The Surprising Truth about Carbs: Friend or Foe
Carbohydrates. Are they really the enemy?
When you hear the word “carbs” do you immediately think they are the enemy and run in the opposite direction?
Do you imagine yourself gaining weight at the thought of the word?
Do you immediately feel guilty for wanting or eating carbs because you think you shouldn’t?
If you do, it’s no wonder, as carbs have been demonized as of late. After all, they are largely to blame for the world’s obesity epidemic and the multitude of health problems that follow like high blood sugar levels, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and more.
But are all crabs created equal?
Read on to discover the truth about carbohydrates before you swear off this misunderstood food group completely.
Carbohydrates: The good, the bad, and the ugly
Do our body’s need carbohydrates?
Interestingly, there are essential fatty acids and essential amino acids that we must receive from our diet. However, there is no such thing as an “essential carbohydrate.” So do we need them?
Yes, our bodies do require carbohydrates, however they are not essential - that means we can live without consuming them. Our bodies will adapt and switch to burning fat for fuel instead.
For some people, a low to no carb diet (like Keto) is the best option for them and their optimal health. My husband, due to a brain injury, is one of them. Other people who tend to do better with minimal carb intake are epileptics, diabetics, and those with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, MS, or Autism.
Yet for others, carbohydrates - correction: the right kind of carbohydrates - are an important part of their diet and they’d do best consuming these carbs on a regular basis.
Regardless of who you are or what condition you may (or may not) have, gaining a better understanding of carbohydrates - the good, the bad and the ugly - should help you become better informed about which carbs to enjoy often, which to consume on occasion, and which to avoid.
Let’s start with a quick look at what exactly carbohydrates are.
Carbohydrates are one of the three types of macronutrients that our body uses to fuel our cells and run off of. Proteins (amino acids) and fats are the others. Each of these macronutrients serve their own purpose and have their own function within the body.
Simply put, carbohydrates are sugars or starches. At the chemical level, carbohydrates contain only three elements: carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. When consumed, they are converted into simple sugars and used to fuel cells. They provide fuel for the nervous system and energy for working muscles. They also enable fat metabolism, prevent protein from being used as an energy source, and are important for brain function.
Every time a carbohydrate is eaten, the body breaks it down into smaller units of sugar (glucose and fructose). These smaller units are absorbed by the small intestine. From there, they travel to the liver where they are converted into glucose. Glucose is carried throughout the bloodstream and converted into energy for basic body functioning and physical activity.
When we consume more carbohydrates than our body needs, the extra sugars are stored for later - our body’s amazing attempt at self-preservation. In fact, the body can store up to 2,000 calories of these sugars in the liver and skeletal muscles (as glycogen). Once glycogen stores are full, any additional sugars are stored in fat cells, ready to be deployed if sugar supplies in the blood run too low.
The problem is that (unlike in the time of our ancestors) most of us never use all the sugars we ingest or need to call upon the extra stored sugars to keep us alive. Instead, they continue to accumulate and we experience more and more weight gain.
Alternatively, if we don’t have enough carbohydrates in storage, the body begins to take protein from muscle tissues to use as fuel. This is not ideal, as it can lead to muscle wasting and weakness.
Types of Carbohydrates
There are three types of carbohydrates - monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polysaccharides.
Monosaccharides contain one simple sugar and do not require digestion in order to be absorbed into the bloodstream. They consist of glucose (dextrose), fructose (fruit sugar), and galactose (milk sugar). Sweet foods like honey and cane sugar are rich in monosaccharides - which is what makes them sweet. Other foods like dairy products, beans and fruit, also contain these simple sugars.
Disaccharides contain two single sugars while polysaccharides contain many. Both of these types of carbohydrates require enzymes and digestion to break them down into usable energy.
Complex carbs vs simple carbs
As you are now aware, not all carbohydrates are created equal.
And all three types of carbohydrates can be divided into two general categories - simple and complex.
Simple Carbohydrates: Sometimes referred to as “bad” carbs, simple carbs are sugars. They are generally high in calories, low in nutrients, and low in fibre. They include refined sugars like corn syrup, table sugar, honey, sodas, milk products, and fruit juices, as well as refined grains like white flour and processed foods.
Because they start off as small molecules, they are quickly converted into simple sugars and are immediately dispersed to provide energy. Because they are so fast acting and quickly absorbed, they create a rapid rise in blood sugar levels. This spike signals the pancreas to release insulin to help escort blood sugars into the cells for energy or into storage.
Repeatedly high levels of blood sugar require repeatedly high levels of insulin to remove excess sugar from the blood. Once insulin has sprung into action and removed all the sugars, we experience fatigue - or that 2 pm energy slump. To perk ourselves up again, what do we do? Reach for more sugary foods or drinks (caramel frappuccino anyone?). Why? Because we are tired and need an energy boost!
There’s no doubt that sugars provide that energy spike. But because insulin levels also spike to process the sugars, we crash again.
This is the blood sugar roller coaster. I’m sure you have all experienced it.
I’m sure you are also aware that these constant sugar spikes and drops are not healthy for our bodies. They can result in the pancreas wearing down and our cells becoming immune to the effects of insulin. This condition is called “Insulin Resistance,” and over time, it can result in diabetes.
Complex carbohydrates: On the other hand, complex carbohydrates are larger molecules formed by linking many sugar molecules together. When they are consumed, the body has to work at breaking them down into simple carbohydrates before they can be absorbed.
This results in a gradual rise in blood sugar levels and a gradual rise in insulin. No surge of sugar. No surge of insulin. But a nice, slow release of sugars - just as it’s supposed to be.
Plus, because they are digested more slowly, they are less likely to be converted into fat and they keep us fuller longer!
