Quality Carbs and Protein – Eat The Right Food for Performance


Nutrition, as it relates to athletic performance and exercise, is no longer simply a matter of what to eat. It has become a matter of what to eat and when to eat it. Knowing more about what and when can improve your exercise performance. Providing your body with the right raw materials – macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals) – will increase your chances for success.

Optimal Sources of Macro & Micronutrients
Repeatedly, research shows that plant-based foods are superior in nutrition to foods that are derived from animal sources. Studies confirm that both the quantity and the quality of nutrients in plant-based food far exceeds that of the nutrients obtained from animal sources. Fueling your body with plant-based foods also provides optimal protection from chronic diseases, such as heart disease and colon cancer.

Carbohydrates, regarded by many as energy food, are available in three varieties: starch, sugar, and fiber. Grains, a kind of starch, are often consumed to increase energy levels during exercise. Unfortunately, most grain-based foods eaten by Americans contain little nutritional value and are rich in added oils, preservatives, and refined sugars. It is becoming widely accepted that whole grains have greater nutritional value than their milled, processed, and refined counterparts, i.e. flour, sugar, and pre-cooked rice. In its entirety, the grain contains a plethora of micronutrients that are stripped away during processing. Once these essential nutrients have been eliminated, the food is virtually nothing but empty calories. Even most commercial brands of “whole wheat” bread offer little nutritional value over white bread, because their main ingredient is flour; a glance at their ingredients labels will reveal that whole wheat flour is often the first ingredient. Breads and other bread-like items, i.e. English muffins and tortillas, made of sprouted grains, oats, or whole wheat provide more nutrients.

It is commonly believed that in order to get adequate dietary protein for building strong muscles and bones, you need to consume meat and dairy products. This misinformation is so widely believed that even young children think that they need to drink milk in order to grow strong. The reality is that per calorie, plant-foods supply far more protein and other nutrients to the body than animal foods do, providing no cholesterol, very little saturated fat, and no animal protein which has been linked to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other chronic illnesses. The essential nutrients of plant-based foods have fueled vegan athletes such as world-famous track athlete Carl Lewis, world-class power lifter and marathon runner Pat Reeves, and professional tennis player Martina Navratilova.

Daily Training Diet
antioxidants-inflammation-1Because endurance activities diminish, if not exhaust, stored energy, successful fueling and re-fueling on a day-to-day basis is vital for avid exercisers and athletes. Research data suggest that there is a direct and a positive relationship between the amount of carbohydrate consumed and the amount of carbohydrate that is stored in the muscle, that is, until the muscle storage capacity has been reached. This stored carbohydrate is your body’s primary source for energy during aerobic exercise. Together with fat, carbohydrate fuels aerobic exercise. Having ample body stores of fat is usually not a concern for healthy people.

It is recommended that the daily training diet be 58-70% carbohydrates depending on total caloric intake. Fruits, vegetables, and starches such as grains, beans, and potatoes conveniently have a similar carbohydrate content; a minimum of 75% of the calories in these foods are derived from carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates Every Day
During a period of passive recovery (rest) after an exhaustive exercise session, you should consume 7-10 grams per kilogram (g/kg) of body weight of carbohydrates each day. For example, if you weigh 140 pounds (63.5 kg), you will need to consume 445-635 grams of carbohydrates. (See table 1 for carbohydrate values of common foods.) The conversion to ounces recommends roughly 1 to 1 ½ pounds of carbohydrates per day, which sounds like more than it really is. Two small tomatoes weigh in at ½ of a pound. Dietary needs must be altered for each athlete; some athletes’ sports do not deplete glycogen stores, yet other athletes are faced with total glycogen depletion on a regular basis.

Protein Every Day
Most Americans, including American athletes, eat far too much protein, especially animal protein. According to John McDougall, MD, physician and nutrition expert, “Americans consume six-to-ten times as much protein as they need.” The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that men and women obtain 5% of their calories as protein, calculated as roughly 0.5 grams of protein per kg of body weight (1 kg is equal to 2.2 pounds). This would mean 38 grams of protein are required for a man burning 3,000 calories a day and 29 grams for a woman burning 2,300 calories a day.

In spite of this documented protein requirement, it is often recommended that adults consume 0.8g/kg of protein daily, a number that was randomly established in the case that someone required excess protein. This protein level is far too generous for 97.5% of the population.

Research does support that endurance athletes and strength athletes consume 1.2-1.5 g of protein per kg of body weight. To meet this requirement, athletes often consume concentrated protein foods and protein concoctions in the form of shakes and energy bars, a practice that increases the pressure in the kidneys which may eventually lead to kidney damage. It is wise to eat protein-rich, plant-based whole foods, instead of relying on protein supplements. The body needs thousands of micronutrients in each meal in order for it to orchestrate its magical metabolic events. These needs can not be met by protein supplements. Protein-rich foods also contain a myriad of plant-nutrients that aid in body function, repair, and growth.

People who exercise need additional calories, carbohydrates, protein, fats, and micronutrients, not just protein. Athletes require more calories than non-athletes to support additional muscle activity, and it is along with these extra calories that athlete will obtain more protein. (See table 2 for protein values for common foods.)

Consuming a diet that is based on wholesome plant-foods provides sufficient quality carbohydrate and protein and supplies essential vitamins, nutrients, and antioxidants and other plant compounds that can give you the competitive edge in addition to a strong and healthy body.

Table #1

Carb Content of Common FoodsPercent of Calories
Brown Rice87
Peanut Butter13

Table #2

Protein Content of Common FoodsPercent of Calories
Broccoli (1 cup from frozen)50
Cooked spinach (1 cup from frozen)43
Lean ground beef (3 oz)36
Yogurt plain 8 oz.33
Milk 1% (1 cup)32
Egg (1 raw egg)30
Beans (1 cup pinto)27
Peas (1 cup from frozen)25

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About Author

Peggy Kraus

Peggy Kraus, RCEP, MA has a Masters degree in Professional Physical Education from New York University and is an American College of Sports Medicine Certified Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist. She has worked in both cardiopulmonary rehab and in commercial fitness, and she has more than 15 years of experience in guiding people to better health through positive lifestyle changes. See my profile page for more information!

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