Training & Nutrition

Ask the Expert: Refined Carbohydrates vs. Unrefined Carbohydrates

We enlist the help of nutritionist Joanne Hart to demystify what carbs you should be eating and when

Traditionally we have been warned away from white bread, pasta and other refined carbohydrates. But when it comes to sport, are refined carbohydrates actually an important part of your diet? 

To find out more we enlisted the help of nutritionist Joanne Hart from Health and Hart to find out what kind of carbohydrates are better for cyclists and whether or not you should be eating different types of carbohydrate on race day and at different times of your training plan?

“You’re right to consider whether refined carbohydrates are useful. Many sports people find white bread, pasta and rice to be a convenient way of getting energy. The fibre has been removed so the digestive process is faster, the effect is a faster boost of energy than with unrefined foods like wholemeal rice, bread and pasta. Those with sensitive stomachs might find that too much fibre causes discomfort during exercise so prefer white foods for that reason.

If you’re about to go for a ride then the exercise will burn off the sugar that got created when those refined foods were eaten. If you’re munching a white bread sandwich or cake while you’re sitting at your desk though then you’re not burning it off. The body will sense a rise in blood sugar levels and then the pancreas releases insulin which packs the sugar away as fat. Later on, your blood sugar levels will fall and you’ll be on a roller-coaster blood sugar ride. This can be a short-term effect but might also contribute to longer-term health issues.

Focusing on the missing fibre, its job is to help move the waste material through the body. It’s important that you’re having at least one bowel movement each day so you’ll need to adjust your fibre and liquid levels if not. If you’re not suited to grains then you can also get fibre from fruit and vegetables. Potatoes and sweet potatoes are also great sources of energy and quick to cook.

There are other ways of getting fast energy boosts in an unprocessed way. Bananas, dried fruit and juice are good sources of energy and will have the added benefit of containing a range of vitamins and minerals.

In my opinion, refined food around exercise can be the right choice for some, just remember that it’s not the only source of fast energy and consider if you could eat something else with more nutritional benefit.

If you’re going to eat refined carbohydrates then it’s better to do so around your rides and to make sure you eat unrefined carbohydrates at other times. If you find that you’re eating lots of refined foods because of the needs of your riding schedule or a sensitive digestion then you may want to change things around, do some more research or get some help.”

Joanne Hart is a nutritionist at yoga teacher. For more information, check out her website.

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