Optimizing Carbohydrates for Muay Thai Athletes
There has been a recent increase in the popularity of high fat, low carb diets, and as a direct result, carbohydrates have become somewhat demonized within the health and fitness industry.
Carbohydrates have been described as the cause of cardiovascular and metabolic disease, as well as immune system disorders, and of course, the current obesity epidemic plaguing the nation.
Interestingly, this is not the entire story.
While a low carbohydrate diet may be beneficial for your everyday office worker as a way to lose weight, I am here to tell you that for anyone trains, competes, and works hard towards athletic endeavors of any kind, low carb diets are detrimental to success.
Carbohydrates are absolutely essential to the production of energy. This holds particularly true when we discuss energy produced at a high intensity (during anaerobic exercise), such as that seen during a single bout of competition, or multiple bouts back to back.
In fact, carbohydrates are so important that it has been recommended that approximately 50% of an athletic individual’s daily energy intake comes from carbohydrates.
And while it is apparent that carbohydrates are essential for energy production, and thus successful sport performance, it goes a little deeper than that. You see, not all carbohydrates are created equal, and the types of carbohydrates that we consume, and at what times, can significantly influence the rate at which we produce energy, and for how long we produce that energy.
Carbohydrates are one of the three key macronutrients (protein, fat and obviously the topic of today’s discussion, carbohydrates) that we receive from food.
Despite the fact that carbohydrates can be consumed in different forms (sugar, starches, and fibre), they are all broken down into glucose by the digestive system, which is then absorbed and shuttled around the body to be used for energy.
(**It is important to note that fibre is the only exception to this rule, as it cannot actually be broken down within the digestive system, and passes through our digestive tract almost completely untouched.**)
Once absorbed, glucose is stored in the liver and muscle tissue. Once our energy stores are full, excess glucose can then be converted into fatty acid molecules, which are then also stored to be used for energy at a later time (which essentially describes the process of fat accumulation).
Once glucose enters the blood stream, insulin (a key energy storage hormone) is secreted into the blood, which in turn promotes the storage of fatty acids, amino acids (protein molecules), creatine, and glucose into our muscle, adipose, and liver tissues.
Fast and Slow Absorbing Carbohydrates
Now, while all the carbohydrates that we consume do end up stored as glucose within the body’s tissues, this does not by any means suggest that all carbohydrates are created equal.
Carbohydrates are found in many different foods, and although it is not as black and white as good carbohydrates from bad carbohydrates, there are a few distinct differences between fast absorbing carbohydrates and slow absorbing carbohydrates.
Slow Absorbing Carbohydrates
Slow absorbing carbohydrates are those that we should be consuming most of the time (and as such should make up about 90% of our carbohydrate intake.
Slow absorbing carbohydrates are known to come from whole food sources, such as vegetables, grains, legumes, and fruit. While these foods undoubtedly have high carbohydrate content, they should by no means be considered bad.
These carbohydrates that are found in whole foods consist mostly of complex carbohydrates.
Complex carbohydrates are starches that are made from very long chains of glucose molecules. This is important, as these complex carbohydrates take quite a long time to be broken down in the gut, and as a result, are absorbed into the blood at an extremely slow rate .
Due to the slow absorption of these carbohydrates, they only cause a very small insulin response. As a direct result, less glucose is stored within the tissue (and less is converted to fat), and more is available to be used freely for energy.
When it comes to both training and competing, this is integral.
By ensuring that the bulk of our carbohydrates come from complex sources, we can guarantee that we have adequate energy available for the performance of high intensity exercise. Furthermore, as these types of carbohydrates are absorbed extremely slowly (hence the name…), they also provide the prolonged release of energy into our bloodstream.
This becomes incredibly important during longer bouts of physical activity (after a few rounds of competition, maybe?), as it ensures we can compete at a high intensity for a long duration, without a reduction in performance.
As an added bonus, the whole foods providing these complex carbohydrates often also contain an abundance of vitamins and minerals. These essential nutrients can improve health and recovery, and are known to play a number of important roles within the human body .
By maintaining a high consumption of these nutrients, we can further improve health, reducing our risk of disease and illness, and further improve our capacity to produce energy, and therefore train and perform efficiently.
These slow absorbing carbohydrates are inherently different from fast absorbing carbohydrates, in that they have undergone zero processing (hence the reason they are also often considered whole carbohydrates).
Fast Absorbing Carbohydrates
On the other hand, we have fast absorbing carbohydrates.
Fast absorbing carbohydrates are often described as refined carbohydrates, due to the high amount of processing they undergo before they are packaged for consumption.
Refined carbohydrates come in the form of pasta, sugar sweetened beverages (such as fruit juice and soda), breads, pastries, cereals, and pretty much any type of sweet or candy. They also commonly come in carbohydrate powders, such as dextrose and maltodextrin.
A simple way to establish whether a food is a fast absorbing carbohydrate or not is to look at how its presented in the grocery store. Ultimately, if it comes in a package, it is most likely a refined carbohydrate.
The carbohydrates used in these sorts of foods have been broken down during processing into compounds known as simple sugars. Simple sugars are small chains of glucose molecules held together by very weak bonds (vastly different to complex carbohydrates).
These simple sugars are digested and absorbed at a very rapid rate, and as a result, cause an extremely large insulin response .
Now if consumed regularly, simple sugars can cause a large increase in fat mass over time (due to the role insulin plays in shuttling fatty acids into the fat tissue), which will obviously impact performance negatively.
But, they do actually have a place in our diets. When consumed immediately after exercise, these simple sugars can promote recovery by increasing the rate at which amino acids are shuttled into the muscle tissue (amino acids are the building blocks of our muscle cells).
As a result, these sugars should make up 5-10% of our daily carbohydrate intake, and should be only consumed after training or competition to promote recovery.
Not all Carbohydrates are created equal.
There are both fast and slow digesting carbohydrates. Slow digesting carbohydrates should make up about 90-95% of the carbohydrates we consume on a daily basis, as they promote sustained energy release, which can improve performance.
Fast digesting carbohydrates should only be consumed after training or competition, as they can enhance recover by increasing the rate at which amino acids are shuttled into the muscle tissue. These carbohydrates should make up only 5-10% of our daily carbohydrate intake, and should only be consumed after exercise.
By timing our carbohydrates effectively throughout our days, we can both improve our performance and our rate of recovery!
Hernandez, Teri L., et al. “A higher-complex carbohydrate diet in gestational diabetes mellitus achieves glucose targets and lowers postprandial lipids: a randomized crossover study.” Diabetes Care 37.5 (2014): 1254-1262.
Prasad, Kedar N. Micronutrients in health and disease. CRC Press, 2016.
Bossetti, Brenda M., et al. “The effects of physiologic amounts of simple sugars on lipoprotein, glucose, and insulin levels in normal subjects.”Diabetes Care 7.4 (1984): 309-312
- Sean "Muay Thai Guy" Fagan owns & operates the largest online Muay Thai community and the #1 training resource for nak muay of all levels.