Carbohydrates are an important source of fuel for our brains and muscles during exercise. For athletes, carbohydrates (or carbs, as they are more fondly called) play a key role in supporting and improving sports performance, they help with recovery, maintenance of body weight and body composition, and reduce the risk of injury.
While some athletes adopt Paleo and other high-protein or high-fat-based diets, the most widely-accepted scientific research still shows that carbs are the most efficient energy sources, especially for endurance sports.
But this efficiency comes from the fact that carbs are most readily converted into glucose – and that’s where the red flags go up for diabetic athletes.
As a Type I diabetic, you’re often advised to eat a carb-rich meal one to three hours before your workout, and keep a pack of sugary fruit juice on hand, because you’re concerns are around blood sugar levels dropping too low.
But as a Type II diabetic athlete, things look a little different.
You can’t be guzzling down those carb-rich meals, because they’re likely to spike your blood sugar levels too high. Does that mean you turn to a less-efficient energy source?
Not at all. It turns out, not all carbs are the enemy. What you really need to look out for is the Glycemic Index (GI) of the carbs that you consume.
GI is basically a ranking of how much a particular carbohydrate-based food can affect your blood glucose levels. Low-GI foods are slower to be digested, absorbed and metabolised, and cause lower and more controlled rises in your blood glucose levels – this is good.
Foods with GIs in the 45 to 55 range and lower are considered low-GI. High-GI foods, on the other hand, cause insulin spikes. These include white bread, quick-cooking brown rice, cornflakes, jelly beans, to name a few. Here’s a helpful list of 60 foods with their GIs.
To help you out, we’ve put together a list of foods that are ideal to help you power through your workouts without throwing your blood sugar levels askew.
1. Whole Grains
Whole grains (as natural and unprocessed as possible) have relatively low GIs. They digest more slowly and don’t cause the insulin spikes that refined grains cause.
Barley, brown rice, brown bread, oats, and whole wheat pasta are good sources to include in your meals. They leave you feeling full and satiated, release energy slowly and help fuel your workouts effectively.
2. High-Fibre Fruit and Veggies
Leafy greens are high in fibre and nutrients like magnesium and vitamin A which can help lower blood sugar. Other veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, and sweet potatoes add variety to your meals and are significant sources of good-quality fibre.
Most fruits contain lots of water and fibre to balance the naturally occurring sugars found in them. It is important to note that as fruits ripen, their GI increases. Also, juicing the fruits removes fibrous skin and seeds, increasing GI. As the nutritionist’s advice goes: Try and eat your fruit rather than drink it.
3. Healthy Fats
Athletes often rob themselves of fat, especially when they go onto calorie-cutting diets. But healthy dietary fats are a great way to fuel your workouts, providing about 9 kilocalories of energy per gram.
Sources of healthy fats include fish, nuts, seeds, avocados, and olive oil. These foods are calorie rich, however, and you should probably keep intake moderate.
4. Water and Beverages
Hydration is very important. Water prevents dehydration and helps your kidneys flush out excess blood sugars. If you generally find it hard to gulp down your eight-glasses-a-day, try flavoring your water with fruits and vegetables to make it more palatable.
Sports drinks are not suitable water substitutes. Sugar-sweetened drinks (even artificial) spike the blood sugar. Reach for some plain old water instead – it’ll probably even quench your thirst better than a sports drink promises to do. Staying hydrated maintains peak performance during competition and training.
Diabetic athletes may have varied endurance and performance just as the insulin levels are varied.
It is important to know what works well for you as an individual and also take note of your workout and meal timings so that you know when to refuel before your sugars spike or dip. Every athlete’s needs differ, and your requirements might even change as you make changes to your training load or diet plan.
The best approach is to focus on incorporating good, whole, low-GI foods into your diet, and working out optimal meal plans with your doctor, nutritionist and trainer.