Complex Carbohydrates for Sports

Below is a list of complex carbohydrates, but first we need to discuss why they are important.

There are many factors that influence the quantity and type of fuels within an athlete’s nutrition plan that are utilised when exercising. The two large determining factors include the intensity and duration of exercise.


In general, the higher the intensity of exercise, the more carbohydrate is used as a percentage of total energy. If an athlete was to eat foods that are high on the list of complex

carbohydrates, glucose is transported to the muscles and stored as glycogen.


Glycogen is also stored in the liver. Active people will have more glycogen stores than sedentary people. It is these stores that are used during exercise. The longer the duration of exercise, the more the body relies on fat and some amounts of protein. (The liver converts protein to glucose through a process called gluconeogensis.)


The breakdown of food such as glucose produces adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is then used for energy production.


Why a high Carbohydrate diet?

Carbohydrates are classed either as sugars or starches. Sugars are simple carbohydrates and are called monosaccharides or disaccharides (made from glucose molecules joined together). Starches are commonly called complex carbohydrates (see below for list of complex carbohydrates) and are called polysaccharides because they are made up of many glucose molecules.

When engaging in high intesity exercise, the rate at which fat is oxidised and mobilised is limited. This is why carbohydrate (CHO) is the preferred fuel for exercising muscle. It is quickly mobilised and the glucose is used to produce ATP. The CHO comes from both muscle and liver glycogen, as well as blood glucose.


An athlete weighing 70-75kg stores 100gm of glycogen in the liver, and 500gm in the muscle. If you consider that the same athlete may store 8-15kg of body fat, it is easy to see that CHO, not fat, may be limiting. Therefore it emphasises the importance of an athlete’s nutrition to be high in CHO.


Athlete’s requirement of CHO.

The amount of carbohydrate required within an athlete’s nutrition plan depends on the intensity of exercise undertaken.

4-5gm/kg body weight / day – walking, moderate exercise (3-5 hours /week).

5-7gm/kg body weight / day – moderate intensity exercise (1 hr/day), serious amateur athlete.

7-10gm/kg body weight / day – professional athlete. Maximises glycogen recovery; used for CHO loading.


List of Complex Carbohydrate Rich Foods


Achieving a diet that is ranked high on the list of complex carbohydrates will become easier if an athlete knows which foods to consume! It may be useful to know that an athlete needs 7gm CHO/kg, but it is important to be able to convert this into real food terms with quantities.


The following list of complex carbohydrate rich foods in 50gm serves of CHO:


Wheat biscuit cereal (e.g. Vitabrits) 60gm (5 biscuits)
Light breakfast cereal (e.g Weeties, Cornflakes) 60gm (2 cups)
Muesli flake cereal (e.g. Sustain) 60gm (1-1.5 cups)
Toasted muesli 90gm (1 cup)
Porridge made with milk 350gm (1.3 cups)
Porridge made with water 550gm (2.5 cups)
Rolled oats 90gm (1 cup)
Muesli bar 2.5
Rice Cakes 6
Rice, boiled 180gm (1 cup)
Pasta or noodles, boiled 200gm (1.3 cups)
Canned spaghetti 440gm (large can)
Crispbread and dry biscuits 6 large (e.g Ryvita) or 15 small (e.g. Salada)
Fruit filled biscuits 5
Plain sweet biscuits 8 – 10
Cream filled/chocolate biscuits 6
Bread 110gm (4 slices white or 3 thick wholemeal)
Bread rolls 110gm (1 large or 2 medium)
Pita or Lebanese bread 100gm (2 pita)
Chapati 150gm (2.5)
English Muffin 150gm (2.5)
Crumpet 2.5
Cake Style Muffin 110gm (1 large or 2 medium)
Pancakes 150gm (2 medium)
Scones 125gm (3 medium)
Iced fruit bun 105gm (1.5)
Croissant 140gm (1.5 large or 2 medium)
Rice cream 330 gm (1.5 cups)
Fruit crumble 1 cup
Fruit in heavy syrup 280gm (1.3 cups)
Fresh stewed or canned in light syrup 520gm (2 cups)
Fresh fruit salad 500gm (2.5 cups)
Bananas 2 medium – large
Mangoes, pears, grapefruit and other large fruit 2-3
Oranges, appples and other medium size fruit 3-4
Nectarines, apricots and other small fruit 12
Grapes 350gm (2 cups)
Melon 1000gm (6 cups)
Strawberries 1800gm (12 cups)
Sultanas and raisins 70gm (4 lbs)
Dried apricots 115gm (22 halves)
Vegetables and Legumes  
Potatoes 350gm potato (one very large or 3 medium)
Sweet potato 350gm (2.5cups)
Corn 300gm (2 cobs)
Green beans 1800gm (14 cups)
Baked beans 440 gm (1 can)
Lentils 400gm (2 cups)
Soy beans and kidney beans 400gm (2 cups)
Tomato puree 1 litre (4 cups)
Pumpkin and peas 700gm (5 cups)
Dairy Products  
Milk 1 litre
Flavoured milk 560ml
Custard 300gm (1.3 cups)
Diet yoghurt and natural yoghurt 800gm (4 tubs)
Flavoured yoghurt 350gm (2 tubs)
Icecream 250gm (10 tbsp)
Fromage Frais 400gm (2 tubs)
Sugars and Confectionary  
Sugar 5gm
Jam 3 tbs
Syrups 4 tbs
Honey 3 tbs
Chocolate 80gm
Mars Bar and other 50-60gm bars 1.5 bars
Jubes and Jelly Babies 60gm
Mixed Dishes  
Pizza 200gm (1/4 medium thick or 1/3 thin crust)
Hamburgers 1.3 Big Macs
Lasagne 400gm serve
Fried rice 200gm 1.3 cups
Sports Products and Drinks  
Fruit Juice unsweetened 600ml
Fruit Juice sweetened 500ml
Cordial 800ml
Soft drinks and flavoured mineral water 500ml
Sports drinks 700ml
Carbohydrate loader supplement 250ml
Liquid meal replacement 250-300ml
Fruit smoothie250-300ml
Sports bar 1 – 1.5 bars
Sports gels 1.5 sachets
Glucose polymer powders 60gm

Howley and Burke, “Peak Performance.”



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