Have you wondered “Are carbohydrates bad?” What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear carbs?
Many of you might be thinking “stay away!” I hear it all the time in consultations, before they even tell me what they are eating the response is “and I probably shouldn’t, but I eat it with ____ (insert carb here: rice, bread, pasta, etc.) So let’s set this straight from the beginning: carbohydrates are not all bad. They seem to have gotten a bad reputation lately. Amy Schumer even talks about it in this hilarious interview.
Carbohydrates, fat, and protein are the three macronutrients in our diet. Macronutrients are the nutrients that we need to eat in large quantities, relative to micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. All three macronutrients are a required and essential part of a healthy diet.
Think of food on a spectrum. Take carbohydrates, that’s what we are focusing on here after all, which include everything from table sugar and candy to fruit, to vegetables, bread, oats, etc. Rather than thinking of food as “good” and “bad,” think of food on a spectrum. The same goes for all of the macronutrients. Each type of food has its own spectrum, potatoes for example: plain baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, fried potatoes, and potato chips. All have carbohydrates, right? But the plain baked potato is going to be a better choice than the potato chips. This applies to all sorts of food. So there are healthier and less healthy options. So now that we know all carbohydrates are not “bad” let me explain exactly what carbohydrates are and how to incorporate them into your diet in a healthy way.
Carbohydrates are large molecules made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atom
s, or C, H, and O. These are called saccharides or sugars. There are 4 common types of saccharide chains that form into carbohydrates, mono-, di-, oligo-, and poly-.
Monosaccharides are the simplest form of sugars. There are three types fructose, glucose, and galactose.
Disaccharides are made of 2 monosaccharides. The three most common types are:
Oligosaccharides are made up of 3-10 monosaccharides.
Polysaccharides are made up of 11 or more monosaccharides. There are thousands of types of polysaccharides but they are put into three main groups. Starch – vegetables and grains. Cellulose- vegetable fibers that cannot be digested by the body. Chitin- Not a major part of the diet but can be found in some fungi and is what makes up crabs and other animals shells.
There are two types of fibers – soluble and insoluble as well. I will go over these
more in-depth in a later post.
The simple carbohydrates (mono- and di-) are digested quickly by the body and enter your blood stream faster (more on that later). The more complex carbohydrates (oligo- and poly-) are digested more slowly in the body.
When we eat carbohydrates our digestive system breaks them down in to monosaccharides. The glucose then enters the blood stream and the hormone insulin is released. This allows your cells to open and let the glucose in so our cells can use it for energy.
Carbohydrates are used as energy in the body. Do you remember when people used to carb load or sports teams would have pasta parties the night before a tournament? That theory comes from eating carbohydrates so your body has quick energy throughout the match. It is a little outdated but I think it paints a good picture.
If you have extra glucose in the body, your muscles and liver can store carbohydrates as glycogen so it is ready when you need it. Furthermore, if you have a full store of glycogen, your body can store the glucose in adipose tissue, a.k.a. fat.
Your brain actually exclusively runs on glucose for function. If you do not have enough, your body can break other molecules down into glucose.
Fiber is also an important part of carbohydrates. As I said they are the indigestible part of vegetables, fruits, and starches. Because they are indigestible they help keep our digestion healthy, a.k.a. help us poop.
The amount of carbohydrates can vary extremely from person to person. What is more important is the TYPE of carb that you’re eating.
Please note if you have pre-diabetes, Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes you should work with your doctor and a dietitian to figure out more precisely how many grams of carbohydrates you need.
First, here is a rough general outline of different amounts of carbs commonly eaten.
Average amount of carbohydrate intake is 55-65% of total calorie intake.
Paleo diets are generally considered low-carbohydrate as it is a diet based on our biological approach to eating as hunter-gatherers. This diet restricts grains, dairy, and all refined foods. Carbohydrate foods that are encouraged include fruits and vegetables. This is usually about 35-40% of calorie consumption, although counting carb intake is not usually a part of the diet.
As I said before, your brain runs on carbohydrates. It needs at least 120g a day of glucose for healthy functioning. There are extremely low-carb diets that can go as low as 70g per day but please consult a dietitian or doctor before doing this long-term.
Now, the better carbohydrate choices are going to be the more complex and less refined choices (generally holds true for fat and protein as well).
Wow if you are still with me on this one, well done!! It was a long one, but I hope you found it useful. If you liked it and you also want to learn about protein you can read the post here.
What other questions do you have about carbohydrates? Let me know and I will write about it in the future.
If you are not sure you are eating the right carbs or if you want a little more guidance make a consultation with me and we can dig a little deeper.