Importance of Carbs For Boxers | Explained by a Dietitian
“Carbs are bad for you”... “Carbs make you gain weight.” Let’s face it, when it comes to diets, carbohydrates have a bad rep. Yet, they consist of some of the healthiest foods in the world, and they include some of the best foods for weight loss. Surprised? You’re about to get a whole new look on carbohydrates and why they should be an integral part of a boxer’s diet.
WHAT ARE CARBOHYDRATES?
Carbohydrates are one of the three essential macronutrients in a complete balanced diet. They are made from building blocks of sugar, and upon digestion, get broken down into their simplest form, known as glucose. Glucose is the one and only source of energy for the body; including the brain, muscles, and cells. In fact, in order to function properly, your brain requires a continuous supply of energy and roughly 120 grams of glucose per day (Source 1) (2).
So what happens if you deprive your body from its main source of energy? You will not only feel extremely fatigued, but you may also experience weakness, brain fog, and have difficulty concentrating (Source). Those who follow a very low-carbohydrate diet (looking at you, keto) are essentially starving the body from its primary source of fuel and forcing it to convert fat or protein into glucose, a process known as gluconeogenesis. This unnatural process puts your body, and your liver, under a large amount of stress.
WHY DO BOXERS NEED CARBOHYDRATES?
Besides fueling our brain, carbohydrates also fuel our muscles. That’s because they get converted into glycogen, a form of energy stored in muscles. Glycogen is essential for powering our boxing workouts and throwing continuous punches in the ring (Source). In fact, carbohydrates are an indispensable energy source for high-intensity performance as they are the nutrients that are most efficiently metabolized by the body--and they can be broken down rapidly enough to provide energy during periods of high-intensity exercise, such as boxing (Source). One study suggested that approximately 50-60% of the energy consumed in 1 to 4 hours of continuous exercise is derived from carbohydrates (Source).
HOW MANY CARBOHYDRATES SHOULD A BOXER EAT?
When we first introduced how to eat like a boxer, we went over the adequate ranges of macronutrients for a balanced diet. Carbohydrates, the providers of energy, should account for at least 50-65% of a boxer’s total caloric intake. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends consuming between 6-10 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight, meaning that a 180-pound boxer (82 kilograms) would need roughly 492 to 820 grams of carbohydrates per day in their diet. Keep in mind that a professional boxer’s caloric needs will often be much higher than a non-athlete. An easy guideline to follow is to fill roughly three-fourths of your plate with carbohydrate-rich foods: one-fourth with whole grains, and two-fourths (the rest) from fruits and vegetables.
WHAT HAPPENS IF A BOXER LOWERS CARBOHYDRATE INTAKE?
Consuming adequate amounts of carbohydrates improves sports performance and endurance, speeds recovery, and prevents muscle breakdown (known as muscle sparing) after a workout (Source). Research indicates that a low-carbohydrate diet lowers an athlete’s ability to sustain high-intensity exercise levels, increases risk for skeletal muscle damage during training, and reduces glycogen stores, resulting in fatigue and slower recovery (Source 1) (2) (3). If a boxer or athlete lowers their carbohydrate intake, they could be putting themselves at an increased risk of injury during training or competition, as well as detrimentally affecting their ability to perform athletically and sustain their energy.
WHEN SHOULD BOXERS EAT CARBOHYDRATES?
Boxers and athletes should eat carbohydrates both before and after physical activity. Before working out or training, carbohydrates are needed to increase muscle glycogen stores which will enhance exercise performance. It’s recommended that boxers consume a carbohydrate-rich meal or snack three to four hours before exercise (Source). After a workout, boxers and athletes need to replenish their glycogen stores by consuming a meal or snack that contains both carbohydrates (0.2 grams of kilogram per body weight) and protein (0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight), usually within two to four hours following a workout. This increases protein synthesis (muscle building) and enhances muscle glycogen storage for a more rapid recovery (Source 1) (2).
WHICH FOODS CONTAIN CARBOHYDRATES?
Some of the most nutritious foods in the world contain carbohydrates: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. At the same time, so do some of the most unhealthy foods: french fries, pizza, baked goods, pastries, refined flour products, added sugars, etc. When people say they are “cutting” or “avoiding” carbohydrates (part of the “carb phobic” world we live in), it’s important to ensure that they are only limiting their consumption of refined carbohydrates, while still keeping fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes in their diet. These are some of the best and main sources of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber in a diet. Fiber is not only essential for maintaining a healthy weight and aiding in weight loss, but it’s also needed for maintaining healthy digestion and a balanced gut microbiome.
WHAT CARBOHYDRATES SHOULD BOXERS EAT?
The healthiest sources of carbohydrates are unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, farro, oats and whole wheat products, whole fruits and vegetables, and legumes such as beans, chickpeas, lentils, and peas. These foods provide high concentrations of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and a host of important phytonutrients. Fruits and vegetables are especially important for boxers, as they are sources of antioxidants that can reduce inflammation following physical activity. In fact, several studies have shown tart cherry to significantly lower muscle pain, muscle soreness, and inflammation in athletes (Source 1) (2).
WHAT CARBOHYDRATES SHOULD BOXERS AVOID?
Non-nutritious sources of carbohydrates include refined grains such as white rice, refined flour products such as white bread, white pasta, pastries, and baked goods, along with added sugars found in sugar-sweetened beverages, candy, sweets, and other highly processed or refined foods. These foods contain easily digested carbohydrates that raise blood sugar levels, increase fat production, and can promote weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease.
To learn more about how you can enhance your boxing and kickboxing training, maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle and improve your workout performance at-home and in the ring, visit the FightCamp YouTube Channel and Blog to get pro tips, drills, and exercises to keep you in fighting shape.
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The Author: Carolina Schneider, MS, RD is a registered dietitian specializing in plant-based nutrition and wellness. With a Master of Science in Nutrition & Dietetics and a background in Journalism, Carolina is passionate about evidence-based nutrition and educating individuals on how to eat well for good health. Her favorite boxing move? Uppercut. Favorite food? Sushi (unless you count chocolate as food). Her Instagram is @TheGreenRD.