I’ve been that athlete sitting quietly on the sidelines eating whole-grain sourdough toast with almond butter while the nutrition world chatters about low-carb diets — and I’m not afraid to admit it.
After years of working with athletes to design recipes and menus to fuel their sport at every level from Olympians to the everyday champs, I’m far from championing the idea severely limiting carbohydrates is a good idea for bodies striving to be their best. As a chef, you’ll never convince me zoodles are “basically noodles,” or that a burger is a burger without a bun. In other words, I’m a superfan of the “smart carb” strategy.
THE SMART CARB STRATEGY
The typical American diet is laden with carbohydrates, hiding in places we wouldn’t expect them, specifically in packaged and convenience foods. These are the carbs worth cutting — the ones that provide little nutritional benefit and don’t contribute to the joy of our meals. But other carbohydrate sources aren’t just enjoyable to eat, but also vital to our whole health and well-being. Learning where the super-powered carbs belong, and where to swap them out for lower carb options is crucial to fueling your sport and your goals as an athlete.
Knowing which carbs are empty, and which carbs are potent to power your body better and worth the calorie investment is the first step to setting up your smart carb strategy. Ditch the carbs that act as filler in your diet and swap in carbohydrate sources from whole, real food ingredients. Whole grains, whole vegetables and fruits are what you’re looking for, and they’re rarely found in packaged and processed foods. Instead, fill your meals with proper servings of steamed grains, whole-grain breads, pastas or steamed veggies.
The next step is building your day, and your meals, around these potent sources. Below are some quick, smart carb swaps to make — from breakfast to dinner.
GRAB: GRAIN-FREE GRANOLA
Most pre-packaged granolas are laden with added sugar and thus loaded with carbohydrates; they’re rarely made with whole grains. Instead, look for grain-free granola to power you through your day and enjoy your carbs from another, more virtuous source.
MAKE: WHOLE-GRAIN PANCAKE MIX
Most traditional pancake mixes employ refined flours and often sweeteners, meaning they’re high in carbs and low in nutritional value. But a whole-grain crepe—whether savory or sweet—is a stellar way to save on carbs, get your grains, and enjoy a delicious breakfast. The best way to ensure your ‘cakes are packed with good carbs is to make the mix yourself, like these whole-grain crepes.
Whole-grain oatmeal is high in fiber, a great source of carbohydrates, vitamins and nutrients, too. Enjoying a bowl of oatmeal as a post-workout meal helps your body rebuild, and eating it before a busy day gives you the fuel you need to power through.
DITCH: BOXED CEREALS
Most of the boxed cereals are made with grains that lack nutritional luster, and they don’t have much sticking power to fuel your day or your sport. Plus, there’s a lot of sweetener hiding in those flakes and clusters, and that means empty carbs. Make a big bowl of oatmeal instead.
GRAB: GRAIN-FREE CRACKERS
Crackers, as delicious as they are, are not a powerful source of carbohydrates. So when you just want something crunchy to enjoy with your lunch, reach for a grain-free or gluten-free cracker to dip and snack on.
MAKE: A GRAIN SALAD
Instead of building a sandwich on sad slices of store-bought, low-carb bread, try making yourself a grain bowl or a soup with grains instead of a sandwich. Whole grains like quinoa, barley and rice contain minerals and vitamins our bodies need, but have a hard time getting from less comprehensive sources.
KEEP: WHOLE-GRAIN SOURDOUGH TOAST
There’s nothing wrong with a slice of bread, but make sure the carbs and calories in your toast count. Look for whole-grain bread baked fresh when you shop. Better yet, hunt down a local bakery using heirloom grains. The fermented grains are easier for to digest, and packed with powerful nutrients. If your quick go-to is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or toast for breakfast, skip the jam and jelly, and top your toast with fresh sauteéd fruit.
DITCH: BOTTLED SALAD DRESSINGS
Salad dressings contain carbohydrates in the form of fillers, and most often, sugar is hiding in those bottles. Protect the health of your pretty green salads by using vinegar or a simple squeeze of lemon to dress your salad along with a little drizzle of olive oil instead.
GRAB: WHOLE-GRAIN BURGER BUN
Leave the fries and shake off your order. Enjoy a bun with your burger alongside a salad for a complete meal that won’t blow your carbohydrate budget. Enjoying the burger with the bun is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
MAKE: ROASTED VEGGIES AS AN ENTREE
As our bodies wind down for the evening, they don’t rely on as many carbohydrates to power their day. Dinner is a perfect time to make roasted squash, pumpkin, sweet potatoes or other root vegetables as a main dish for a light, nutritionally sound meal.
KEEP: WHOLE-GRAIN PASTA
See ya later, straight up semolina pasta. Processed semolina is lacking in the nutritional value department compared to its whole-grain cousins. Look for pasta varieties that use whole-grains and skew your pasta creations to those featuring healthy servings of veggies like broccoli and greens, or use fresh tomatoes, zucchini and olive oil as your pasta sauce.
DITCH: WHITE POTATOES
As delicious as they are, white and gold potato varieties have less fiber than their sweet potato cousins. When it comes to making a mash, try sweet potatoes, turnips or parsnips for a maximum mineral punch and more fiber, too.
Discover hundreds of healthy recipes — from high protein to low carb — via “Recipe Discovery” in the MyFitnessPal app.