Carbs…for some people, the very mention of the word makes them shudder. Many recent trends advocate ‘low-carb’ diets, which has left many of us confused about the role of carbohydrates in our body. However, like other macronutrients (proteins and fats), carbohydrates are just as important for a healthy and balanced diet.

What role do carbohydrates play?

Carbohydrates play a number of important roles in your body and without them we would be left depleted of our most valuable energy source. They are the primary source of energy for all body functions and muscular exertion, they enable the proteins in your body to be used for tissue recovery (muscle building) and they regulate digestion. Without carbs, our bodies must use protein or fat for fuel. This causes problems, as the primary function of protein is to build muscle, not to provide energy. A lack of carbohydrate in the diet also leads to the loss of water, sodium and potassium.

Why are carbohydrates important?

Carbohydrates are key for energy, speed, stamina and even concentration. They are vital in everyone’s diet, but are a particularly important food group for athletes and active individuals as they are the primary energy source in the body. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose (sugar) before being absorbed into the bloodstream so they can be used for energy.

Unused glucose is converted to glycogen, found in the liver and muscles. Once the glycogen stores are full, any additional glucose is converted to fat for long term storage of energy. This is where the popular mindset that carbs make you fat comes into play. As long as you aren’t overeating, there is no reason to store any additional fat as a result of eating carbs.

Stored glycogen in the muscles is vital for physical activity and it effects your energy levels, stamina and strength. The glycogen in your liver is released into your bloodstream to keep your blood sugar levels balanced. Low glycogen levels may leave you feeling dizzy, uncoordinated and unable to concentrate. It will also affect your performance when exercising as your brain will not receive enough fuel to maintain optimum function.

Different types of carbohydrate

There are three different types of carbohydrates found in food: sugar, starch (made up of many sugar units bonded together) and fibre. Carbohydrates are split into two groups: simple and complex carbs, the difference in the two being how quickly the sugar is absorbed and digested. Typically, simple carbs are absorbed and digested more quickly. Simple carbs contain just one or two sugars, whereas complex carbs have three or more sugars and are normally referred to as starchy foods such as potatoes, beans, lentils and whole-grain bread. Simple carbs provide quicker bursts of energy, whereas complex carbs are a longer, sustained energy source.

The types of carbohydrates you choose is just as important as ensuring they are included in your diet in the first place and there are a wide array to be found in both healthy and unhealthy foods.

Common sources of natural occurring carbohydrates include:

Examples of good, complex carbs that can easily be added into your diet include sweet potato, brown rice and green leafy vegetables.

Unhealthier sources of carbohydrates include highly processed or refined foods such as white bread and sugary snacks.

How much carbohydrate should I be eating?

The amount of carbohydrate you require varies dependent on age, gender, body composition and activity levels. As a rule of thumb, we need around 5-7g of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight or 60 per cent of your daily calorie intake from carbohydrates.

What is “carb loading” and why do people do it?

If you hang around endurance athletes, in particular runners you may have heard them talk about “carb loading”. Increasing your carb intake three days before a race will boost your glycogen stores and help make sure you reach the start line with maximum energy to perform at your best. During a carb-loading period, carbohydrate intake should be increased to around 8-10g per kilogram of bodyweight. Adding protein to these additional carbohydrate intakes will also be beneficial as it will slow down digestion and encourage a slower release of energy.

Make sure you are including a healthy amount of carbohydrates in your daily diet, relative to how active you are each day. If you want to work to your full potential and get the most out of your training sessions then you need carbohydrates and the energy source that they provide to help you do so.