What do cake, cookies, bread, rice and pasta all have in common? Well, they're all delicious! Yes that's true, but they are also all carbohydrates; as are many other kinds of foods like fruits and vegetables. Carbs are yummy and essential to brain and body functioning, but having them in moderation and from healthy sources is best.
In this installment of our blog series on nutrition, we will take a look at all things carbohydrates- what they are, why we need them, how much we should have, how they affect health, what are the best sources and more.
Most importantly, we want you to know that carbs are not bad, they are actually quite necessary and needed. They are not inherently evil or the enemy, although they have often been demonized. We simply need to understand them and eat accordingly.
So, Why Are Carbohydrates Important?
Carbohydrates, together with proteins and fats, are the essential macronutrients that all humans need. This means that you must provide your body with all three to have a healthy and balanced diet.
Carbs are the body's preferred energy provider, as such, their main role is as a fuel source. They provide the body with glucose, which is converted to energy and used to support bodily functions. Carbohydrates are crucial for brain function and without enough carbs you may experience dizziness, headaches and brain fog. They also help maintain kidneys, your heart, muscles and the central nervous system. Without carbs in your system, you simply won't feel well, but more on that later...
So, What Are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are made up of sugar molecules that our bodies convert to glucose. They are made of sugars, starches and fiber. They are either considered simple or complex, depending on the food's chemical structure and how quickly the sugar is digested and absorbed.
You see, your body is going to turn the carbs you eat into glucose, the sugar our bodies use for fuel. If the food comes as a ready-to-use sugar, this is known as a 'simple' carbohydrate.
If it comes in the form of a starch, our body has to first break these carbs down before it can use them. Starches are known as a 'complex' carbohydrates because of their structure (they are larger and more complex than simple sugars). For this reason, complex carbohydrates take longer to digest and are a more stable source of energy than simple carbohydrates. Fiber is also a complex carbohydrate, however, humans cannot break fiber down. Even though we can't actually digest fiber, it is still extremely important.
The difference between simple and complex carbohydrates can be compared to building a fire. The fire being your metabolism and the carbohydrate source being the fuel. Simple carbohydrates are like putting newspaper on the fire, it burns hot and quick. In much the same way, simple carbohydrates (like sugar and candy) are quick energy. So quick in fact, that if you don't use them right way, your body will turn them to fat and store this energy for later use.
Starch based complex carbohydrates are similar to a big, dry log. When you put it on the fire, it burns for a long time, in an even manner. In much the same way, when we consume starch based complex carbohydrates (like potatoes), they provide us with good, even energy throughout the day.
Fiber based complex carbohydrates on the other hand are similar to putting a fresh, wet long on the fire. Wet logs don't really burn, and most fiber cannot be digested by humans, although it is imperative for our bodies. Adding fiber to your daily diet will help keep your digestive system running smoothly and encourages a healthy gut biome. Since it isn't digested, it also does not create an insulin or sugar spike and can help people feel full longer without adding calories to their diet.
The Best Carbohydrates Sources
We all know that cakes, brownies, chips, tortillas, breads and pastas are carbs. What most people don't realize is that processed and man made carb sources are like giving your car cheap gas. When you choose to fuel your body with nuts, beans, vegetables and fruit, you run cleaner, better, stronger and healthier.
When looking for a sugar boost, choose an apple or a banana for a quick shot of energy. Eating fresh fruits, not fruit juice, gives you the sugar you want, but also includes natural fiber and phytonutrients, which provide many health benefits. Limit or avoid processed, simple carbs like candy, sugary drinks, white bread and baked goods.
Healthy sources of starchy carbs include potatoes, corn, rice, quinoa, and couscous; cereals with oats, barley and rye are especially good. Bread, especially brown, granary and seeded varieties, are all healthy choices to add to your meal as part of a balanced diet. Choose whole grains over white breads, tortillas and pastas.
Legumes are especially nutritious carbohydrates that are rich in fiber. Examples include lentils, chickpeas, kidney and other beans, peas and even edamame. Each 1/2 cup serving provides roughly 7 to 8 grams of fiber. Include legumes in your meals to easily and deliciously add carbs with fiber to your diet.
If you're looking for the best snacks, think about including more nuts into your diet. Packed with healthy fats, abundant fiber, natural protein and carbs, you can't go wrong adding almonds, cashews, peanuts, pistachios and walnuts to your diet. Whether put in your favorite salad, or just eaten instead of chips, nuts can't be beat for their nutritional profile.
How Many Carbohydrates Do We Need?
