Feb 6th, 2013
Author: Christine Redpath
Whether your aim of physical training is to lose weight, increase lean body mass, improve cardiovascular fitness or reduce your risk of developing medical conditions such as diabetes or heart disease, your dietary intake is as important as the workout regime that you follow. While a balanced diet is vital to promote general health and will form the basis of the nutritional intake to complement your training, the importance of carbohydrates can’t be emphasized enough. Low carbohydrate diets might be fashionable to help shed the pounds, but these will do little to support an active lifestyle. Equally, protein is sometimes seen as the most important dietary component for muscle gain, but unless your carbohydrate intake is adequate, you will not see the increase in muscle mass you are hoping to achieve. Here we consider the importance of dietary carbohydrate for strength and cardio-exercise and how this can be achieved.
Carbohydrates for muscle gain
Resistance training is essential for the growth of larger and stronger muscles, which don’t just aid performance and help to prevent injury during sport, but a body that contains more lean body mass is healthier. Muscle is more metabolically active than fat and as a result increasing your muscle mass can help the body to burn more calories and therefore aid weight loss. However, even with resistance training and adequate protein in the diet your body will not be able to achieve the muscle gain that it has the potential to, as the increase in muscle mass is in part limited by the availability of carbohydrate. The growth of new tissue is energy intensive and your body requires additional calories from the diet, which are largely provided by carbohydrate. For example, to gain a pound of muscle over the course of a week the body requires an extra 500 calories daily; for slower muscle gain adjust calorie intake accordingly. Carbohydrate is also vital for muscle gain, as its presence in the bloodstream as glucose stimulates the release of insulin, which signals muscle growth. For an optimum increase of lean body mass, the best course of action is to include modest portions of carbohydrates regularly over the day with meals and snacks, as well as following training sessions. Following this pattern avoids large insulin spikes which would trigger the storage of carbohydrate as fat and after exercise carbohydrate helps to raise glucose levels, which will have fallen during the course of activity. The inclusion of protein after training also helps to aid recovery.
Carbohydrates to fuel cardiovascular fitness
If you prefer to channel your efforts into cardiovascular exercise to achieve a lower pulse and blood pressure, whilst improving lung function, you wouldn’t be able to exert yourself sufficiently without enough carbohydrate in your diet to release the energy needed for an intense workout in the gym. However, not all carbohydrates are the same. The best carbohydrates to choose are those that release their glucose slowly, often referred to as having a low glycemic index; these provide you with a sustained energy release and keep blood glucose levels more stable. Examples of low glycemic index complex carbohydrates include granary or rye bread, pasta, basmati rice, sweet potato and oats and should form the basis of meals; most fruit and vegetables also have a low glycemic index. Although sweet foods often have a high glycemic index, this is not always the case, as factors such as the fat content can slow down the release of glucose, which is why items such as chocolate and ice cream have a lower glycemic index than expected. However, as these sources of simple sugars are high in saturated fat and have little nutritional value, despite their glycemic index they should still not appear regularly in the diet. The presence of protein with a meal, which is what is recommended, also lowers the overall glycemic index, so refined complex carbohydrates can still be included as part of the diet; though it is important to remember that the likes of white bread and rice are lower in fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Including more carbohydrate in the diet
As a guide complex carbohydrates should make up at least a third of what you consume at each meal, with additional carbohydrates being provided by fruit and dairy produce; this allows you to achieve at least 50% of your daily energy from carbohydrates. If you are aiming for weight loss, your carbohydrate portions can be reduced, but should not fall below one-quarter of what is on your plate; eating less than this will not provide adequate for the participation in training. While the guidelines for a balanced diet and one for training might appear rigid, there is no reason why you can’t enjoy a wide range of meals, which the whole family can enjoy. Try to vary the carbohydrates included with each meal to keep them interesting; you wouldn’t want to include bread each day for breakfast and lunch and you would soon get bored if you had either pasta or rice every evening. For example experiment with alternative presentations of traditional grains as well as trying more unusual grains; couscous, polenta, buckwheat, bulgar wheat, quinoa and amaranth all are healthy options to serve with lunch and dinner, though the last four can also be used to make porridge. As for a post-training snack, a sandwich, bowl of muesli or homemade oat bar with added nuts and seeds are good options if training hard or aiming to gain muscle, as they also contain protein to aid the repair and growth of muscle fibers. If you are watching your weight, aim for smaller portions of these or alternatively have a piece of fruit and low fat yogurt.
If you currently feel that you are struggling to meet the aims of your training despite following the exercise regime provided for you, reviewing your dietary intake of carbohydrates may help to identify the problem.