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Athletes: Beware of Carbo-Bashing

by Bob Condor
A fitness writer for the Chicago Tribune

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The repositioning of protein as the most coveted nutrient has made best sellers of several books. Carbohydrates seem to have been shoved aside. This trend is especially confusing for runners and other endurance athletes accustomed to loading up with carbohydrates.

"There's been a lot of Carbo-Bashing," said Ellen Coleman, author of "The Ultimate Sports Nutrition Handbook" (Bull Publishing). "Carbohydrates have been blamed for weight gain when a lot of people got the wrong idea about carbo-loading. When nutritionists encouraged story, clients to eat more carbos, they didn't mean to indiscriminately consume them and not pay attention to fat."

Examples: Pasta is good, but not if you eat it Alfredo-style or drench in high-fat meat sauce. Bagels are full of carbos for quick fuel, but digest too easily to be the only pregame food for longer workouts.

"The protein-oriented people have made carbos the villain," Coleman said. "Somehow they have convinced people carbos make you fat, slow and sick. But the culprit remains, as always, caloric intake. If you eat more calories than you expend, you will gain weight."

Coleman specializes in consulting endurance athletes. Their requirements differ from sedentary Americans who need to restrict calories in their diets, including carbohydrates and proteins.

"But that doesn't stop them from becoming confused about the nutrition messages out there," Coleman said. "People need to know the basic recommendations haven't changed for endurance exercisers. You still need about 55 to 65 percent of daily calories from carbohydrates, 15 to 20 percent from protein and the remainder from fats. The carbohydrates will be the main fuel of your workouts."

Coleman recommends a graduated consumption of carbos dependent on physical activity: Three grams per pound of body weight if you exercise an hour or less each day; four grams if you work out strenuously an hour or two daily; five grams if you exercise more than two hours on average.

Don't rely only on time estimation. The intensity of activity might dictate more carbos on your plate. Certain cyclists can cover 200 miles per week in considerably fewer hours but at grueling speeds. Some elite athletes actually struggle to keep weight on during the season.

You should also adjust your carbo intake during planned weeks of heavy activity, such as ski trips or backpacking treks.

Though carbohydrates are credited with providing energy and endurance while protein is praised for muscle-building and recovery, Coleman suggests eating "mixed meals" - another name for the old-fashioned balanced diet.

"Another problem with all of this carbo-bashing is people think eating is a difficult job, especially for good health and sports performance," Coleman said. "That's ridiculous. You can eliminate the uncertainty by mixing carbos, protein and fats during your meals. Throw some shrimp or chicken into your pasta marinara. Eat low-fat yogurt with your breakfast fruit."

Enjoy a variety of foods, Coleman said, but keep fat intake to 20 percent to 30 percent of daily calories.

"You don't want to eat just one thing all the time, like pasta with chicken. Eating a lot of different things makes food more fun and allows a balance of nutrients. You don't have to worry about silly things like how many blocks of protein or carbohydrates you've had that day."

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* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This information is nutritional in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. This notice is required by the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

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Last modified: June 28, 2015