Years ago, I used to talk about carbohydrates in terms of “good vs bad” or even “simple vs complex.” My way of thinking about carbs has evolved a lot since I first began working with athletes on their nutrition almost a decade ago.
I recognize now that each type of carb serves a purpose, so it’s all about consuming the appropriate carb for the job. The carbs you eat surrounding your training serve a very different purpose than the carbs you eat away from your training. One is supposed to give you quick energy to train and recover hard, the other is supposed to give you long lasting energy to get you through work, meetings, school, etc.
I don’t think there is currently a more applicable way of rating carbs for athletes than the glycemic index (GI). GI is a ranking of foods according to how they affect blood glucose levels. Foods that are 55 or less on the GI scale are considered low glycemic. These low GI carbs are more slowly digested than their high GI counterparts, which causes a slow and steady release of energy over time. Foods that are 70 or higher are considered high glycemic. These high GI carbs are very quick digesting and cause a rapid spike in blood sugar. You might be asking yourself “why on Earth would I want to rapidly spike my blood sugar?” Answer: for energy for training and to quickly blunt the degradation processes that occur in our body post-training and begin the recovery process (1).
- If your meal is 2-3 hours before training, consume low to moderate GI carbs (<70GI)
- If your meal is 30 mins before training, consume moderate to high GI carbs (>55GI)
- High GI carbs only! (>70GI). Dextrose, Gatorade, and fat free candy are the most popular
- High Gi carbs immediately post-training (>70GI)
Important Note: No fat should be consumed at any of those meals. It delays gastric emptying and lowers the GI value of the meal.
All other meals:
Aim to keep meals away from training in the low GI range (<55GI). This will keep your blood sugar stable, avoid big blood sugar spikes and crashes, keep your insulin levels in the healthy range, and help prevent inflammation associated with eating lots of high GI foods which can lead to a variety of lifestyle diseases (obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) as well as cognitive decline and even some cancers) (2, 3).
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- Kerksick CM, Arent S, Schoenfeld BJ, et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14(1):33. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4
- Rippe JM, Angelopoulos TJ. Relationship between Added Sugars Consumption and Chronic Disease Risk Factors: Current Understanding. Nutrients. 2016;8(11). doi:10.3390/nu8110697
- Welsh JA, Sharma A, Abramson JL, Vaccarino V, Gillespie C, Vos MB. Caloric Sweetener Consumption and Dyslipidemia Among US Adults. JAMA. 2010;303(15):1490. doi:10.1001/jama.2010.449