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Athletes and Nutrition

Athletes: High Carbohydrate for Optimal Performance

Athletes need extra nutrition because of the heavy demands of physical activity. When you’re exercising, your body relies on three basic fuels—carbohydrate, fat, and protein. Athletes require more calories from these fuels to sustain energy levels and maintain lean body mass.

A balanced diet high in carbohydrate, low in fat, and adequate in protein is the recommended diet for athletes. Because of its high carbohydrate and low fat content, a low–fat, plant–based diet—that is, a vegan diet—is an optimal sports diet.

Vegan diets are also rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants—important nutrients that help the body use energy and protect itself from the stress of exercise.

High Intensity vs. Low Intensity

Your body is always burning a mixture of carbohydrate, fat, and protein. The duration of exercise, intensity of exercise, level of physical conditioning, and initial muscle glycogen levels will determine which primary fuel your body will use. In general, carbohydrate is the primary fuel used during high–intensity exercise.

About 55 to 80 percent of calories in the diet should come from carbohydrate. Individuals who compete in endurance or ultra–endurance events need to be at the high end of this range (70 to 80 percent). Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are excellent sources of carbohydrate.

With prolonged exercise at lower intensities, fat (in the form of fatty acids) becomes the primary fuel source. The shift to fatty acids during exercise helps spare the carbohydrate (glycogen) stores in your body and allows for prolonged exercise. However, there is no need to increase fat in your diet beyond the commonly recommended 10 to 30 percent of calories. That’s because fat is taken from storage sites in the muscles when needed. Increasing fat in the diet is not recommended for improving performance.

Compared to carbohydrate and fat, protein is used only minimally for fuel, since its primary function is building and maintaining the tissues of the body. Overall, a high–carbohydrate diet is most important in ensuring optimal storage of carbohydrate in the body, fueling the body for exercise, sparing protein for cellular repair, and supporting performance in both endurance and strength training.

A vegetarian diet, which emphasizes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes, provides the high carbohydrate content needed to fuel your body through training sessions and competition. Find carb–friendly meal plans and recipes here >>