Why is protein, carbohydrate and fat important for athletic performance?

Macronutrients are important for athletic performance as well as general health.

Omelet with bread and fresh fruit on a plate.
Although protein, tends to get all of the glory when we think of physical activity, both carbohydrates and fats are also important. They both provide energy along with a host of other functions.

You have likely heard about the importance of protein, especially when it comes to athletic performance and improving body composition. But what about other macronutrients, specifically carbohydrates and fats? How do these play into athletic performance? If you are not an athlete, but you are physically active, do protein, carbohydrates, and fats also play an important role?

Protein

I have discussed the importance of protein and recommended intake for athletes and other recreationally active individuals in a previous article. It is likely you already know that protein rebuilds muscle but it has many other important functions. Proteins are building blocks for other bodily tissues including bone, cartilage, skin, and blood. Additionally, proteins are needed for the production of different enzymes, vitamins, and hormones. Obviously, protein is very important. What types of protein-rich foods should we consume? The best sources of proteins include lean meats and poultry, eggs, seafood, beans and peas, and nuts and seeds. It is important to consume protein from a variety of sources, as sources such as fish and seeds provide other l nutrients such as numerous vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids. For further information refer to the International Society of Sports Nutrition stand on protein and exercise.

Carbohydrate

Carbohydrates seem to be getting negative publicity in the press lately, so are they really important for physically active individuals? You bet. Not only from an athletic perspective, but carbohydrates are also important for general health. Carbohydrates provide energy for the body including our muscles, brain, nerves and other body tissues. Anytime we are performing an activity in which we need a lot of energy and fast, such as resistance training and carrying bags of mulch, carbohydrates are the predominant energy source during those activities. Even at rest (for example: lying in bed, sitting on the coach), our bodies still use carbohydrates, but fat is usually the major energy source during those conditions. Additionally, carbohydrates help us recover from physical activity, and prevent and reduce the breakdown of proteins in the body. The best sources of carbohydrates are typically those from foods that provide other nutrients such as dietary fiber and phytochemicals. These include whole grains such as oatmeal and wheat, and fruits and vegetables.

Fat

Fats are also sometimes seen as negative, but this cannot be further from the truth. Fats serve numerous functions in the body including protecting our organs, helping absorb and manufacture some important nutrients, manufacturing some hormones, and also providing a source of energy. These functions are very important for general health, and for physical activity. Although, carbohydrates tend to predominate during physical activity, we still use some fat as fuel. During lower intensity physical activities and physical activities performed for a long duration, fuel from fats can be the predominate energy source. Some of the best sources of fats include olive oil, walnuts, fish, peanuts, and almonds. If you currently do not consume fat from these sources, make a goal to begin adding this kind of variety to your fat intake.

Although protein, tends to get all of the glory when we think of physical activity, both carbohydrates and fats are also important. They both provide energy along with a host of other functions. For more information about good food sources high in protein, carbohydrates, and/or fats please visit the United States Department of Agriculture Choose MyPlate website.

Do you want to learn more?

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Our programs cover all areas of health, from buying and preparing nutritious, budget-friendly food to managing stress, preventing or living well with diabetes and optimal aging – MSU Extension has the information you need in a format you can use, in-person and online. Contact your local MSU Extension county office to find a class near you.

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