As kids head back to school and sports practices, you might start hearing the term “carb-loading.” Carbs have been controversial in the health and nutrition world for decades. Are carbs good? Are they bad? What exactly are carbs? There are plenty of questions surrounding the role of carbohydrates in the diet – their role in weight gain or loss and their role in athletic performance. Still, most people see carbs as neutral or even vital if they are involved in high-intensity exercise and sports –particularly when used before a large event in the form of carb-loading. So, what about carb-loading? Is it a good idea? Let’s begin by covering what carbohydrates are.

What Are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates, in general, are one of the three macronutrient categories of food – along with fats and proteins. Many people think of carbs as bread, potatoes, and pasta. However, those foods are just examples of complex carbohydrates; they are good sources of starches and fiber. Carbohydrates come in many forms. “Carbohydrate” is an umbrella term that includes fruits, vegetables, legumes, fiber, and many kinds of sugar.

Carbohydrates are categorized as either simple or complex based on the number of sugar molecules in their chemical structure. Simple carbohydrates have one or two sugars (monosaccharides or disaccharides). Complex carbohydrates have three or more sugars (oligosaccharides or polysaccharides).

Simple

The term “simple carbohydrates” refers to sugars with a simple molecular structure. They have just one or two sugar molecules. Examples of monosaccharides are glucose, fructose, and galactose. Fructose we know as “fruit sugar.” When glucose and fructose combine, they create a disaccharide we all know and love; sucrose, or “table sugar.” Another well-known disaccharide is lactose, which some people have difficulty breaking down. When that happens, someone is lactose-intolerant. Overall, simple carbohydrates are easy to digest and turn into energy. That also means they tend to have a greater impact on blood sugar.

Complex

Complex carbohydrates are more difficult to digest as they have a more complicated structure. Oligosaccharides (three to ten sugars) and polysaccharides (more than ten sugars) are complex carbohydrates. Because complex carbohydrates take longer to digest, health and nutrition experts recommend them over simple carbs. They serve to feed our gut microbiome, providing balanced energy as well as short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that nourish our brain cells.

What is Carb-Loading?

Carb-loading is a nutrition strategy used by athletes to prepare their bodies for competition. Carbohydrates are a crucial energy source for the body since they break down into the simple carbohydrate or sugar known as glucose. Our blood sugar is also glucose. It flows through our blood vessels as ready energy. The body stores glucose in a different form; glycogen. Glycogen is stored in the liver and muscles and then released when glucose levels drop.

Because carbohydrates are used by the body for energy, loading up on them before an athletic event helps to ensure plenty of stored energy that can be used for fuel as needed. The “loading” part basically refers to overfeeding on carbs beyond your immediate needs. When you overconsume carbs, the extra glucose converts into glycogen for later use.

You may have first encountered the concept of carb-loading during middle school or high school sports, where coaches would host a spaghetti or other pasta dinner with plenty of bread for the athletes the night before the big day. The night before version of carb loading is just one way to do it. You can also gradually increase carbs over three to six days. It all depends on your needs and preferences.

Where Did the Idea of Carb-Loading Come From?

The idea of carb-loading comes from our understanding of how the body functions during physical stress in the form of athletic performance.

Early Research on Performance

Researchers have analyzed how food impacts athletic performance since the 1930s. In 1939, Christensen & Hansen showed that a short-term high carbohydrate diet helped to enhance endurance exercise. In the 1960s, Swedish studies used a needle muscle biopsy to demonstrate the connection between muscle glycogen depletion and fatigue during endurance exercise. Since then, researchers have focused on optimizing muscle glycogen storage and preventing glycogen breakdown as much as possible to improve performance in endurance sports.

Replenishing Glycogen

The idea of carb-loading comes from our understanding of energy usage and storage in the body. Glycogen is the storage form of glucose. The idea behind carb-loading is to stock up your glycogen reserves as much as possible before your athletic event. It’s like giving yourself a full tank of fuel before a road trip. In fact, it’s probably more like having a full tank and then filling up a gas can that you take along on the trip.

What Happens if You Deplete Glycogen?

So, why do you need to ensure your glycogen levels are optimized? It all goes back to maintaining a constant energy source and avoiding the “bonk” or “crash.” Some people call it “hitting the wall.” These terms refer to what happens when you use up all your glycogen stores and have no glucose to use for energy. If you crash or hit a wall, what does it look like? Here are some of the symptoms:

  • Sudden fatigue or loss of energy
  • Light-headedness
  • Feeling weak and shaky
  • Sweating
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • An immediate need to lie down
  • Confusion or acting inebriated

Clearly, this puts an immediate stop to your performance. You do not want to get to this point. That’s why even if you eat an overall lower carbohydrate diet, carb-loading for one to six days before the competition or event is essential.

How to Do Carb Loading Properly

If you’re considering carb-loading, here are a few basic things to know:

  • Carb-loading is only called for if you will be doing more than 90 minutes of constant exercise (no breaks). Examples include bicycling or running. It is not beneficial for shorter exertion, even exercise lasting 60 to 90 minutes.
  • The amount of carbs you will need is based on your weight. The recommended amount is 3 to 5.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight a day.
  • Carb-loading has a few different versions. You can do it in six days, three days, or just one day. At The Wellness Way, we are not fans of the one-day version. You need a longer amount of time to stock up glycogen in your muscles.
  • Don’t add extra calories from fat along with your carbs, as that can be detrimental. Not only can it slow digestion; but it also adds unneeded calories when a higher percentage should come from carbs. In other words, don’t eat pasta with a cream-based sauce or eat rice chips with a big bowl of guacamole.
  • Keep the fiber on the lower side. –Go with white rice over brown and regular oatmeal over oat bran. Allergen-friendly starches, like tapioca starch, can be a good addition to a shake.

