When to Add Extra Carbs to Your Diet

To stay healthy and balanced, your body needs an amount of carbs proportionate to your daily calorie intake. For a person of average activity and metabolism, about half the day’s calories should come from carbohydrates. Every gram of carbs has four calories. So if a person requires 1,600 calories a day, 800 calories would come from carbs—or about 200 grams total.

Athletes and people who engage in strenuous, intense activity need more carbs than those who are more sedentary. And it’s important to eat enough to protect the body’s protein stores. Here’s why: When your body lacks the carbohydrate it needs to support activity, it could turn to protein for energy. But, protein is needed for much more important functions in the body and shouldn’t serve as a primary fuel source. When protein is used for fuel, that leaves less protein available for its main job — building body proteins such as muscle, bone, skin, hair, enzymes and hormones. So it’s wise for athletes to consume plenty of carbs to conserve body protein.

For athletes, the distribution of carbs – not just how much, but when you consume them – is also important. If you’re planning a big workout for more than an hour, you’ll want to “top off the tank” with low-fat, high-carb foods that are easy to digest, such as a smoothie, low-fat yogurt, or cereal. This will help you maintain your blood sugar for a more consistent energy flow. Foods with higher levels of fat take longer to digest and get to work, so they’re not ideal right before exercise.

During your activity, sports drinks can provide an extra carb boost—and if you’re going on a long, intense bike ride or run, low-fat cookies, sports gels, gummy candies or cereal bars can help to prevent “bonking” when your body runs out of fuel.

And post-workout carbs are critical, as well. With glycogen stores exhausted after prolonged activity, your muscles readily take them up to replenish the supply. Foods like fruits, veggies, beans, dairy products, a protein shake, lentil soup or a sandwich on whole-grain bread are all good post-exercise choices.

Want to learn more? See my comments in NBC News’ article, “6 Myths About Carbs That Are Preventing You From Losing Weight.”

Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND –Sr.Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training

Susan BowermanM.S., R.D., CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Sr. Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training

Susan Bowerman earned a B.S. in biology with distinction from the University of Colorado, and received her M.S. in food science and nutrition from Colorado State University. She is a registered dietitian, holds two board certifications from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as a certified specialist in sports dietetics, and a certified specialist in obesity and weight management, and is a Fellow of the Academy.