Like Protein and Fat, Carbohydrates are a MACRO Nutrient. Carbs are building blocks found in the fruits, vegetables, grains and starches. There are different types of carbohydrates with different nutritional values and some are digestible while some are not. Some carbs are complex, some are simple like refined sugar while others have soluble fibre and insoluble fibre.
Simple carbs (essentially sugars or high sugar foods) are quickly digested and readily available to the body following consumption. Some complex carbs like oatmeal, nuts, beans, apples, and blueberries provide slow release energy and contain more soluble fibre making them better for the body and can have benefits such as lowering cholesterol and reducing the chance of heart disease.
However, all carbs are ultimately converted into glucose (blood sugar) with the exception of fibre and glycerine. The most basic carbohydrate our bodies use is a simple sugar glucose, although the human bodies also create a more complex carb which is glucose stored in muscles and liver as glycogen. In relation to this some carbs are higher in sugar and digest more quickly. This can provide more immediate energy, versus the slower release energy found in a complex carbohydrate like oats. In training and life when you consume different types of carbohydrate and for what purpose can be quite important.
Carbohydrates help in the following ways:
- Before Physical Activity: Help to increase energy stores and delay fatigue.
- During Physical Activity: Maintain blood sugar to fuel the muscles being used.
- Post Physical Activity: Replace Glycogen and aid recovery
- Simple carbohydrates (monosacharides) are essentially sugars.
- They are easily digested and can provide a quick boost of glucose into the bloodstream to provide a lift in short term energy.
- Simple carbs can be useful for endurance activity where the body is in need of fast energy replenishment. For example, a marathon runner or long distance cyclist.
- They are found naturally in many foods:
- Glucose & Fructose is found in fruits and vegetables
- Galactose & Lactose are Milk sugars
- Sucrose is common table sugar
- Maltose is a grain sugar
- Examples of simple carbs include; carbonated soft drinks, cakes and baked treats, cookies, cereal, fruit juice and generally foods containing refined sugar and things like corn syrup.
- Complex carbohydrates (polysaccharides) contain lots of connected monosaccharides.
- Some Polysaccharides are digestible such as glycogen, dextrins and starch.
- Other Polysacchrides are indigestible. These include cellulose, hemicellulose, pectin, gums and mucilages.
- Examples of complex carbohydrates include rolled oats broccoli, kidney beans, apples and unrefined grains like whole wheat bread.
The above is a simple summary of multi-faceted facts behind carbohydrates and more detail can be found with a bit of research. Ultimately Carbohydrates are an essential fuel for exercise, Glucose is the main fuel used by muscles. The more intense the exercise the more the body relies on glucose. When looking at athletes and fitness training the key thing is that more conditioned individuals can convert glucose into glycogen in the muscles better. The enzyme in the body that helps to do this are most elevated in the 30 min window after exercise, so it’s important to consume some quality carbs with your protein after a work out to maximise the opportunity.