Even when done properly, there are some problems with traditional or typical carb-loading.

Problems With Carb-Loading

If you are used to carb-loading in preparation for an athletic event, there are a few things to consider. Here are a few potential problems with carb-loading:

Carb Quality

High carbohydrate foods often used for carb-loading are not always so healthy. Often a carb-loading team event is a “pasta night.” Pasta, made with wheat, is highly contaminated with the chemical glyphosate. Glyphosate is linked to many health problems, from depression to gastrointestinal diseases to cancers. Genetically modified crops are another carb quality issue. Some GMO crops that may appear in your carb-loading shakes or foods include sugar beet, corn, potatoes, and soy-based ingredients.

Food Allergies

Another potential problem with carb loading is the potential that you’re eating foods you have allergies to. At The Wellness Way, a test we administer often is a food allergy test. Many people have allergies to wheat, and you may already be eating wheat-free or gluten-free. However, what many people may not realize is that it’s also common to have allergies to other carb sources, like rice, oats, or millet. Eating large amounts of foods you’re allergic to may do more harm than good. Foods may also be cross-contaminated by allergens. The reason you’ll see gluten-free oats is that oats are often cross-contaminated with wheat, making a package of oatmeal or oat flour no longer gluten-free.

Blood Sugar Concerns

Blood sugar issues are another reason you might want to re-think carb loading. If you’re pre-diabetic, you may not handle carbohydrate-rich foods as well. You may have a greater glucose response to complex carbohydrates like potatoes or oats than someone more metabolically flexible. You may also already have plenty of glycogen stored and not need to add more. Before incorporating carb-loading into your exercise or pre-event routine, get your blood sugar panel done. It includes a complete metabolic panel, fasting insulin, hemoglobin A1C, leptin, and a lot more, including inflammation and thyroid markers. This data will help your Wellness Way practitioner coach you on whether carb-loading will be beneficial or harmful for you.

Carb-Loading from a Wellness Way Perspective

It’s possible to carb-load following a Wellness Way approach. But you should understand how carb loading and the foods you choose affect your whole body –beyond replenishing glycogen. Carb-loading is typically something that high-level athletes would pursue. Make sure your overall health is in good order before you consider carb-loading.

Swiss Watch Approach

If you want to improve athletic performance, it makes more sense to optimize all body’s systems. At The Wellness Way, we look at the body’s many systems as gears in a Swiss watch. If one of the “gears” gets stuck, it will affect all the other gears. The result is that the “watch” will not work like it’s supposed to, and its performance will not be as good as it could be. If you have an infection in your gut, if you have depleted hormones, or if you have excess inflammation, your whole body will suffer.

Working out in harmony with your menstrual cycle is important if you’re a woman. Carb-loading only focuses on one aspect of athletic performance: the need for replenished glycogen stores. But glycogen isn’t the only requirement for a body under physical stress. You also need:

  • A healthy gut
  • A balanced immune response
  • Restful sleep
  • Protein
  • Potassium
  • Magnesium

These are just a few things. You also need optimized electrolytes in general, B vitamins, the full spectrum of trace minerals, antioxidants, and more. The body is complex. It can do amazing things, but it needs the right environment and nutrients to do so.

Should You Carb Load?

At The Wellness Way, we focus on personalized nutrition. Whether you can safely carb-load (and what carbs you should consume) is based on several things:

  • Your food allergies
  • Your glucose (carb) tolerance
  • Women: consider your menstrual cycle
  • Men: consider your testosterone levels

If your health and energy levels aren’t what they should be, it’s time to look at what is throwing you off balance. Once you address the traumas, toxins, and thoughts that are contributing to inflammation, you can add in some Wellness Way-approved carbs to get you ready for the big race.

The Wellness Way Approved Carb Ideas

Depending on your food allergies, you can enjoy oats, quinoa, potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, or gluten-free pancake/waffle mix to replenish your glycogen in preparation for a race or event. You’ll also find some great recipes using these ingredients on our website.

The Wellness Way Can Help Optimize Performance

Rather than simply gorge on glyphosate-treated wheat products, which will increase inflammation, give your body what it needs to function at a high level. Get your food allergies tested, get your gut health tested, and make sure all your body’s systems are in top-notch condition. Focus on health first and performance will follow. Contact a Wellness Way clinic today!

Resources:

  1. Characterization and Analysis of Food-Sourced Carbohydrates – PubMed (nih.gov)
  2. Physiology, Carbohydrates – StatPearls – NCBI Bookshelf (nih.gov)
  3. Carbohydrate-loading and exercise performance. An update – PubMed (nih.gov)
  4. A high carbohydrate diet remains the evidence-based choice for elite athletes to optimise performance – PMC (nih.gov)
  5. Nutrition for endurance sports: marathon, triathlon, and road cycling – PubMed (nih.gov)
  6. Carbohydrate-loading and exercise performance. An update – PubMed (nih.gov)
  7. Practical applications in sports nutrition | WorldCat.org
  8. What GMO CROPS are grown and sold in the U.S.? (fda.gov)

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