Carbohydration: The Power of Carbs and Liquids
by Megan Meyer, PhD
Yes, I just combined the words carbohydrate and hydration. If it goes viral, you know where it started. The word carbohydration showcases two important topics needed to power you through your workout: carbs and liquids. You have probably heard about how carbs provide energy needed to run, swim, bike, hike, lift weights, or anything else your heart desires. Additionally, I am sure it is no surprise that replenishing your body with water during and after a sweaty workout is key.
But why do we need to eat carbs and stay hydrated? And how much and when should we be eating carbs and taking in liquids? Finally, what are some examples that combine carbohydrates and hydrating liquids?
First, carbohydrates are one of three basic macronutrients (fat and protein are the other two) that provide us with calories. Fruits, vegetables, grain foods, and many dairy products naturally contain carbohydrates in varying amounts. Foods that contain carbohydrates bring a variety of important nutrients to the diet–vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants and dietary fiber, to name a few. Carbohydrates are the main energy source for the body. They’re broken down into sugars to act as the body’s gasoline.
Sugars come in all sorts of “flavors.” The simplest of sugars are called monosaccharides, which literally means “one sugar.” Examples of monosaccharides include glucose, fructose, and galactose. Next comes disaccharides. If you guessed that this means “two sugars,” you’re on the money. The most well-known disaccharide is sucrose, better known as table sugar. Sucrose is made up of equal parts glucose and fructose, which are glued together by chemical bonds. After disaccharides come oligosaccharides (3-10 sugars) and then polysaccharides, which translates to “many sugars.”
Our bodies convert most of the carbohydrates we eat into glucose for our muscles to use for readily available energy. In fact, glucose is what fuels our brains. Sometimes, we have more glucose available than our body needs. Excess glucose gets stored as glycogen or fat, both of which can be accessed for future energy use. The more simple the carb, the easier it is for your body to convert it into a quick source of energy. Depending on your activity level and calorie needs, the Institute of Medicine recommends that 45 to 65% of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates.
To sustain energy levels during a workout or race, we can turn to science for our information. Studies have shown that eating carbohydrates 3-4 hours before exercise increases liver and muscle storage of glycogen and enhances exercise performance. During exercise, aim to take in about 20-35 grams for every hour. This ensures that your blood glucose levels stay stable and that your glycogen stores don’t get tapped out.
This brings us to the hydration part of carbohydration. Water is necessary for basic cellular function and is why the Institute of Medicine recommends that women consume 91 ounces and men consume 125 ounces of water each day. Water is also critical to consume before, during and after strenuous exercise. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, 2 hours before exercising we should drink about 17 ounces of water. During exercise, aim to intake 7-10 ounces every 20-30 minutes. Finally, (most people forget this one, me included!) drink 8 ounces of water within 30 minutes of finishing your workout.
Supplementing water with electrolytes and simple carbohydrates can boost performance, especially when working out for more than one hour. Electrolytes are charged minerals that provide the spark needed for muscles to function properly. Important electrolytes for fitness include sodium, calcium, chloride, magnesium, and potassium. Think of it this way: If carbs are gasoline, then electrolytes are the motor oil that makes sure your body runs smoothly.
Nutrition gels, energy chews, and sports bars are all great (and portable!) sources of electrolytes and simple carbohydrates. While sport drinks aren’t quite as portable, the way they combine the benefits of fuel from simple carbohydrates with the benefits of hydration makes them a prime example of carbohydration and better suited for strenuous exercise over 60 minutes. This also introduces the important topic of energy balance, i.e. the relationship between calories consumed and calories burned. This concept is best visualized as a scale with two arms, with calories consumed on one arm and calories used on the other arm. Tipping the arm to either side has consequences depending on your weight goals. Working up a sweat and burning calories during a 20-minute workout, then chugging a 250-calorie sports drink, may not aid with weight loss (250 calories is likely more than most people burn in 20 minutes of exercise), but the refreshment can help replenish lost fluids and electrolytes.
So, remember, carbs + hydration = carbohydration: a reliable combination to fuel you through your exercise goals. Whatever fitness road you choose, let carbohydration take the wheel and lead you down the path for fitness success!
Megan Meyer, PhD is the Program Manager of Health and Wellness Communications at the International Food Information Council (IFIC). At IFIC, she is committed to communicating science-based information to media, health professionals, outside organizations, and consumers on topics related to nutrition and health.