Carbohydrates and physical activity

Nutrition team

Everybody knows that health and diet are closely linked. For those who exercise regularly or participate in sport, the importance of diet is even more pronounced.

Exercise and sport can place extra, and some times heavy, demands upon the body. The body’s ability to meet these demands for peak performance is dependent upon the availability of suitable energy sources. This is supplied by the nutrients found in foods and drinks.

Energy & Diet Composition

During training your most important nutrients are those providing energy because working muscles need fuel to keep them going. If you want to maintain your weight, energy intake must be raised to meet the increased demand for energy during exercise. If you are losing weight, increasing your energy expenditure puts you into negative energy balance. In other words, your energy expenditure is greater than your energy intake and the result is weight loss.

Energy in = Energy out = Steady body weight

Energy in < Energy out = Weight loss

The energy-providing nutrients are carbohydrate, fat and protein. In the optimum diet for physically active individuals, carbohydrate is likely to contribute at least 60% of total energy intake, protein usually provides about 12%, with the remainder coming for fat.

· The amount of energy needed will depend on the intensity, duration, frequency and type of exercise undertaken.

· The total energy needed will depend on your age, sex and body fat stores.

· Young athletes will need additional energy for growth and development

Stocking up on carbohydrates

Carbohydrate is the most important fuel for exercise and is provided by eating starchy or sugary foods. Therefore, running out of carbohydrate is a major factor in fatigue and may impair your ability to complete your workout.

Carbohydrate is stored in muscle as glycogen but the amount that can be stored is limited. Once these stores have been depleted, the energy from carbohydrate cannot replace the glycogen as rapidly as it is used during exercise. The result is heavy, tired limbs.

Timing your carbohydrate intake


It is generally recommended that a large carbohydrate meal should be eaten 3-4 hours before exercise. The purpose is to delay fatigue.


This is crucial for endurance exercise and is best achieved using glucose or fructose drinks. The result is a prolonged performance.


It’s best to start eating about 30 minutes after completing exercise (even if it’s when you least feel like eating) so try to keep high carbohydrate foods and drinks handy. This will help to quickly refuel your glycogen stores.

Ideas for increasing carbohydrate intake

High carbohydrate meals

· When preparing mixed dishes like curries or spaghetti Bolognese, reduce the amount of meat sauce and increase the amount of spaghetti or rice.

· When making pizza, choose thick crust bases and reduce the amount of cheese or processed meats you use as toppings.

· Go for baked potatoes as a good carbohydrate base to your meal and fill with low fat options like beans, cottage cheese and sweetcorn, or ratatouille.

· Make your sandwiches with thick crust bread and avoid using high fat spreads, mayonnaise and fatty fillings like salami, cheese or coleslaw.

· Skip the cooked breakfasts and try to stick to high fibre breakfast cereals and whole meal toast with low fat spreads.

High carbohydrate snacks

· Crackers and breadsticks

· Scones and pancakes

· Bagels

· Toast

· Rice pudding

· Breakfast cereal and milk

· Fig rolls and Garibaldi biscuits

· Some breakfast bars and muesli bars. Just read the label to make sure it is low in fat.


Drinking is just as important as eating when it comes to sport. Exercise can be impaired even if you are only slightly dehydrated. To prevent dehydration, athletes should keep well hydrated at all times by drinking frequently before, during and after exercise.

Water is the best option for staying well hydrated but if you intend to exercise for an extended period of time, it will help to replenish your carbohydrate stores as you train by taking a drink containing sugar. This can be any squash-type drink or one of the commercially available sports drinks.

Isotonic drinks contain electrolytes or salts in the same concentrations as are found in the body. This means that the fluid is taken up quickly by the body and is more likely to be retained. Such drinks have also been shown to enhance athletic performance.

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