The Complex World of Carbohydrates

To you and me, Carbohydrates are in all the food you eat. From the sugar you find in fruit, the starch you find in grains, and the fiber you find in vegetables. According to the American Diabetes Association, carbohydrates are the bodies main fuel source. From your muscles working to your nervous system firing at full force, you are designed by evolution and nature to run on carbs (Abbreviation for carbohydrates).  But does it need to?

What role does a Carbohydrate have?

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A carbohydrate is one of the three basic Macronutrients, which serve as a fuel source for your body. Unlike Protein and Fat, a carbohydrate serves the primary function of energy.  When you eat carbs, your body uses them as fuel or energy over consuming your body’s own protein (Muscle such as Heart) and fat (Brain) for energy.

Calorie Count: Carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram.

Carbohydrates provide multiple mental benefits. From improved mood to memory function, carbohydrates allow your mind to fire on all cylinders. Although they are not required bodily functions, most people will feel better when eating plenty of carbohydrates. Lastly, carbohydrates earned their name because they are composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen at the chemical level.

Simple or Complex?

There are two primary types of carbohydrates. Simple, and Complex. The difference between the two types of carbohydrates is the chemical structure of the type of carbohydrate. A Simple Carbohydrate is classified as a carbohydrate with two or fewer sugars. One sugar carbohydrates are monosaccharides, or in nontechnical terms, fructose which is the sugar structure in fruit and processed or refined sugar found in candy, soda, and sweets. Two sugar carbohydrates would be lactose (The sweetness of milk) or sucrose (Table sugar).

These simple carbohydrates provide quick energy. That is their primary role. You get a quick pick me up. On the other hand, you have Complex Carbohydrates for sustained energy. Complex Carbohydrates are polysaccharides or a carbohydrate with three or more sugars. The list of Complex Carbohydrates is endless, but for simplicity, you can just think of them as Bread, Pasta, Beans, Cereal, Potatoes, or Peanuts.

A Simple Sugar is Candy, and Fiber Is?

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You guessed it. Carbohydrates break down into Sugar, Starch, and Fiber in the human body. Sugars provide energy once they are converted into glucose by the liver. Along with insulin, glucose converts into energy for your body to use. The glucose then converts into glycogen in your muscles (The stuff that makes your muscles look full) or fat (Everywhere else).

You read that right, if your body has too much glucose, it converts to fat. The point is to remember, you need enough carbs to function but not too much to get fat.  Fiber is the other side of the spectrum. Fiber is a chain of carbohydrate which is often unable to be digested completely. Where sugar will rapidly enter the blood stream, very little if any portion of the fiber is digested. Fiber also promotes healthy digestion, heart health, and fights diabetes. All around, good things.

For weight control, Fiber fills you up without containing a lot of calories your body can digest. Think of eating a large cup of broccoli. You can learn more about Fiber from our Article The Full Scoop on Fiber.

What do you mean, ‘Bad Carbs?’

So far, I did tease that carbs can make you fat. As can fat, and protein. Anything you put in your mouth can make you gain weight. So why do people consider carbs bad or good? Well, this is partly marketing and partly simplicity. For most people, if you can categorize carbohydrates as good or bad, you can quickly figure out what to eat and what not to eat.

The Pritikin Longevity Center does have a classification system for good and bad carbohydrates. Good carbohydrates typically are high in nutrients, low in calories, high in fiber, as well as low or void of fat, sodium, and cholesterol. Straight forward, if it provides nutrients (Think vitamins and minerals) and is not laced with sugar or fat, it is considered ‘Good’.

The reverse of ‘Bad Carbs,’ which would be high fat, high calories, high sugar, and low in nutrients. Every baked good you love would be considered ‘Bad’. But you should not feel bad for eating bad cards.

Good or Bad? Doesn’t Matter.

Some other schools of thought exist on how to classify carbs. This ranges from Atkins or No Carbohydrate Diets to Vegetarian. On one end of the classification you have Atkins, that will say all carbs are the enemy, and on the other, you have Vegetarian which attempts to not eat animals or animal by products, which would leave you eating mostly carbs. The sensible approach is neither.

That is right, neither. In the middle, you have the GI. Carbs are not bad or good. They just have a varying level of GI or Glycemic Index. High GI foods would be cake or cookies. This end of the spectrum will rapidly raise your blood sugar to an elevated level. The other end, or low GI, would be carbohydrates like lettuce, which slowly and minimally raise your blood sugar.

So, Do I need to eat Carbohydrates?

 

The simple answer is No. Carbohydrates are used as a primary energy source. But your body can, and will convert protein and fat into energy. Now, if you do not eat your body will consume the supply of muscle and fat it has. If you are eating protein and fat your body can function without carbohydrates.

This does not mean you should not eat carbohydrates. Low carb diets make you more prone to depression according to numerous studies (Including the British Journal of Psychiatry). In addition, according to Tufts University, people who have a diet of low carbohydrate diets score far worse and multiple memory tests which impact memory functions as widely as reading a map, to remembering where you left your car keys.

Carbohydrates also help with any endurance activity. By filling your glycogen stores your muscles have fuel to perform. Carbohydrates become essential for any athlete or endurance activity. Carbohydrates also are the primary source of fiber, which will allow you to feel full longer. Which, for a dieter, can be essential.

Find all the resources used in this article and the scientific basis of all our article at The Science Behind Fitness.

 

 

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