Few nutrients have caused as much discussion as carbohydrates – are they good or bad? Remember – if you’re doing strength training, your carbohydrate need is greater than for those with a more sedentary lifestyle. If you exercise a lot, you need carbohydrates. It’s the carbohydrates that get you through an exercise session, as they are stored inside your muscles in the form of glycogen. Most of the carbohydrates are broken down in the body to glucose, which is needed as energy for the cells. Glucose is stored in the liver and in the muscles in the form of glycogen, and acts as an energy reserve for the muscles and the brain. Carbohydrates are also needed for recovery and a well-functioning thyroid.

Carbohydrates are divided into fast and slow, depending on how quickly they are broken down during digestion. Fast carbohydrates can cause your blood sugar level to fluctuate, while slow carbohydrates keep your blood sugar at a more even level, and are therefore considered better. Carbohydrates can be divided into three groups: starch (pasta, bread, potatoes), sugar(sweets, jam, squash, etc.) and fibre (fruit, vegetables, crispbread).

Wholegrain products, root vegetables, pulses, vegetables, fruit and berries all contain healthy dietary fibre. They pass through the body more or less without being absorbed, but they play a part in soaking up fluid and increasing the volume in the intestine so you don’t become constipated. They increase the feeling of fullness, and some fibres have a positive effect on the levels of insulin, cholesterol and sugar in the blood.

Regardless of our exercise goals – getting bigger muscles, losing fat or getting fitter – we need to top up our energy reserves daily with carbohydrates in order to feel well and keep our performance on top. Carbohydrates are our most important source of energy, as all the cells in our body can use their energy. If we consume too few carbohydrates, the body’s fat reserve system is activated so that the brain, for example, will get energy. When the body doesn’t get enough carbohydrates through the diet, and the glycogen reserves are empty, the body thinks it’s starving. This leads to less efficient fat burning and increased protein breakdown in the muscles. Our hard-won muscles are actually eaten.

Best sources of carbohydrates

  • Buckwheat
  • Beans/lentils
  • Wholegrain bread
  • Oats
  • Potatoes
  • Quinoa
  • Root vegetables (parsnips, carrots, beetroots, swedes)
  • Brown rice
  • Sweet potatoes

Favourite fruits/berries: Oranges, bananas, blueberries, grapefruits, raspberries, strawberries, kiwis, plums, pears, apples, melons.

Fast carbohydrates are found in sweets, fizzy drinks, pastries, cakes, biscuits and bread made mainly with wheat flour. General advice is to avoid, or significantly reduce, sugar in all forms – it’s not healthy.

How much carbohydrate do you need to eat?

For optimal fat burning, a certain amount of carbohydrate intake is necessary, at least 1.5–2 g/kg bodyweight per day. Try to eat 25–35 g dietary fibre every day, ideally from wholegrain products and vegetables, so that all positive effects are utilised.

Carbohydrates provide 4 kcal/g.

Choose sweet potatoes for your next BBQ party!