The Athletic Benefits of Carbs

At Women in Sports Day during the 2018 FS Investments U.S. Open, a panel discussed elements of how athletes can maintain strong and healthy bodies both during and outside of competition. One of the panelists was Nyree Dardarian (above, center right), MS, RD, CSSD, FAND, LDN, an assistant clinical professor and director of the Center for Nutrition & Performance at Drexel University.

Squash Magazine: How do you start when evaluating someone’s diet?

Nyree Dardarian: I start by evaluating the distribution of their macronutrients—fat, carbohydrates, and protein. Most athletes aren’t getting as many calories that they need for proper energy levels. Carbohydrates is a word I love to say. Athletes’ carbohydrate needs fluctuate the most among the macronutrients. The amount of protein and fat that you need as an athlete versus non-athlete does not differ very much, nor change much with the duration or intensity of activity. What does change are the amount, volume and timing of carbohydrate needs. So, we want to make sure that they are fueling their body before and during the workout, so they can stay there longer without fatigue and perform at a higher level. That all starts with carbohydrates.

SM: Would you recommend changes in carbohydrate intake based on whether they are playing on a particular day?

ND: The macronutrient requirements of a recreational athlete, specifically carbohydrates, are determined by their goals, and schedule. If the goal is for fitness, carbohydrate intake should account for 50-60% of total calories. If the goal is for performance, the recommended amount remains the same, but the timing would shift to consume roughly 30-60 grams of carbohydrates before they play, to delay the onset of fatigue and to perform at the highest level.

SM: What are some common misconceptions about carbohydrates?

ND: The biggest one is that you do not need carbohydrates. That is not true—most athletes do not consume enough carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the only nutrient that cross the blood-brain barrier, meaning they provides fuel for the brain. In addition, eliminating carbohydrates from the diet can lead to shortfall of nutrients. The only foods that do not contain carbohydrates are meat products and fats. Many water-soluble vitamins and minerals are missed when eliminating fruits, vegetables, dairy and grains from the diet.

SM: What are some of the best carbs for pre-match fueling?

ND: Carbohydrates are found in grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy products. I recommend athletes consume two cups of fruit, three cups of dairy, eight ounces of grains, and vegetables every day. There is nothing electrifying or gimmicky about eating healthfully. Choosing high-fiber, prebiotic rich options on non-game-days helps improve gut function, immune health and an environment for probiotics to thrive. As match day approaches, I suggest including more refined carbohydrates while increasing the total amount of carbohydrates for the body to readily convert the carbohydrates to glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrate in the body) and begin to build muscle and liver glycogen stores for energy availability during a match. Refined carbohydrates include white rice, fruits, and pasta. Yogurt and milk are also good sources of carbohydrates.

SM: And during a match?

ND: Between games is a time to eat (a quickly-absorbed carbohydrate like a sports gel), drink (water) and think (plan for the next game). Using this time to re-fuel the body and the brain can serve as a valuable ergogenic aid and give a competitive edge.

SM: How do players know they are getting an optimal amount of caloric intake?

ND: Meeting daily energy or calorie needs is challenging. Energy needs during intense training and tournament play can reach peaks of more than 4,000 calories per day. In an energy deficit, rebuilding muscle tissue is not a priority for the body. Essential functions like temperature regulation command the available nutrients. If an athlete feels like they are running out of gas quickly, this is a sign of energy deficiency. Other signs include tiredness, hitting a training plateau, insomnia and constipation. Weight loss is not always a determinant of inadequate calorie intake. If performance and results are not consistent with training, I suggest evaluating the diet for insight.