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American Football Series: Part 6 – Do Football Players Eat Carbs?

The general public often frowns upon carbohydrates and even most athletes tend to believe carbohydrates are bad. So, why the all the negative perception? Carbohydrates are commonly viewed as a nutrient directly linked to weight gain. However, any one of the three macronutrients consumed in excess or above calorie needs can be stored as body fat. Carbohydrates are also generally recognized as foods like breads and pastas. However, carbohydrates are found in just about every food and food group including dairy, grains, fruits and even vegetables. It’s time to move away from this negative mentality towards carbohydrates and acknowledge that carbohydrates play a critical role in all healthy adults, football players included. Continue reading to learn how carbohydrates play a role in performance and how to add carbohydrates through food.


All three macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, fat) yield energy. However, carbohydrates are the body’s go-to source for energy and are the primary fuel source used in two of three energy systems. Carbohydrates can be converted to glucose to be used for energy. If physical activity increases, then the body can switch from glucose to a mix of glucose and fat for energy. Ultimately, the body prefers to use glucose as the main source of energy when it comes to activity and physical performance.


Carbohydrates are the foundation of nutrition and make up a majority of total daily dietary needs for all healthy adults, athletes as well. The Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) for carbohydrates are 45-65%, protein 10-35% and fat 20-35% of daily calories. Carbohydrates may lean to the higher end of the recommended range the more active an athlete is, the longer they train and the higher the intensity. It’s important to consume the right amount for individual needs, because too much or too little can have an impact on the body and physical performance. Take a look at how carbohydrates can impact performance when intake is adequate and inadequate.

Adequate carbohydrate intake can help …

  • Supply energy to fuel strength training and fuel working muscles
  • Provide energy to the brain to help support brain function
  • Fuel high-intensity periods of activity
  • Extend length of activity
  • Refuel muscle following activity
  • Supply energy for muscle recovery
  • Supply energy for muscle development

Inadequate carbohydrate intake may …

  • Impair high-intensity performance
  • Increase level of fatigue
  • Lead to potential burn out

Moreover, if carbohydrate intake is insufficient to meet energy demand, then the body may turn to alternate sources for energy such as dietary protein, dietary fat, body fat, and /or muscle. In turn, this can be extremely counterproductive to an athletes overall physical and performance goals. Aside from performance, nutritional status can also become negatively impacted if carbohydrates intake is limited. Depending on the source, carbohydrates can provide a range of vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. Therefore, if athletes restrict carbohydrates, then they can potentially become nutritionally deficient within nutrients.


It’s well understood that football players need carbohydrates, however now the question remains - which carbohydrates should football players eat? Although football players may love the answer of breads and pastas – it’s important to remember that carbohydrates go beyond grains. Carbohydrate are found in four of the five food groups – dairy, grains, fruits, and vegetables. There are many options to choose from and a key thing to remember is there is no such thing as a good or bad carbohydrate. All carbohydrates and fit into the diet… pizza included. The idea is to keep variety, balance and moderation in mind when selecting carbohydrates. Another way athletes may look at carbohydrates is by energy. Carbohydrates can be categorized as either simple or complex. Simple carbohydrates provide a short-term energy and can be used at times the body needs quick energy. Complex carbohydrates provide more long-term energy and can be used as times the body needs a more sustained source of energy. Both sources can be used throughout the day as needed among meals and snacks. However, what really differs is how each may be used around activity.

  • Before: simple carbohydrates closer to activity (30 to 60 minutes) and complex carbohydrates further from activity (1 to 4 hours)
  • During: simple carbohydrates during high-intensity and/or activity lasting greater than an hour
  • After: simple or complex depending on athletes preference, schedule and food availability

Many may instantly think of simple carbohydrates as breads and pastas, but minds also tend to gravitate to foods like soft drinks, sweets and baked goods. However, simple carbohydrates can also be found in dairy, fruit, and refined grains. Note that fruits may include a mixture of both simple and complex due to the fiber content found within the peel, skin or seeds. Also, refined grains may contain both refined and whole grains if made with whole grains or whole-wheat ingredients. Complex carbohydrates include legumes, other starchy vegetables, whole grains and other fiber-rich sources. Below are some dietary examples of simple and complex carbohydrates to choose from –

Simple Carbohydrates



Refined Grains


100% Fruit Juice

Cream of Rice



Cream of Wheat



Rice Cakes

Frozen Yogurt


White Bread






White Rice

Cottage Cheese




Complex Carbohydrates


Starchy Vegetables

Whole Grains

Pinto Beans



Black Beans



Navy Beans



Soy Beans


Brown Rice



Whole Wheat bread

Green Peas


Whole Wheat Pasta


Brussel Sprouts




Bottom line is football players should absolutely take advantage of carbohydrates from both an energy and nutritional perspective. Carbohydrates play a critical role in the body and in overall performance.  Insufficient carbohydrate intake or inappropriate timing of intake can impair performance. Very low carbohydrate dietary approaches are not appropriate for athletes and may potentially impair high-intensity performance. In all, insufficient carbohydrates can cost the overall body and performance. It’s important for each athletes to understand their personal needs and adjust carbohydrate intake as needed throughout the day and around activity. Create a plan that best works for your performance goals and don’t forget to enjoy the tasty carbohydrates too. Football players should enjoy pizza and cake too when it’s time to celebrate a win! To better understand your personal needs, you should consult with a sports nutrition registered dietitian. We hope you have a great football season this year and dominate each training session and game!