Complex, yet Simple


CCarbohydrate illustration.ount on Carbohydrate for the Young Swimmer

By Jill Castle, MS, RD

Are ‘carbs’ bad? Popular opinion would lead you to believe they are—but this isn’t true for growing swimmers. The truth is, carbohydrates supply important nutrients and a critical energy source for the young swimmer. But what types of carbohydrates are best? You may be surprised to learn that all types of carbohydrates can have benefits, but with all things nutrition, getting the right balance is the key.

Carbohydrate is the preferred energy source for working muscles and normal brain function. All carbohydrate from food is digested and broken down to a simple form: glucose. The brain and muscles rely on a steady supply of this for normal performance.

Muscles store, or load, glucose in the form of glycogen. During exercise, glycogen breaks down, releasing glucose to the blood stream and making it available to the brain and muscles. Unlike adults, young athletes are limited in their ability to breakdown glycogen. While carbohydrate loading is common among adult athletes, its benefit in young swimmers and other young athletes is undetermined.

Carbohydrates are categorized as simple (sugar) or complex (starch and fiber). Foods such as grains, fruit, vegetables and dairy products are complex carbohydrates and desirable for the athlete. Why? The more complex the source, the longer it takes to digest and absorb, making glucose available to the muscles over a longer period. On the other hand, simple carbohydrate sources are quickly digested and absorbed, releasing glucose almost immediately to the body. Both sources are beneficial to the young swimmer. Complex sources are the foundation foods from daily meals and snacks, keeping muscles, brain and body well fueled. Simple carbohydrate sources, such as a sports drink, can be beneficial before and during training or competition.

Generally, children’s diets are rich in carbohydrate, but the balance of complex and simple sources are skewed. Many kids are getting more carbohydrate from simple sources than they need, overdosing on soda, other sweetened beverages, desserts, candy and other processed snack foods. These foods may negatively impact the nutrition ‘bottom line’ for growing swimmers, resulting in excess calories and nutrient gaps in their diet. Scaling back on these foods leaves room for the important (and more nutritious) complex carbohydrate foods.

So how can young swimmers bank on getting enough and the right type of carbohydrates? Tilt the balance in favor of complex carbohydrates with these tips:

• Eat an array of fruit and vegetables, targeting 5 servings (1 cup) each day.
• Incorporate starchy (potato and other root vegetables) and non-starchy vegetables into meals and snacks.
• Eat whole grains (cereal, bread, pasta, rice, crackers) over refined grains, at least half of the time.
• Drink and eat low-fat dairy products (or dairy substitutes), targeting 3 cups each day.
• Scale back on desserts, candy, processed snacks, soda and other sweetened beverages—keep it to one or two servings (or less) each day.
• Strategically use sports drinks during training and competition, not as an accompaniment to a meal or snack.

When thinking about carbohydrates, keep it simple! Max on complex carbohydrate foods and minimize the simple ones—not only will the young swimmer be set for training and competition everyday, he’ll get a healthy dose of good nutrition too.

Jill Castle is a registered dietitian and child nutrition expert. She is the owner of Pediatric Nutrition of Green Hills and creator of Just The Right Byte, a child and family nutrition blog. Jill lives with her husband and four children (one swimmer!) in Nashville, TN. 
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