By: Heath Reid

Recent fad diets that involve low or no carbohydrates can be beneficial for some people; however, athletes should avoid such extremes. Although eating a healthy diet is an important part of being physically fit, diets low in carbohydrates and lacking sugar can actually have a negative effect on the careers of elite athletes. 

What Are Carbohydrates? 

In order to understand why carbs are necessary, you need to know what they are and how they work in the body. A carbohydrate is a sugar molecule that, along with fats and proteins, make up the main nutrients found in drinks and foods. 

The human body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose. Glucose, often called “blood sugar,” is the primary source of energy for cells, body tissues and organs. Glucose may be used immediately or stored for later use. 

There are different types of carbohydrates, including: 

  • Sugars – These are simple carbohydrates that may naturally occur or add to foods. 
  • Starches – These are complex carbohydrates that are made of strings of simple sugars. The body must break down starches into sugars in order to use them for energy. 
  • Fiber – This is another complex carbohydrate; however, the body cannot break down most fibers. Fiber does make you feel full and regulate your digestion. 

What Foods Have Carbohydrates? 

Nearly all foods have some type of carbohydrates. Candy, desserts, processed foods and sodas are high in sugar. Starches include things like bread, cereal, potatoes and pasta. Foods high in fiber include plants such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. 

Some foods do not have many carbohydrates, such as meat, poultry, fish, cheese, nuts and oils. These foods are typically higher in other nutrients like protein and fats. 

Do Athletes Need Carbohydrates and Sugar?

Yes. As has been mentioned previously, carbohydrates and sugar are used as energy by the human body. In fact, scientists agree that endurance exercise can be improved by increasing carbohydrates in the diet of athletes. 

Serious athletes should not engage in a low-carb diet. Instead, they need between three and 12 grams of carbs per kilogram of bodyweight. Carbohydrate intake should be adjusted depending on the length and type of training sessions. More carbs are needed for more intense or longer training. 

Eating Carbohydrates Before Exercise

Pre-exercise meals prevent athletes from feeling hungry before and during training. It also maintains optimal levels of energy during muscle exertion. Athletes should eat three to four hours before an event and add small amounts of protein to regulate energy levels by slowing the absorption of carbohydrates. 

Eating at All Day Athletic Events

If an athlete is competing in an all-day event or in events over time, they should refresh their carbohydrate levels between matches. If there is less than one hour between events, liquid carbohydrates should be used, such as sports drinks. If there are more than two hours between events, food containing protein and carbohydrates should be eaten since there is enough time for digestion. Granola bars, jerky and fruit are good options during all-day athletic events. 

Consumer Carbohydrates After Intense Exercise

Carbohydrates should be consumed as soon as possible after an exercise event to start replenishing glycogen stores in the body. This should take place within six hours after training or competition. Small amounts of protein should also be eaten to encourage muscle repair and rebuilding. 

Should Athletes Eat Sugar? 

Sugar is a simple carbohydrate that can be easily used by the body quickly. Sugar can result in a spike in energy that decreases suddenly, leaving athletes feeling fatigued. If sugar is consumed, it should be paired with a more complex carbohydrate or protein to show absorption and promote long-lasting energy. 

Carbohydrates and Sugar are Necessary for Athletes to Perform Well

Carbohydrates and sugar have gotten a bad wrap over the last few decades. However, these nutrients provide the necessary energy to the human body. Athletes should be aware of their carbohydrate intake and ensure they are getting enough before, during and after events.