Updated: Oct 16, 2020
Chances are, you've either been on a low carb diet or know someone who has. From Atkins, to Paleo, to the Ketogenic Diet, restricting this macronutrient continues to be touted as the answer to all our health-related problems and concerns. But is limiting this food group really the answer? Could removing carbohydrates from your diet actually cause more harm than good? What purpose do they serve? Are all carbs created equal? I’ll be answering all this and more in today’s post!
Let's start with the basics. what is a carbohydrate?
Carbohydrates are macronutrients, meaning we require large amounts of them in our diet. They are the sugars, starches and fiber found in everything from fruits and vegetables to grains and dairy products. When you consume carbohydrate-containing foods, they get broken down into glucose (aka sugar) which is then used as the main source of energy by your cells.
Are all carbs created equal?
Short answer: no. Long answer: there are simple and complex carbohydrates and the difference between the two lies in their speed of digestion and chemical structure. So, what is the difference?
Simple carbohydrates are made up of one or two sugar molecules that are broken down quickly and almost immediately enter the bloodstream after digestion where they are then used as energy. Simple carbohydrates are found in:
· Refined grains and simple sugars. This includes white bread, regular pasta, white rice, table sugar, honey, syrup. Because of how quickly these carbohydrates are broken down after consumption, they can be used strategically before a ride or physical activity to help optimize endurance and energy.
· Milk and other dairy products. Simple carbohydrates found in dairy products are naturally occurring and also come with other nutrients (protein, fat, vitamins and minerals), so this may not be as well tolerated close to a ride or physical activity.
Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, are just that – more complex. They contain more sugar molecules and fiber, so they require more time to get broken down. This results in a steadier release of glucose into your bloodstream. Complex carbohydrates also come with a variety of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, so they are typically considered to be more nutrient-dense in comparison to simple carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are found in:
· Whole wheat
· Brown and wild rice
· Fruits and vegetables
· Beans, chickpeas, lentils
So, how can carbs improve your riding?
In most cases, the body and brain prefers to use glucose as it’s primary source of energy - this is ESPECIALLY the case for athletes.
What happens when you eat more carbohydrate than your body needs at the moment? Just like the gas tank in your car stores fuel so it can run, our bodies store most carbohydrates that aren’t immediately used for energy in muscles and in the liver. This stored energy source is called glycogen. Glycogen gets released from your muscles when you ride and/or exercise and is used to fuel your performance. This plays a huge role in enhancing & optimizing your riding by delaying fatigue, as well as improving concentration - which may help make remembering your courses and dressage tests a bit easier ;) !
Do carbs have any other benefits?
Yep! They provide more to our bodies than just energy. Certain sources are also high in fiber, specifically: whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. Fiber plays an important role in reducing the risk of developing heart disease, helps keep our gut healthy, and also plays a role in promoting satiety.
Aside from the physical benefits carbs offer, most people simply enjoy carbohydrate-containing foods! Enjoying your food plays an incredibly important role in establishing a healthy relationship with food, which is not talked about enough in the health and nutrition world (but really should be).
How much and what kind do i need?
According to the Institute of Medicine, carbohydrates should make up 45-65% of the total amount of calories you consume. With that said, everyone’s specific carbohydrate needs will be different based on activity level, presence of any medical conditions, and overall health & training goals.
A general rule of thumb for the type of carbohydrate to eat/avoid before riding is this: avoid complex carbs and fruit with the skin 30-60 minutes before you ride/exercise. It’s best to eat whole grains and other high fiber carbohydrates as part of a balanced meal (meaning with protein, fruits/vegetables, and fat) 3-4 hours before a ride or as part of meals and snacks throughout the day. Since it takes longer for your body to break these carbs down and use the sugar for energy, eating high fiber foods too close to a ride can result in gastrointestinal (GI) distress such as gas, cramps, and other unwanted GI symptoms. The reason is because your body’s priority during physical activity is to send blood and oxygen to your muscles, not your GI tract, so digestion gets compromised.
So, what should you eat if you have about an hour before you need to be in the saddle? Aim for an easily digested carbohydrate combined with a protein. Suggestions include**:
· Hard-boiled egg(s) with sourdough toast
· Peanut butter + banana
· Applesauce with trail mix
· Banana and cheese
**Because everyone's specific nutritional needs and tolerance to different types of carbs and protein will vary, a little trial and error on your own or with the guidance of a dietitian may be required to help you figure out what your body responds to best.
Is there a place for low carb?
Generally speaking, yes. There are some medical conditions that, when followed under the guidance of a dietitian, may benefit from restricting/limiting carbohydrates. With that said, eliminating an entire food group is not considered to be a healthy dietary pattern for most people. Why?
Any time we restrict/eliminate an entire food group, we're also missing out on important nutrients that we may not be able to find in other foods. Restricting carbohydrates can also result in unpleasant side effects such as low energy, difficulty concentrating, constipation, headache, irritability, and disordered eating which can lead to intense cravings and can set a restrict/binge cycle into motion. These are all things that we want to avoid, especially when working with horses on the ground and in the saddle!
Thanks for reading! I'd love to hear your thoughts, questions, and comments, so leave them in the comment section below! You can also connect with GE on Instagram by tagging @gavi.equestrian and using #GaviEquestrian.