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Fueling with Whole Grains

By Ryan Hutmacher and Lyndsay Riffe Gregerson

grainsThe harmony of cooking functional and flavorful foods is both a science and an art. The same is true of nutrition. Science shows that carbohydrates are a preferred fueling option vital to our body and brain.  At the same time, we have choices. There is no “one size fits all” approach; however, here are a couple of things to consider when fueling with whole grains.

Let’s go back to the basics of understanding the need for carbohydrates. In addition to providing energy, carbohydrates play a protein sparing role, critical to maintaining and building muscle stores. That said, adequate carbohydrate intake avoids converting fat/protein into fuel, which is very inefficient (using energy to make energy!) Furthermore, if you are training in a carbohydrate depleted state, you could experience a greater amount of a stress hormone, called cortisol. High cortisol levels have a negative impact on our body including sleep, mood, bone health, ligament health, and athletic performance. Overall, it is important that carbohydrate consumption be adjusted or matched up appropriately for training loads, and can be harmful to follow suit with so many fad diets and be too restrictive with carbohydrate consumption.

 Along with fruit, vegetables, legumes, and certain dairy products, grains provide the body with carbohydrates.  Whole grains are the preferred fuel choice due to the naturally occurring combination of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. This “whole grain package” of nutrients work together to help protect against chronic diseases and assist with weight management, in addition to providing the fuel our body needs. Furthermore, whole grains do not cause the blood sugar to rise as quickly as refined grains, which can help with satiety as well as avoid feeling the ‘crash and burn’ between meals or during training. Sources of more common whole grains include wheat, barley, oats, brown rice, quinoa, bulgur, millet, and sprouted grains.

Another reason to consider choosing whole grains over refined grains are their ability to combat free radicals. Free radicals cause oxidation or cell damage and develop from environmental factors like UV light, pollution, and even the basic body function of using oxygen.  Whole grains contain antioxidants such as Vitamin E and selenium. Antioxidants help control free radicals or convert them to harmless waste products that get eliminated before they do damage. As an added bonus, they can even undo cellular damage.

Contrary to popular belief, whole grains do not necessarily have high amounts of fiber. The amount of fiber varies from grain to grain, and some products may have things like bran, peas, or other foods added to boost the fiber. Depending on the type of grain, fiber content can vary between 0.5-7 g per ¼ cup serving.   Putting that fiber range into perspective, compare brown rice at 2g per serving, versus bulgur at 7g per serving.  

As with all nutritional recommendations, fiber intake and tolerability is individualized. You know better than anyone if a specific food or drink will be right at a specific time. With the ability to stabilize blood sugars between meals better than refined grains, whole grains may make an excellent choice to consume pre-exercise without compromising gastrointestinal comfort!

In finding what works with you, consider this tabbouleh recipe below.  Interchange your favorite grain to find a balance between your personal taste preferences as well as optimal fueling experience.  Simply exchange equal portions of another grain instead of bulgur.  Either barley, quinoa, brown rice or farro will suffice.  Enjoy!   

Recipe Credits: Centered Chef

Citrus Tabbouleh with Bulgur
Makes 4 Servings


  • 1.5 cups water
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • 1 cup bulgur, rinsed thoroughly
  • 3/4 cup fresh tomatoes, medium dice
  • 3/4 cup English cucumber, seeded with skin on, medium dice
  • ¼ cup scallions, sliced thinly on the bias
  • 4 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
  • 4 tbsp fresh mint, chopped
  • 1 tsp citrus zest (orange or lemon)
  • ¼ cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 oz olive oil

1.     Portion bulgur into a bowl.
2.     Bring water to a boil and then season with salt (one Tablespoon per quart of water) and pour over quinoa.  Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let steep about 20 minutes. Drain excess water if necessary then use fork to gently fluff bulgur. 
3.     Once cool toss with tomatoes, cucumber, scallion, parsley, mint and zest.  Finish by mixing in lemon juice and olive oil.

The “Centered Chef” Ryan Hutmacher is founder/owner of the Centered Chef Culinary Wellness Institute in Chicago, IL. Centered Chef is a wellness focused culinary firm that fuses nutrition with culinary arts. With a focus on natural ingredients, Ryan celebrates the idea reinventing "health food", proving that nutritious and delicious are equally attainable. His expertise is notable within the marathon and triathlon community in Chicago, as well as within the corporate sector.

Co-writer and Centered Chef adjunct dietitian Lyndsay Riffe Gregerson (RD/LDN) is a Certified Diabetes Educator and also serves as staff dietitian for Team WILD (Women Inspiring Life with Diabetes) endurance group.  Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes since age 3, her range of expertise is complimented by her passion for marathon and triathlon.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.