The basics: What are carbohydrates

Most of you think of carbohydrates, or short “carbs”, as food you have to avoid in order to get lean. Thanks to Low Carb evangelists. But actually the majority of people don’t really know what carbs are and which foods contain them — and why they are doomed by many fitness “gurus”.

However, what’s more important than the quantity of the carbs you eat is the quality. Some sources are much healthier than others.

For example: Healthy whole grains, such as whole wheat bread, sweet potatoes, rice and quinoa are better choices than highly refined french fries, white bread or candy.

But what are carbs?

Carbs are one of the 3 macro nutrients, besides protein and fat. In fact, they are the major source of energy for our brain and high intensity work.

Sugar, starch and fiber found in grains, fruits, milk products and vegetables are all carbohydrates. That’s why they’re present in a wide array of healthy and unhealthy foods: bread, bananas, milk, popcorn, cookies, spaghetti, soft drinks, pie, etc.

Essentially, they provide our bodies with glucose, which is converted to energy. Glucose can be used right away or it can be stored for a later use as glycogen.

Simple Carbs (aka Mono- and Disaccharides)

Simple carbs are faster digested and absorbed by the body, because they just contain one or two sugars. More commonly known as the typical “sugar”, they are found in fruits, vegetables and milk products.

Simple sugars can also be found in candy, soda and syrups. Furthermore, they are made out of processed and refined sugar, which means they don’t contain any vitamins, minerals or fiber. They are so called “empty calories”. Plus, simple carbs can lead to spikes in blood sugar levels and sugar highs (and therefore crashes), because they have a high glycemic index and load.

Complex Carbs (Polysaccharides)

Complex carbs consist of three or more sugars. Foods that contain complex carbs are for example beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, potatoes, cereals and whole-grain breads. Unlike simple sugars, complex carbs provide more sustained energy.

Always focus on these kind of carbs, because they promote good health by delivering vitamins and minerals. Additionally they provide a good amount of fiber. Fiber is the part of a plant that is not digested by the body. Rich in fiber are oats, fruits, sweet potatoes, brown rice and whole grain cereals. Adding more complex carbs to your diet will help you control your portion sizes, keep you feel full longer and keep your sugar spikes in check!

Carbs and blood sugar levels

Carbs, which are broken down in glucose, enter the blood stream and raise the blood sugar levels. When this happens the pancreas releases insulin.

Insulin is a hormone that makes our cells absorb blood sugar for energy storage. By doing that the blood sugar levels start to drop back to a normal level.

On the other hand, when our blood sugar levels drop below a certain point the pancreas releases glucagon. The hormone glucagon cause a release of glycogen by the liver.

Now, if blood sugar levels are rising too fast and too often, our cells become faulty. Over time, they require a higher amount of insulin to react, that’s what we call a insulin resistance.

Insulin resistance can lead to high blood pressure, high blood fat levels, weight gain, type 2 diabetes and many other diseases.

Natural carbs that are found in fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains and the like tend to enter the bloodstream more slowly than simple carbs found in processed foods. Adding good sleep and regular exercise to your daily routine will help regulate blood sugar and hormone control.

What is the glycemic index (GI)?

Carbs that have a high glycemic index enter the bloodstream as glucose faster than carbs that have a low glycemic index. Basically low GI carbs take longer to digest and break down.

For example a meal with lower GI carbs will raise your blood sugar level more slowly and over a longer period, which is better for long-term health and body-weight control. Much like the different of caffeine release between a strong black coffee and a mild green tea.

What’s up with low carb then?

Low carb dieting is a well known diet, especially in modern (uneducated) media. The reason it “works” is not because carbs are bad, but because one simply removes 1/3 of the macro nutrients from his diet.

It’s very easy to also gain fat on a low carb diet, actually more so than on a high carb diet, since most low carb diets are higher in fat, which can easily be stored as body fat. Carbs can’t be stored as body fat directly and therefore put on less weight.

Is low carb bad then? No. As a general rule, people who have a more active life (doesn’t matter if in the gym or at work) need more carbs to fuel their bodies. Also women tend to feel worse on low carb diets because they burn carbs during the day, whereas men burn fat during the day.

Simply put, if you’re very active, you’ll most likely feel better on high carbs. If you’re sedentary all day, low carb might suit you. Try it out for at least 2 weeks to feel the reaction in you body though.
Everybody is different!

Conclusion

Carbs are not an essential nutrient. Our bodies can function without a single gram of carb in the diet. When we ban carbs from our diet, part of the brain can use ketones for energy. Ketones are made out of fat. Therefore the myth that the brain needs carbs is not entirely true. Plus, apart from Ketones, the body can produce a little amount of glucose from excess protein, via a process called Gluconeogenesis.

But just because carbs are not vital doesn’t mean they can’t be beneficial. Just make sure to adjust the amount and type of carbs to your personal circumstances!

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