5 Foods that Every Female Athlete Should Eat: Part 4 – Carbs!

It sounds obvious doesn’t it. You train hard, you burn energy (glucose), you refuel so that your mucle glycogen stores top up and the next day you go in feeling STRONG! Yeah!

You would be surprised how many women I speak to who don’t do this. Or they have some carbohydrate but they don’t have enough.

Carbohydrates have been demonised for several years now which has led to many women suffering from “carb phobia”. Carb phobia, defined as the belief that you will immediately gain weight as soon as you introduce carbs into your diet, has been the down fall of many.

Carbohydrates are fantastic when eaten in a balance that is right for you. You recover better, you have more energy throughout the day, your mood is more stable, your hormones more balanced, your stress levels reduced and your sleep levels better.

If someone offered you all these things on a plate you would take it wouldn’t you? But if someone offered you a bowl of rice you might say “No thanks, I’m trying not to eat too many carbs at the moment.”

So what is going on here? What is it all about?



Carbohydrates in excess cause problems. Refined carbohydrates can be particularly damaging to health.

I often show people this graph.



What it shows is that when we exercise we use sugars more as a fuel, especially as intensity increases (Weight Lifting, CrossFit, Bootcamp, Sprints). So if we are inactive, a lower carbohydrate is better as we have a reduced requirement for carbohydrates as a fuel source and an increased requirement for fat, as we prefer this energy system when activity levels are lower in intensity.

So it is not carbohydrates generally that are an issue. It is carbohydrate in excess of our need. When we consume carbohydrates in excess of what our body can use, there is an increased likelihood that we store it as fat (This is also true if we consume calories in excess). This is typically associated with increased insulin resistance, as the body “blocks” carbohydrate entry into the cell for burning and encourages partitioning into fat storage sites.

So when someone who has been in this situation and starts to exercise, their carbohydrate need increases, they may lose some weight. This is one of the reasons some people can lose weight with exercise without changing their diet. Exercise makes us more insulin sensitive and better able to use carbohydrate as a fuel, it also means the we expend more calories each day, so provided we do not eat more, we create a deficit for weight loss.

If we do exercise, we are better able to utilise sugars and burn them off. We don’t need to restrict carbohydrate as much as a sedentary person.

If the sedentary person reduces their carbohydrate intake. They probably will reduce their calorie intake too. A calorie deficit and less carbohydrate “overspill” means that they are able to burn fats, including stored fats, for energy and they lose weight.

But what happens if we increase exercise and restrict carbohydrates at the same time? We create a greater energy deficit and we can lose EVEN MORE WEIGHT? Right?

Well, sort of.

This does work. I have seen it work on many people. But I have also seen it fail miserably.

The problem is when we train at high intensity we ramp up the stress hormone cortisol. When we do this in the absence of carbohydrate, we ramp up cortisol even more and it stays elevated for longer. In the short term this can facilitate fat loss.

In the longer term a low carb diet can down regulate the thyroid, imbalance female sex hormones, lead to water retention and poor sleep. You also put your body at risk for an adrenal imbalance which may compromise the immune system (you get sick all the time), inflammation (you get injured or just ache all the time), mood (you feel depressed) and energy (you struggle to get out of bed in the morning).  I am sure you would agree that none of the above makes for an athlete who cannot wait to jump out of bed in the morning and train her little socks off to be an awesome strong machine!

adrenal fatigue low carb diet


This is an adrenal stress test of a client of mine who was training hard, cycling to work daily and eating a low carb diet. You can see that her adrenal glands were burnt out but it was only exercise (sample 2), that could get any cortisol response (exercise made her feel good but she struggled with energy otherwise). A few months of increased carbs and adrenal support and her test results were normal, she felt better AND she was leaner, especially around her abs. You can see in the figure below that her 2nd and 3rd samples were elevated although morning cortisol and DHEA were normal. This was because she didn’t have carbs after training that day!

post exercise carbs


So what do we do?

Food is fuel. We are meant to eat carbohydrate. We are meant to eat fat. We are meant to eat protein. We also need to eat enough calories each day so we can fuel our bodies and all it’s functions so that we can remain healthy (including a healthy body weight) and perform to the best of our abilities.

So we need to know what are calorie requirements are. Make sure we meet them. Maybe go a little over if we need some muscle growth, maybe a little under if we want to shed a little extra fat. (But also remember, sometimes increasing calories and carbohydrates can give your body a massive “kick up the *ss” and get your metabolism going).

Then we need to workout what works best for us.

I pretty much say this in every blog post/webinar but WE ARE ALL DIFFERENT. I would never put the ladies below all on the same plan.

body type nutrition

Some of us will need more carbs than others, some will need less. This could be because of our gene’s, our body fat percentage (leaner may utilise carbs better than a more voluptuous body type), our current training program (a CrossFitter will probably use more than a yoga bunny) and our goals (what are you training for!?).

To some of my clients I will probably say “you probably need to eat less carbs” but most of them I tell to increase their carbs.

These are a few things they notice…

  1. Better energy
  2. Better hormonal balance (return of periods after years, more regular cycles, fertility) & better skin (See Pictures!)

nutrition and skin


  1. Fat loss / Weight Loss
  2. Increased strength / PB’s in the gym
  3. Loss of inches
  4. Loss of Belly Fat
  5. Better sleep
  6. Better Mood
  7. Clothes fitting better
  8. Enjoyment of food and less guilt!

I absolutely love the story of my client/good friend aka “the headless lady”. We first met when she was a client of mine and soon became good friends. She had tried many a diet and did not lose any weight on a low carb diet. We did a gut protocol together and she did lose some weight and most importantly, her hormones and gut improved. We spoke a little bit about tracking macro’s and due to a bad experience with weight watchers she was not really up for calorie counting. Over time, she came around to the idea and started tracking her macro’s –  214 days later she sent me this:

headless lady

“for the past 3 weeks I have been tracking between 1800 -2200 calories, 200g-300g of carbs. I have more energy, I’ve stopped seeing exercise as something I have to do for punishment for overeating and dislike of my body. Now I love food, love moving and I love my body (imperfectly perfect).”

high carb diet

If that doesn’t convince you then I don’t know what will :) You can also listen to Vanessa’s interview here

Do you want these results!? I would love to hear your story and work with you. Complete the following application form if you would like to have a chat about how to move forward.

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