Since carbohydrates are the body's main and preferred source of energy, it is imperative to get a lot of them every day. According to the American Dietary Guidelines, your diet should consist of 45%-65% carbohydrates. So, you can roughly estimate that at least 50% of your meals and snacks should consist of good healthy carb foods.
Carbohydrates and Health
All carbs are not created equal. Carbohydrates can positively or negatively impact your health. The difference of whether they are healthy or unhealthy comes down to which carbohydrates we are ingesting, and how much we ingest.
When it comes to health, there's two kinds of carbs mainly... there are naturally occurring whole foods and man made processed carbs. Whole foods are healthy, as they have sugars, starches and fiber that can be digested and used by the body. This includes fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. These are the good carbs. Your body is designed to ingest and metabolize natural foods and utilize their nutrients, vitamins and minerals.
The bad carbs are those made with added sugar, refined flour, saturated fats and preservatives. Think of cakes, cookies, candy and packaged junk foods. These kinds of foods have been designed to taste good and make a profit, with zero regard to the health consequences. These man made foods have extreme levels of sugar and fat that our bodies are not equipped to handle. If you eat some junk food every now and then, you may not impact your overall health, but eating such things on a regular or daily basis causes all sorts of negative ramifications. They wreak havoc on our bodies and our natural systems.
- Sugar And The Body
Remember earlier when we explained that all carbs become sugar in one way or another? Well, the naturally occurring sugar in fruits, vegetables and beans are perfect to fuel our bodies. Whereas refined white sugar is one of the worst components in man made carbs.
Brain scans have confirmed that intermittent sugar consumption affects the brain in ways similar to certain drugs. A highly cited study in the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews found that sugar, even as common is it is, meets the criteria for a
Carbs help make us happier. Eating carbohydrates stimulates the production of serotonin, a brain chemical that impacts mood and appetite. There have even been studies that show that long term low carbohydrate diets have negative effects on mood, mental health and cognitive function.
They help you sleep better. Carbohydrates increase insulin levels, which in turn increase tryptophan and boost serotonin production.
Carbs provide the glucose the central nervous system uses to maintain our energy levels. Without enough glucose, the central nervous system suffers, which can create dizziness and mental and physical weakness.
Besides fueling your body and brain, carbs provide the fiber that we need for a healthy digestive system. The dietary fiber present in natural carb foods helps us to feel full and effectively remove waste. They prevent constipation, reduce bloating and keep blood cholesterol levels in check. By helping the digestive process to be efficient, fiber also cuts the risk of developing colon cancer. Regular bowel movements offer relief from irritable bowel syndrome and may also decrease your risk of diabetes and heart disease according to the Mayo Clinic.
- Negative Health Ramifications From Carbohydrates:
Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which then enters your bloodstream. Simple carbs digest quickly and can cause a pronounced spike in your blood sugar levels. Your body responds by releasing hormones to lower your blood sugar levels but often ends up overcompensating and causing a blood sugar "crash" that leaves you with lower or fluctuating energy levels.
When you have chronically elevated blood sugar levels, it is known as hyperglycemia. People with hyperglycemia are at risk for developing type two diabetes, which can ravage the body if left unchecked. This same mechanism also impacts your insulin production, as insulin is needed to transport sugar, thus disrupting its ability to maintain proper functioning.
When the body constantly has high blood sugar levels to deal with, over time this leads to weight gain and obesity, poor metabolic health and an increased risk of heart disease.
Although many people try to go on low carb diets to lose weight, this often leads to low energy and fatigue. Eating protein at the same time as carbs can help regulate and stabilize blood sugar levels.
Too little carbohydrates can also lead to problems with the central nervous system. Additionally, if the body is forced to use protein as a fuel source for extended periods, due to a lack of carbohydrates, it can damage the liver and kidneys. Ketosis also gives people bad breath.
So the answer is not to avoid all carbs, the answer is to eat healthy carbs. Its not an option, it is a requirement.
Carbohydrates have often been villainized for making us fat... and they can do just that, but they can also aid in weight loss and keep us healthy. The benefits of healthy carbs far outweigh any potential weight gain.
The truth is, you need to eat lots of carbohydrates each and every day. Whether they are healthy or lead to lifestyle diseases largely comes down to which types of carbohydrates you put in your mouth.
Try your best to limit your intake of simple, refined, sugary carbohydrates and maximize your intake of carbohydrates high in fiber, vitamins and minerals; your body will thank you. You can do this by choosing to add lots of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and beans to your daily meals and snacks.
*This blog is created and published online for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.