Have carbs had their chips?

Eating copious quantities of carbs is on page one of The Runner’s Rulebook. But are spuds, pasta et al really the best fuel for our performance, health and body-shape goals

by Fiona Bugler

Are you carb-intolerant?

As touched on earlier, some experts argue that not all our bodies process carbs with the same efficiency. ‘There’s no one-size-fits-all rule,’ says Bannock. ‘We’re all unique, so nutrient needs are individual.’ Some can tolerate and utilise carbs more efficiently, and in larger quantities, while others can’t process them as effectively, and may end up storing the large quantities they consume as fat, negatively affecting weight and ultimately health.

‘This is the key issue,’ says Noakes. ‘Clearly some athletes, such as the great Kenyan runners, are able to run very well when eating high-carbohydrate diets and it would probably be inappropriate to change their choice. This does not mean that everyone is able to metabolise carbohydrate as effectively as they are.’

So how do you know whether or not your body can tolerate those jumbo jacket spuds and super-size spag bols? ‘If, as a runner, you are clinically overweight with a body mass index greater than 25, you might be carbohydrate-intolerant,’ says Noakes. ‘And then all that carbohydrate is simply making you fat, not fit.’

‘It’s easy to see if you are carb-intolerant,’ adds Bannock. ‘If you have extra fat – you can pinch more than an inch – and you eat a lot of carbs, the likelihood is that your body is not using the carbs you take in as fuel, but storing them as fat. Many runners are “skinny fat” – they’re storing more fat around their middle and, to a lesser extent, around the hips and thighs, which can signify carb-intolerance,’ he adds.

Aside from the warning signs of weight and body fat, there’s another simple strategy to discover your body’s carb-metabolising efficiency. ‘Simply reduce the amount of carbohydrates you are eating and note the response,’ says Noakes. How does the menu change affect your body composition, performance and energy levels?

‘It needs to be a long-term change,’ warns Bannock. ‘You can expect to feel tired when you first stop eating high-carb meals, but after a few weeks you will notice a difference. A cyclist I’ve been training who ate nothing but  carbs recently made the switch, and after just two weeks he got a PB.’

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Discuss this article

I spent three days hiking and running with Haile Gebrselassie (double Olympic Gold medalist) and a couple of 2:06/2:07 marathon runners last week in Southern Ethiopia and was surprised to find their preferred diet is almost exclusively lean red meat some of it raw. There was very little carb.

Posted: 30/06/2013 at 15:38

Raw red meat?

So - this the latest fad? Someone need to sell a book? Kenyans get by on a very simple high carb diet which includes lots of "evil" sugar, and not a lot of meat. What they don't do is over analyze...and also they don't have access to loads of processed junk food etc.

Posted: 30/06/2013 at 21:49

They also rest a lot, by all accounts. If you don't eat carbs, you don't have any energy - simple.

Posted: 02/07/2013 at 12:24

I love the smell of red meat in the morning; smells like Gall stones (Ouch).

Posted: 02/07/2013 at 15:16


and I seriously doubt that people who aren't efficient at carb digestion would become serious endurance athletes anyway. 

And the funny thing thar I have observed on almost all Low-carbers is that they tell you to eat stuff plus VEGS... Sorry? aren't vegs made of carbs?

Posted: 03/07/2013 at 17:53

I just noticed one thing:

The proposition they made is adound 50% carbs and (I suppose) the rest divided equally between fat and potein... however: Isn't this already a 10% more carbs than what's normally suggested: 40% carbs + 30% fat and 30% protein?

So, what do these people call "high carbs"? a diet based on potatoes only?

I am afraid this article is just another one comming from the prestigiuos team of Captain Obvious

Posted: 03/07/2013 at 18:05

I have read this in the actual magazine I got last week (the full article). Some of the statements/quotes need to be subject to far greater peer review and scrutiny - especially the stuff about saturated fats.

Posted: 04/07/2013 at 14:30

I think back to the days of yore when the Oxford and Cambridge boat crews were allowed sppecial diets at the communal eating table. As far as I know, they still are. The commanded fuel was enormous quantities of steak and eggs, washed down with milk.

Before you cry wolf, think a little more carefully. Their breakfast was a POST EXERCISE refuel.

I also, perchance, stayed in a hotel in Italy when a cycle team visited, on tour. They were fed with treble quantities of pasta. Draw your own conclusions..

Posted: 04/07/2013 at 22:27

Amusing article and comments . Red meat = gall stones ? really ? 

Not a particularly healthy alternative diet in the article either . No saturated fat / no mono fat = bad hormone profile . No links to boring NHS articles about heart disease either please (sponsored by flora margarine probably) .

Yes , the elite Africans do eat a simple starch based diet with little protein , that doesn't mean recreational runners should follow suit unless they are trying desperately to get ill . 

These articles are out there to confuse and they always succeed .

My advice to myself ? Be a competitive long distance runner = up the starchy carbs , lower the sugary junk , keep protein and sat fat to medium/low . Aim for longevity and health with the occasional recreational run = carbs right down , protein medium and sat and mono fat up high (we evolved very well like this I believe) . Oh , most importantly don't forget some O3's , though tinned oily fish does stink the kitchen out .

Posted: 05/07/2013 at 11:51

"And the funny thing thar I have observed on almost all Low-carbers is that they tell you to eat stuff plus VEGS... Sorry? aren't vegs made of carbs?"

Isn't the clue in the term 'low carb', rather than 'no carb'...?
I'm not a follower of it as I love bread too much, but the message I take from it, is eat less processed food, which doesn't sound unreasonable to me.

Posted: 07/07/2013 at 09:23

Very interesting read and so helpful for me as one of these guys that have a 24% body fat and pre diabetic sugars and do upto 40m cardio a week.  So I will take some of this on board and try and slow the rate of my Type 2 demise, by taking some of the higher fats and proteins and dropping the over carbed high GI foods and  try and add the lower veg carbs with lower GI readings.

Thanks for a good post.

Posted: 08/07/2013 at 02:10

I've been on low carb since Feb (5 months) and with 2-3 days training a week I just ran a 1:47 half marathon (two minutes off my PB). I most likely would have beaten my PB if I had trained more. I had been restricting myself to less than 200g of carbs a day and during the race I never ran out of energy and felt great afterwards. 

A week later I cycled 76k (a little over 3hrs 30mins) with no carbs (just almonds, walnuts and water) and again still felt full of energy.

To those that say you need carbs for energy, sorry, that is not correct!

Posted: 18/07/2013 at 10:58

"A week later I cycled 76k (a little over 3hrs 30mins) with no carbs (just almonds, walnuts and water) and again still felt full of energy."

That's not really no carbs is it?  Given that Almonds are 25% carbohydrate and walnuts have almost the same amount of carbohydrates as they do protein.

Posted: 18/07/2013 at 12:16

I heard Haile ran his 2.03.59 whilst in ketosis so he didn't hit the wall.

Posted: 18/07/2013 at 21:45

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