochemicals and fiber. However, whole grains (e.g. 100% while wheat bread) are not energy dense by themselves and can make it more challenging for certain athletes to meet extreme energy needs if not combined with more energy dense carbohydrates. Go for a mix of grains that includes some whole grains and some minimally-processed grains to maintain a good energy balance.

    Supplementing whole grains with fruits provides substrate for a larger variety of energy demands.  Fruits also provide fiber, potassium, folate and vitamin C. Dark green and orange-red fruits also provide carotenoids, which may be converted to vitamin A.

    Vegetables should also be included in your mix of carbohydrates. They are a great source of fiber, potassium, folate, vitamin C, and carotenoids as well as protein, iron, calcium and other minerals.  Vegetables come in starchy and non-starchy varieties. Starchy vegetables including root vegetables and legumes are packed with carbohydrates. On the other hand ,on-starchy vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, snap peas and leafy greens do not contain a lot of carbohydrate.

    Make it colorful

    In general, consuming fruits and vegetables of a variety of colors provides the range of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals (chemical compounds that occur naturally in plants) your body needs to maintain good health. A variety of colorful phytochemical-rich fruits and vegetables can help you optimize your recovery from strenuous exercise and may lower risk of some chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

    Endurance sport

    Speaking of strenuous exercise, endurance athletes should eat meals and snacks made with real foods and use sports supplements as needed during longer training sessions or competitions. A daily dessert treat can be appropriate for competing athletes as long they don’t get carried away. Dessert and sports supplements should not make up more than 10-15% of your calories.


    Last but not least, milk and yogurt are also great sources of carbohydrates as they provide a good balance of carbohydrates and protein as well as some calcium.

    How Much Carbohydrates do you Need?

    Individualizing your carbohydrate intake based on training, sport and diet history is an absolute necessity for high performance. Food or drink should be consumed in a timely manner to produce stable blood glucose levels throughout the day, which helps the body minimize large fluctuations in energy intake and output.

    The following are recommendations for the quantity of carbohydrates to consume on a daily basis.  We’ll publish posts regarding the timing of different macronutrients for different individual goals in the near future. 

    Adults2 50 -100 grams/day*
    Endurance athletes who train 90 minutes or more/day2 8-10 grams/kg of body weight/day **
    Strength, sprint and skill athletes2 5-6 grams/kg of body weight/day

    * Amount of carbohydrates needed to prevent ketosis, high levels of ketones in the bloodstream.2
    ** This level has been shown to adequately restore skeletal glycogen within 24 hours.2

    Fiber Requirements

    The Dietary Reference Intake for fiber is 38 and 25g/day for men and women, respectively.  Although appropriate for many individuals, this level of fiber may be excessive for some endurance athletes. Fiber can be obtained by a high-fiber cereal and is also found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole-grain products.2

    1The George Mateljan Foundation. (n.d.). Protein. Retrieved August 22, 2014, from The World’s Healthiest Foods:
    2Reimers, K. (2008). Nutritional factors in health and performance. In National Strength and Conditioning Association, T. R. Baechle, & R. W. Earle (Eds.), NSCA Essentials of strength training and conditioning (3rd ed., pp. 201-233). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.


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    What You Need to Know About Carbohydrates
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