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Understanding the Basics of Carbohydrates

Understanding Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients. The other two are protein and fat. Although carbohydrates are important to your health and play a crucial role in physical performance, this macronutrient remains misunderstood due in part to its demonized role in various weight loss programs.

Carbohydrates are extremely beneficial for endurance athletes and those involved in team sports like cricket, baseball, football, volleyball, basketball, ice hockey, soccer, tennis and more. What many don’t fully appreciate is the value carbohydrates hold for active individuals outside these specific groups. Carbohydrates are an important nutrient for all healthy adults, even bodybuilders and physique athletes. This nutrient is valuable for kinds of all athletes in training.

Carbohydrates give you energy in the form of calories. They are the body’s “go-to” source of energy. Understanding how to choose the right carbohydrates at the right time can make a difference with training as well as performance. Let’s start with an extreme example.

Consequences of Carbohydrate Restriction

Back in the day, bodybuilders discovered they could reduce body fat by restricting carbohydrates consumption. Of course, an unbalanced diet comes with consequences. For one thing, your brain runs on a carbohydrate called glucose. When glucose and stored energy (glycogen) are entirely depleted, you hit the point of fatigue that can ultimately cause your training session to end.

This is especially critical for endurance athletes training for marathons and triathlons. Without adequate carbohydrate consumption, these athletes may be at risk for “bonking” or “hitting the wall.” This is point of fatigue that coincides with absolute depletion of muscle glycogen. Once glycogen is depleted, you’re only able to work at about half of maximal capacity. Endurance athletes, well aware of what can happen when carbohydrate energy runs out, typically prepare for competition by consuming carbohydrate-rich snacks before, during, and after events.

In addition to limiting energy, restricting carbohydrates can cause unintended restriction of certain micronutrients. For example, restricting and/or eliminating grains and beans (legumes) can potentially put you at risk of long-term nutrient deficiencies in folate, magnesium, zinc, manganese and other vitamins and minerals. It’s one more reason why athletes have a higher potential to achieve performance goals when adhering to a balanced diet.


Carbohydrate Types & Usage

Carbohydrates are found in a wide variety of foods including fruits (watermelon, strawberries, bananas for example), vegetables (peas, beans, broccoli, potato, etc.), grains (breads, cereals, pasta, rice, oats), milk, nuts and many other foods. There are two basic types: Simple and Complex. Both can help fuel your performance.

SIMPLE CARBOHYDRATES: Simple carbohydrates are quickly digested and absorbed compared to complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrate includes monosaccharides and disaccharides. Monosaccharides are comprised of just one sugar unit. Glucose, fructose, and glacatose are classified as monosaccharides. Fructose is a sugar found in fruits and vegetables. Disaccharides are two sugar units combined. Examples include sucrose (glucose + fructose), lactose (galactose + glucose), and maltose (glucose + glucose). As technical as these names sound, they are sugars found in most of the foods we consume every day.

Simple carbohydrates are an ideal energy source when quick energy is needed. Ideal usage occasions include before a run, during a triathlon, or immediately after exercise to help replenish fuel. Milk, fruit and fruit juices all good sources. Reach for simple carbohydrates to help reach your goals.

COMPLEX CARBOHYDRATES: Complex Carbohydrates are digested and absorbed more slowly than simple carbohydrates. Types include polysaccharides which are comprised of more than two sugar units. Glycogen is considered a polysaccharide and is the storage form of glucose found in liver and muscle. Fibers and starches are also considered polysaccharides.

Complex carbohydrates are ideal for someone who needs a slower stream of energy to use over time. Usage occasions include between meals, with meals and throughout the day. Complex carbohydrates are found in a variety of foods including whole-wheat breads, brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, beans, lentils, and more. They come with an added bonus of fiber, vitamins and minerals.

DIETARY FIBER: Dietary fiber, also known as “roughage”, is another important carbohydrate. Humans do not have enzymes to break down dietary fibers. Because the body can’t break down the bonds, fiber goes through the gastrointestinal tract undigested.

Fiber is found within many plant-based food sources such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, oats, nuts and seeds. You can boost the fiber content of your diet by including more whole grains, adding beans, choosing raw vegetables and consuming fruits.

All grains start out as whole grains comprised of three edible parts: Bran, endosperm and germ. The bran is the portion that contains fiber. When whole grains are milled, or refined, bran is the first layer to go. To make sure you’re getting fiber from grain-based food products, look for the word “whole” at the top of the ingredients list. 

Type of Carbohydrate


Digestion Rate

When Used by the Body

Nutritional Benefits

Example Food Sources


Short chains of sugar units


Quick energy needs (before and during endurance exercise)


Sugar, honey, maple syrup, fruits/juices, refined products like cookies and candy


Long chains of sugar units


Longer term energy source

Fiber, vitamins, minerals

Breads, pastas, brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal


SUGAR ALCOHOLS: Sugar alcohols are not carbohydrates. They are alcohol counterparts of specific carbohydrates. Sugar alcohols, made from sugars, are a class of sweetener often used to sweeten and/or enhance the flavor of foods with fewer calories per gram than table sugar. Sugar alcohols are naturally occurring in a variety of foods such as fruits and vegetables, but they are known best for being used within commercially produced foods (sugar-free candy, cookies, gums, bars, desserts, sweets). Examples of sugar alcohols include sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, mannitol, erythritol, and maltitol. The sweetness of sugar alcohols varies from 25% to 100% as sweet as sugar. 


Muscle Glycogen

All these types of carbohydrates can potentially be stored as glycogen in muscle tissue. Glycogen is your body’s preferred energy source next to glucose. Without adequate carbohydrate intake, your body may resort to using fatty tissue and/or breaking down muscle tissue for energy. Consuming adequate amounts of carbohydrates can help minimize muscle breakdown and allow protein be used for other important functions.

What happens when you don’t have enough glycogen to fuel physical effort? When muscle glycogen isn’t available during prolonged exercise, your body switches fuel sources to stored fat and/or breaks down muscle tissue for amino acids. 


No Such Thing as a Bad Carb, Only a Bad Diet

All healthy adults and all types of athletes should consume carbohydrates as part of healthy diet. Regardless of sports or goal, it’s recommended the average healthy adult get 45% to 65% of their total daily calories from carbohydrates.

Having a better understanding of carbohydrates can help you make smart choices about the types and quantities needed to support goals, training and performance. If you are working hard to build muscle size and strength, consuming adequate amounts of carbohydrates can help minimize muscle breakdown for energy.

Whatever goal you’re chasing, any active individual can make use of carbohydrate energy. Keeping a food journal of all the foods and supplements you consume each day can help you determine the optimal balance of carbohydrate types and meal timing for reaching that objective.