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Carbohydrate Sources and Performance

Check out another great article by Dr. Sal Tirrito of Pima Heart and XOOD.

5 minute consult by Dr. Sal Tirrito

Single or multiple carbohydrates sources:
Which is better for performance?

First, let us be clear on one thing. Peak performance is all about desire. The desire to push your body to the extreme. However, don’t expect great things from you body unless you treat it well. That means getting plenty of sleep, eating a healthy diet, and using a sports drink that delivers what you need when you need it.

Every sport drink out there claims to have the “right stuff” in order to improve your performance, but most of them really don’t back up there claims with any real scientific data. First, let’s understand the difference between improving your performance and peak performance. I can take a bag of Skittles let them dissolve in my water bottle and all of a sudden I have a drink that will improve my performance (at least when compared to water). The point I am trying to make is that in any activity (ride, run, swim etc’) over an hour any source of carbohydrate will help improve your performance compared to water. Therefore, those “scientific” papers that show that “product X” increased their athletes’ performance by some percentage when the control group is water are just stating the obvious.

Now that we know basically anything is better than water, let us look at the data on single versus multiple carbohydrate sources, but first a quick chemistry lesson.

Carbohydrates are one of the major sources of calories (the others being protein and fat) in our diets. They are commonly classified as simple sugars (monosaccharides and disaccharides) or complex carbohydrates (oligosaccharides and polysaccharides).

Monosaccharides or “one sugar” are the simplest form of carbohydrates and cannot be broken down into any other sugars. When they are metabolized they release energy which is used to fuel the body. Examples of monosaccharides are glucose and fructose. Disaccharides or “two sugars” are (you guessed it) when two monosaccharides are combined together. Examples are sucrose (your common table sugar), which is fructose and glucose joined together and lactose (or milk sugar), which is glucose and galactose (another monosaccharide) joined together.

Complex carbohydrates are oligosaccharides (“few sugars”) and polysaccharides (“many sugars”). There are hundreds and hundreds of different types of complex carbohydrates. The two that are probably most familiar to athletes are glycogen and maltodextrin.

Glycogen is how your body stores glucose and is just thousands of glucose molecules linked together. Glycogen is mainly stored in the liver and muscles. Your body can only store a limited amount of glycogen (about 2000 kcal) so after long periods of exertion without any energy consumption, glycogen stores become depleted (called glycogen debt) and performance significantly decreases. So next time your on a group run or ride and you see your buddy starting to bonk, hand him one of your gels and tell him “its time to repay your glycogen debt” and then just smile at the confused look on his face.

Maltodextrin is produced from starch (which is polysaccharide consisting of a large number of glucose molecules joined together). It is a very common additive in sports nutrition products, because although technically a complex carbohydrate, it is easily digestible and absorbed as rapidly as glucose. However, unlike glucose, Maltodextrin is not very sweet.

So when you look at a nutrition label and it says for example, carbohydrates 30 grams (g) and sugars 10g, what that means is that out of the total 30g of carbohydrates, 10g are monosaccharides or disaccharides (simple sugars) and the rest (20g) are oligosaccharides and polysaccharides (complex carbohydrates).

Ok, chemistry lesson over. So which is better, a sports drink that contains just simple sugars (like Gatorade), a sports drink that contains just complex carbohydrates (like Hammer’s Heed), or a sports drink that contains both (like XOOD). It turns out there is a fair amount a good scientific data on this topic.

Your gut has a limited number of receptors to transport carbohydrates into your bloodstream to be used for fuel. So by using a drink that contains only one source of carbohydrates (whether simple or complex) you run the risk of overwhelming those receptors, transport will slow down, leading to less available energy, and those extra carbohydrates sitting around will cause water to leave your bloodstream to enter your gut. This can lead to abdominal pain, dehydration and decreased performance during exercise. Studies have shown that by using two different sources of carbohydrates (for example maltodextrin and fructose) that are absorbed by different receptors you can get increased absorption, supply more energy, faster, to metabolizing tissues and get increased performance.

However, don’t take my word for it check out some of the following articles and believe for yourself.

Wallis GA, Rowlands DS, Shaw C, Jentjens RL, Jeukendrup AE. “Oxidation of combined ingestion of maltodextrins and fructose during exercise.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2005; 37(3):426-32.

Currell K, Jeukendrup AE.
Superior endurance performance with ingestion of multiple transportable carbohydrates.
Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008 Feb;40(2):275-81.

Jentjens RL, Achten J, Jeukendrup AE.
High oxidation rates from combined carbohydrates ingested during exercise.
Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2004 Sep;36(9):1551-8.

Salvatore J. Tirrito M.D., F.A.C.C.
Pima Heart Associates
HeartWise Fitness & Nutrition- President/CEO
Proud makers of XOOD Natural Healthy Endurance Drinks

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