Imagine that! Having the ability to keep blood sugar levels steady all day, avoid the blood sugar roller coaster and resulting fatigue, AND banish sugar cravings!
Is this possible? Absolutely!
How you ask? By choosing the right kinds of carbohydrates
Complex Carbohydrates for the Win!
This brings us to complex carbohydrates.
Complex carbohydrates include starches and fibres such as wheat products (like bread and pasta), other grains (like rye and corn), beans, legumes, and root vegetables (like beets, carrots, parsnips and sweet potatoes).
So which complex carbs should you choose?
The best complex carbohydrates (or smart carbs, as I like to call them) contain many nutrients, come in their most natural state, and are high in naturally occurring fibre.
Below are 6 high-carb foods that are incredibly healthy and designed to keep you satisfied while providing sustained energy.
Quinoa - This nutritious seed, or pseudo-grain, is prepared and eaten like a grain. One cup of cooked quinoa contains 34 grams of net carbs along with 5 grams of fibre and 8 grams of protein. In addition, it’s loaded with minerals and healthy plant compounds that help control blood sugar levels. As an added benefit, quinoa does not contain gluten, making it a popular option for those of us on a gluten-free diet.
Sweet potatoes - One medium cooked sweet potato contains about 24 grams of carbs and 4 grams of fibre. In addition, they are high in vitamin C, potassium, vitamins B5, B3, and B6, manganese, magnesium, and copper. Their orange colour is indicative of their high antioxidant and beta-carotene content, making them important for eye health and immune function. Plus sweet potatoes are easy to cook, and delicious to eat!
Beets - Beets are one of my (and your liver’s) favourite vegetables! One cup of cooked beets offers up about 16 grams of carbs - 4 of which are fibre. Their bright red colour identifies them as healthy - loaded with flavonoids and polyphenols that purify the blood, improve the liver’s detoxification capabilities, and keep blood pressure in check. Plus, beets are great brain food - they increase blood flow to the brain for improved mental and cognitive function, as well as a better working memory!
Apples - One medium apple contains about 21 grams of carbs and 4 grams of fibre. They contain many antioxidants, healthy plant compounds, and a good amount of vitamin C. Studies show that regularly eating apples may improve blood sugar control, reduce the risk of heart disease, and may even decrease the risk of some types of cancer.
Bananas - One medium banana contains about 27 grams of carbs - 3 of which are fibre. This sweet snack has a lot of other things going for it, too. Bananas are high in potassium, vitamin C and vitamin B6 to help regulate the blood and improve heart health. Want more good news? If you enjoy unripe green bananas, they have the added bonus of containing resistant starch and pectin which feeds your gut flora to improve digestive health.
Lentils - One serving of lentils contains 40 grams of carbs along with 16 grams of fibre. Lentils are generally low in calories, yet rich in iron, folate, and protein. Their health benefits include a reduced risk of heart disease, improved energy, and better blood sugar balance.
Chickpeas - Chickpeas, or garbanzo beans, contain about 45 grams of carbs, 12 of which come from fibre. They are an excellent source of protein and contain many vitamins and minerals like iron, phosphorus and B vitamins. Research has linked chickpea consumption with improved heart and digestive health. So the next time you’re looking for a healthy snack, enjoy some hummus with veggie sticks!
The facts don’t lie. Some of the healthiest foods are high in carbohydrates. [quote]
The thing to remember is that not all carbohydrates are the same! The key is skipping the refined and processed carbohydrates in favour of whole nutrient-dense foods that contain complex carbs like legumes, fruits and vegetables.
Make your carbs count, and opt for foods rich in fibre, protein, vitamins, and minerals. And when choosing a carb for you plate, opt for complex ones, like the ones described above.
Carbs do not need to be the enemy. It is not carbs themselves that cause weight gain, but the type and quantity of the carbs you eat that matter.
Even people who follow a strict Ketogenic diet for health reasons need the occasional “carb-up” to refuel their cells.
But there is a right way and a wrong way of handling this.
To some people, having a carb-up (consuming more carbs in one day than you’d typically eat in a week!) means they give themselves a free pass to eat whatever they want - pizza, pasta, cookies, donuts… you get the idea.
The better way is to choose nutrient-rich complex carbohydrates that contain a good amount of fibre, like sweet potatoes, starchy vegetables, legumes, or whole grains.
So, before you swear off carbohydrates completely, please remember that when you chose the right kind of carbohydrates, you will also be enjoying many of the health benefits that come with them.
Carbohydrates for depression
One of these health benefits is an improved mood.
People with mild depression know that carbs make them feel better - and science would agree. Carbohydrates boost serotonin levels and can improve mood. Unfortunately, to get this mood boost, people often reach for simple carbs like donuts, cookies, pastries, or muffins, only to fall victim of the blood sugar roller coaster.
When they crash, their depression worsens and they become tired and irritable to boot. The solution? Reach for another cookie!
This vicious cycle (along with the sugar cravings) can be eased by choosing complex carbs instead.
So if you do suffer from mild depression, try starting your day with complex carbs like a breakfast scramble with veggies, eggs and sweet potatoes, then continue to eat small to moderate amounts of complex carbs with each meal.
Carbohydrates are found in foods we know are good for us (vegetables) as well as in foods we know are not (donuts).
But remember that carbs do not have to be the enemy, and not all carbs are created equal. Be mindful of your carb intake and choose the right ones for you.
In general, processed, refined junk foods should be off the table (literally), while whole, fibre-rich complex carbs (in moderation) should not be forgotten.
As always, I welcome your thoughts and value your feedback. Let me know what you think by dropping me a line or commenting below.
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