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Carbohydrates: Fuel of Choice

Learn what your carb-fuel intake should be, based on your activity level.

In this article, you will find:

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Carbohydrates: Fuel of Choice

Carbohydrate is the high-octane fuel for exercise and should provide at least 55 percent of an athlete's total daily calories. To get a bit more technical, you should consume approximately 3.0 to 4.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight. Where do you fit in? If your sport is pretty low-key—not a lot of nonstop running around—you should aim for 3.0 grams. On the other hand, if you participate in a super-endurance sport that involves hours of heavy training each day, you should aim for 4.5 grams.

Food for Thought

Carbohydrate-rich foods are the fuel of choice for athletes. Carbs provide the muscles with ongoing energy in the form of glucose and help maintain prolonged endurance and optimal performance.

What does that mean, anyway?

Math time—grab a calculator. Take your weight in pounds and multiply it by 3.0 grams (for moderate intensity sports) and 4.5 grams (for strenuous endurance training). Obviously, these are two extremes; most exercisers and athletes fall in the middle. In fact, give yourself a range; play around and see where your body feels most vigorous.

For example: here's the carbo requirement for a 150-pound elite runner training several hours each day:

150 pounds × 4.5 grams = 675 grams of carbohydrate

Because 1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories, we can now convert 675 carb grams into carb calories by using the following equation:

675 × 4 = 2,700 carbohydrate calories

Now, let's look at a typical 150-pound health club member, working out at a moderate intensity (approximately 45 minutes), 4–5 days a week:

150 pounds × 3.0 grams = 450 grams of carbohydrate

Now, convert into carb calories:

450 × 4 = 1,800 carbohydrate calories

As you can see, a more intense endurance exercise program will demand more carbohydrate. But keep in mind that the proportions of carbs, protein, and fat pretty much remain the same because in the end, you're taking in more of everything.

Develop Your Own High-Carb Diet

Need to boost your carbs? Take a look at the variety of foods you can choose from, and watch how fast you can rack up the grams.

The Starchy Carbs

Generally speaking, breads, grains, and other starchy foods contain approximately 15 grams (give or take a few) of carbohydrate per serving (1 slice bread, ½ cup pasta, 1 serving of cereal). These foods receive top billing for endurance athletes simply because it's easy to eat multiple servings in one sitting. For instance, a pasta entree can easily total five grain servings, and because one pasta serving contains about 20 grams of carb, five servings supplies a whopping 100 grams of carbohydrate. Clearly, this is the reasoning behind marathon runners “packing in the pasta” before the lengthy 26-mile run.


Next up are fruits, also providing about the same 15 grams of carbohydrate per serving (1 medium fresh fruit, 1 cup berries/melon, 1/2 cup fruit juice). Why are they second? Athletes looking to load up on carbs can eat 10+ servings of grain more comfortably than 10+ servings of fruit. Remember, fruit has a lot of fiber and tends to fill you up more quickly. (You might be “bursting with fruit flavor” in more ways than one!) Incorporate a lot of fresh fruit into your regimen, but don't skimp on the grains and rely solely on fruit.

Milk Products

Milk products contain about 12 grams of carbohydrate per serving (1 cup milk, 1 cup yogurt) and can certainly boost your total carbs together with the starchy foods, fruits, and vegetables. What's more, milk pumps you with calcium, a key ingredient for maintaining strong, athletic bones.


Veggies provide approximately 5 grams of carbohydrate per serving (1 cup raw or ½ cup cooked) and are certainly packed with vitamins and minerals. Although veggies alone can't supply enough concentrated carbohydrate for increased requirements, they can sure jazz up your meals and add tremendous amounts of nutrition to your table.

Common High-Carb Foods Carbohydrate Grams

Medium baked potato51
Medium bagel45
1 cup rice44
1 cup low-fat, flavored yogurt43
Power bars42
1 cup beans41
1 cup pasta (cooked)40
Glass of O.J. (8 oz.)26
1 cup cereal (ready to eat)25
1 cup oatmeal25
Granola bar25
2 slices whole-wheat bread23
2 fig cookies23
10 crackers21
1 oz. pretzels21
1 cup low-fat yogurt (plain)18
½ cup corn17
1 cup low-fat milk12
½ cup peas11

Note that the carbohydrate grams are calculated for serving sizes that are commonly eaten, not the standard single serving sizes frequently listed throughout the book and within the new Dietary Guidelines.

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