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Martina Column: Power Carbs

Complex carbohydrates energize your body for exercise and daily life—and don't make you fat.


I realize that carbs have a less-than-sterling reputation these days. This baffles me. I played some of my best competitive tennis when I filled my diet with carbs—pasta, whole grains, bread, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. 

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I could tell the difference: I felt lighter, and so much stronger. Plus, I was mentally sharp and less moody. I could load up on all kinds of carbs, provided they were the right ones. When I fueled myself with carbs, I felt like I could stay on the court forever. I remember what I ate one day before beating Chris Evert in an evening match: a croissant, some oatmeal, and a waffle for breakfast; pasta, bread, honeydew melon, an apple, and orange juice for lunch. Talk about carb loading!

Unfair Carb Barbs

I think people are afraid that if they eat too many carbs they will gain weight. From what I’ve read, simple carbs—sugar, alcohol, white flour—cause you to gain weight if you eat too much of them, but complex carbohydrates—potatoes, oatmeal, brown rice, high-fiber cereals, whole-grain pasta, or whole grain bread—cause you to lose weight by reducing insulin levels. (Insulin is a fat-forming hormone.) When all is said and done, it’s really excess calories of any kind that are fattening.

Speaking of complex carbs, I prefer to call them “power carbs,” because they energize the body for exercise and daily life. They supply lots of B vitamins, minerals, and plenty of fiber for good digestive health. Power carbs also slow the rise of blood sugar and create less pressure on the pancreas to produce large amounts of insulin. The benefits of power carbs don’t stop there. More than 150 studies show that people who eat high-fiber diets have lower rates of colorectal and other types of cancer.

Power carbs, such as whole grains, can also help with weight loss, because they increase a person’s feeling of fullness. Also, carbs get stored in the body as glycogen for additional fuel when you're active or exercising. Without those stores, you'll waste and burn muscle tissue. And that can slow your metabolism. –All this pretty much blows the myth, “Carbs are fattening,” out of the water! 

I can tell when I’m running low on carbs: I feel wiped out when playing tennis or training. That’s dangerous, because if I’m tired, I could hurt a knee or a shoulder or an ankle by falling, not to mention losing a match.

Which Power Carbs Should You Get?

One of the best times to replenish your energy with power carbs is right after you exercise. Here are some examples of carbs that do the job:

  • Juices made from fresh fruit and vegetables
  • Fresh fruit
  • Raisins
  • Multigrain bagel
  • Potato
  • Sweet potato
  • Corn
  • Whole-wheat pita
  • Whole-grain dinner roll
  • Whole-wheat crackers
  • Whole-grain flour or corn tortilla
  • Whole-wheat pancakes
  • Low-fat granola and muesli

Eat or drink power carbs (for example, juices or smoothies) in the first 15 minutes, right after your workout. This timeframe promotes the most rapid refueling, since the enzymes that make glycogen are at their peak activity at this time.

So exactly how many power carbs should you eat each day? Most nutritionists recommend a diet that provides 45 percent to 65 percent of your daily calories from carbohydrates. Don’t like to do the math? Then have three to four servings of carbs a day—one at each meal and one for your post-exercise snack. But make sure they’re healthful, high-fiber, power carbs. Once you choose the right carbs, the amount becomes less of an issue.

There’s always room for carbs. Besides, I love them. After all, what’s a little cream cheese without a bagel?

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