Carbohydrates for Performance

by Aimee Wojtowecz

A few blogs back I talked about macronutrients, calories and tracking. Let’s get further into it! This will be part one of a three part series about macronutrients: what they are, why we need them, their impact on performance and recovery, and some suggestions as to your healthiest options. There are three macronutrients: carbohydrates, fat, and protein. This week we start with what has become the most divisive of the three, carbohydrates. (This gets a little sciency, so hang in there!)

Carbohydrates are a class of compounds that can be defined as having a ratio of carbon to hydrogen to oxygen of 1:2:1, Cn(H2O)n. Simple carbohydrates include glucose, galactose, fructose, maltose, sucrose and lactose. These are considered monosaccharides and disaccharides. Complex carbohydrates include glycerose, erythrose, ribose, which are oligosaccharides made of 3 to 10 monosaccharides, and starch, glycogen, pectin, cellulose and gums, which are polysaccharides containing more than 10 monosaccharides. Polysaccharides provide both energy storage and structural functions (Ross, Caballer, Cousins, Tucker and Ziegler, 2014). 

Dietary fiber is considered a complex carbohydrate and can be further broken down into soluble fiber, pectin and hydrocolloids; and insoluble fiber, cellulose and hemicellulose. Both soluble and insoluble fiber are fermented by the luminal bacteria of the colon. The regular consumption of the daily recommended fiber intake has shown the potential to diminish glucose absorption, prevent weight gain, and increase the load of beneficial nutrients and antioxidants in the diet (Ross, Caballer, Cousins, Tucker and Ziegler, 2014). 

We have multiple versions of low carbohydrate diets: Atkins, Keto, Paleo, and yet the American population continues to grow more unhealthy. It is estimated that by the year 2030 (which isn’t so far off anymore), 552 million people will be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Lifestyle factors including poor quality carbohydrate consumption have been linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes while consumption of whole grains and fiber, specifically total fiber and cereal fiber intake, have been inversely associated with type 2 diabetes. The presence of fiber slows blood sugar absorption and causes a bulking effect in the stomach both of which delay the rate of hunger return and/or increase the feelings of satiety (AlEssa et al., 2015).

We’ve long been told that simple carbohydrates are “bad”. Simple carbohydrates include fructose, aka the sugars found in fruit. But recent research suggests that combining fructose with glucose (simple carbohydrate + complex carbohydrate) can increase total carbohydrate availability, allowing for higher carbohydrate oxidation rates (yay for sustained energy!), increased endurance workout performance, and accelerated post-exercise glycogen repletion rates (think about times when you need to recover faster such as competitions with multiple events, or hard workouts with less than 24 hours between them) (Fuchs, Gonzalez, van Loon, 2019).

So now we know what carbohydrates are and why we need a variety which leaves us with the question of what are our best options? This list is just an example of the types of foods that fall into each category and not a complete list of all healthier carbohydrates. 

Complex Carbohydrates

  • Oats
  • Beans
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Wild rice
  • Quinoa
  • Sprouted breads
  • Acorn squash


Simple Carbohydrates

  • Bananas
  • Berries (Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries)
  • Low-fat yogurt
  • Figs


If you have any questions on carbohydrates or how to better work them into your diet, sign up for a FREE 15-minute nutrition consultation and let us help you add those carbs back into your life!



AlEssa, H. B., Bhupathiraju, S. N., Malik, V. S., Wedick, N. M., Campos, H., Rosner, B., … Hu, F. B. (2015). Carbohydrate quality and quantity and risk of type 2 diabetes in US women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 102(6), 1543–1553. doi:10.3945/ajcn.115.116558

Fuchs CJ, Gonzalez JT, van Loon LJC. (2019). Fructose co-ingestion to increase carbohydrate availability in athletes. J Physiol. Jul;597(14): 3549-3560. doi: 10.1113/JP277116. Epub 2019 Jul 2. PMID: 31166604; PMCID: PMC6852172. 

Ross, A.C., Caballero, B., Cousins, R.J., Tucker, K.L., and Ziegler, T.R. (Eds.). (2014). Modern nutrition in health and disease (11th ed.). Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. 


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