Carbohydrates Structure, Basic Functions, and Food Forms
Chemically, carbohydrates are molecules composed of carbon (C), hydrogen (H), and oxygen (O) atoms, thus giving carbohydrate its abbreviation of CHO. As previously described, carbohydrates provide approximately four kilocalories, or calories, per gram, a measure of its potential energy.
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Carbohydrates are classified according to their chemical structure. Simple carbohydrates are composed of one sugar molecule (glucose, fructose, and galactose) known as monosaccharides (saccharide means sugar), or two sugar molecules (sucrose, maltose, and lactose) known as disaccharides. Fruits, vegetables, dairy products such as milk and yogurt, and table sugar are all dietary sources of simple carbohydrates. Many weight loss products, such as gels and sports drinks, are also composed largely of simple carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are composed of more than two sugar molecules found in linear or branched chain forms. These include starch, a glucose polymer found in plants, and glycogen, the storage form of glucose polymers in animals (including humans). Complex carbohydrates in the diet are found in legumes; starchy vegetables such as peas, corn, and potatoes; and grains. The digestion of complex carbohydrates takes longer than simple carbohydrates due to greater enzymatic action. Minimally processed complex carbohydrates are an important source of dietary fiber in addition to their provision of energy.
Carbohydrates are sometimes dichotomized as “good” or “bad,” but this overly simplistic view of carbohydrates does not illustrate the diverse nature of this nutrient. It is erroneous to say that simple carbohydrates are bad for us and complex carbohydrates are good. For example, it would be difficult to argue that an apple, a simple carbohydrate, is unhealthy. A more precise approach looks at the nutrients that the carbohydrate food provides, the amount that is consumed, and, for an athlete, the timing of intake. Individuals, including athletes, are encouraged to focus on nutrient-rich forms of carbohydrates that include fruits, vegetables (starchy and nonstarchy), whole grains, milk, yogurt, and legumes. These foods will contribute essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, in addition to the energy they provide, and should comprise the foundation of an athlete’s diet. Most of an athlete’s energy will come from complex carbohydrates, though simple carbohydrates such as fruits and vegetables are also essential.
Processed foods made with refined grains and added sugars contribute energy but may offer little nutritional value regarding its nutrient profile, and thus their intake should be limited. These include snacks such as chips, crackers, cookies, and other commercial baked goods; sodas and sweetened drinks; and other white grains and sugar cereals. That being said, there are instances where simple, and slightly more processed carbohydrates may be appropriate for athletes and can be included in the diet, such as right before or during exercise. Timing of nutrient intake will be discussed later in this chapter.
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