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By Christina Major  |  13 December 2020   

When people start talking about good carbs to eat for combat athletes, they tend to focus on vegetables, whole grains and, ironically, supplements. The can be a good way to get in things like fiber and the prebiotic oligosaccharides that can help improve your digestive system.

But, looking at carbohydrates as good or bad really misses the point.

And if you're training to win a fight, you want to make sure you have all of your research on the enemy first.

What is a Carb – Carbohydrate 101

A carbohydrate is simply a molecule that is composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. The specific arrangement often is a ring, the most common being glucose and sucrose.

When specific rings are attached to each other, they form larger chains. The longer the chains become, the more energy they store within them, but the harder they are to digest. 

Carbohydrate Molecules | Fighting Arts Health Lab

The most extended chains are in the class of complex carbs, and some cannot be digested at all. Here’s the thing:

There's no clearly delineated line between a good carbohydrate and a bad carbohydrate - just like there's no clear line between a simple carbohydrate and a complex carbohydrate.

But, the general consensus is that simple carbohydrates, or the bad carbohydrates, are the ones that can impact the sugars in our blood quickly. The complex carbohydrates, or the good carbs to eat, take longer to break down and provide some nourishment.

What Carbohydrates Mean To A Combat Athlete

Looking at carbs to give you an energy boost is a very short-term solution. Although the broken down carbs are the body's primary energy source, manipulating or overwhelming that natural system leads to diabetes.

Yes, you can suck down a sugar, syrupy concoction (carb loading) and get a lot of energy very quickly. But, the crash afterward is going to be horrific.

If you're an combat athlete and focused on one short bout in the ring, that might not bother you (right now), but if you're looking at training and self-defense, you'll realize that there is no preparation for a real confrontation. Carb loading gives you a false sense of security and can hurt your health later in life. What does better is for you to keep your carbohydrate consumption consistent and lower.

We're not talking low carb diets, just enough to meet your daily needs without excess. As a combat athlete, you should be focusing on getting more of your energy from healthy fats.

UFC Fighter Jon Jones switched to a 80% plant based diet. Not only is he feeling lighter, but he also cut weight naturally. As his strength improved, his muscle mass got leaner, letting him weigh less while maintaining his health and strength.

What Foods Have Good Carbs that Fuel Combat Arts Performance?

Everything you eat, everything that was once alive, has carbohydrates. Even though meat supposedly has zero carbohydrates, there were sugars stored in the muscle to provide energy, and those sugars still exist. They're just at a level that is difficult to count and really doesn't impact our system.

So, the next thing we look at is vegetables. Most vegetables are lower in carbohydrates. The tough fibers and complex matrix that holds nutrients and gives structure to the plants are carbohydrates. Because most fibers are either indigestible or do not provide a person energy, they are not counted as part of the nutritional label's carbohydrate count.

So, the carbohydrates from vegetables would be considered complex or the good kind.

Good Carbs for Combat Athletes | Fighting Arts Health Lab

You have to be careful with potatoes and other starchy foods because they tend to have many extra sugars or simple carbohydrates mixed in.

Then, we move on to fruits. Fruits contain a lot of natural sugars, both simple and complex. Fruits like apples have many oligosaccharides that are beneficial for our gut mixed in with simple sugars to increase the sweetness.

Grains, rice, and legumes all contain a lot of carbohydrates. These tend to be more of a mix of simple and complex carbohydrates. But, other problems associated with them make consuming them a problem.

However, it's the processing of these natural foods that makes them undesirable. In many cases, the fiber and nutrient-rich bran are stripped off the grain, and all that is left behind are the simple sugars. Most processed foods are made with this strip down sugary leftover and provide you with nothing but sugars.

If you choose foods that have grains or rice, choose whole grain varieties to get all of the nutrients.

Chris Algieri, the Head Performance Nutrition Coach at Stony Brook University, provides diets for MMA fighters, like Ryan LaFlare, Dennis Bermudez and Gian Villante. He promotes complex carbs for long-term energy and protein and vegetable-based foods when resting.

More to Come…

This is a straightforward overview of carbohydrates. As we continue on, we're going to get into more details of precisely what defines carbohydrates and the type of food to eat, so stay tuned!

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About the author

Christina Major is a Holistic Nutritionist, Naturopath, and herbalist. She owns Crystal Holistic Health, a nutritional consulting and writing business specializing in complementary and alternative medicine. She has over a decade of helping people find health, lose weight, and get off medications. Christina has practiced martial arts for 18 years. Staring with an eclectic group in college, she practiced Tang Soo Do and Tai Kwan Do for three years after graduation. After moving to Central PA, she began studying Taijutsu where she obtained a 2nd-degree black belt and studied the art directly under the Soke and top Shihan in Japan. She met her husband, a 5th-degree in class, where they enjoy giving each other bruises and kisses.

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