You’ve probably heard the arguments and advertising pitches as people debate the merits of low carb and high carb diets, mainly to lose weight. We don't have the space here to assess diets, but a couple of comments are worth including.
First, your body needs carbohydrates (often called “carbs”) to provide the energy that fuels all kinds of biochemical reactions.
Second, drastically cutting your carb intake can result in brain fog, muscle weakness, and poor concentration because your main source of energy has dropped too low to support cellular activity.
Achieving sustained weight loss isn’t a matter of eliminating carbs, but of incorporating appropriate types and quantities of carbs into a well-rounded program of balanced dietary choices, correct food supplementation, proper hydration with filtered water, and adequate exercise and rest.
These principles serve not only those people who may be trying to lose weight, but anyone interested in generating enough sustained cellular energy to create physical strength and mental balance—both of which are fundamental to your ability to enjoy life’s many activities. In short, knowing how carbs supply energy could help improve everything from a child’s grades at school to a golfer’s handicap.
Before we detail a few things about carbs, be aware that you do not get carbs from meat, poultry, fish, or eggs—those foods are good sources of protein, not carbs. You get some in dairy products, but you get most carbs from plants. Plants use the sun’s energy to manufacture carbohydrates during photosynthesis. In fact, you could not survive without plants and the life-giving nutrients they contain.
People who avoid carbs because this dietary practice is recommended in some television sound bite or popular diet may not realize they are robbing themselves of vital nutrients and fiber. The idea is not to eliminate carbs, but to choose wisely from the wide array that Mother Nature makes available. Let’s look at carbs a little more closely, so you can make informed choices.
Carbohydrates are made up of sugar molecules and can be classified under two main groups: simple carbs and complex carbs. Simple carbs are made up of only one or two units of sugar molecules.
The most common simple carbs are:
- Sucrose, which is table sugar and comes from sugar cane and sugar beets
- Fructose, which is found in fruits, honey, and high-fructose corn syrup
- Glucose and dextrose, which are found in grapes and corn
- Maltose (malt sugar) which is found in grains
- Lactose, which is found in milk
Notice that each of these ends in the suffix “ose”. While the scientific terminology of carbohydrates is fairly complicated, the names of simple carbs often end in “ose”, which can help you quickly identify them.
When you eat, your digestive system breaks these sugars down rather quickly, which can create a spike in blood sugar (which is also known as blood glucose). This spike results in a quick boost of energy followed by an energy crash that may leave you feeling low and listless, cause mid-afternoon sleepiness, or make you moody. Repeated spikes and crashes can result in blood sugar problems, such as insulin resistance and diabetes.
Complex carbs are a little different. They are made up of three or more units of sugar molecules linked together. These chains of simple sugars that have bonded together make a carbohydrate, well—complex. As a result, your body tends to take its time to metabolize complex carbs, doling out the sugars over a longer period of time. That alone is a great nutritional advantage because you can avoid a “spike” in blood sugar, and your energy will stay more even through the day.
Examples of complex carbohydrates include:
- Whole grains
- Vegetables and fruits
As you can see, this is a pretty healthy-looking list—which is why, for a long time, people were told to avoid eating simple carbs and to focus on eating complex carbs. Complex carbs were considered healthier.
However, the issue is far more (dare we say it?) complex than that. You see, while the simple and complex classifications make chemical sense, they don’t make nutritional sense. Yes, avoiding simple carbs can help people avoid health-sucking sugary foods that pile on weight and cause blood sugar problems, but eating too many complex carbs (or the wrong kind) also can set you up for weight gain, obesity, and blood sugar problems such as insulin resistance and diabetes.
Whether a carb is simple or complex, your body treats it in much the same way. During digestion, digestible carbs are broken down into single molecules of sugar and converted into glucose. The single molecules of sugar are small enough to cross from the small intestine into the blood stream, and your body (especially the brain) uses the glucose as a source of energy.
When a carbohydrate is broken down and the sugar enters the bloodstream, your blood sugar levels rise. This rise is measured by a system known as the Glycemic Index. The Glycemic Index measures how fast and how high a food makes your blood sugar rise as compared to glucose. Foods that rank high on the Index cause your blood sugar to rise fast and high. Foods that rank lower cause your blood sugar to rise more slowly and not as high.
You might think simple carbs would rank high on the Glycemic Index. Many of them do, but here’s a funny thing: Some candy bars rank around the middle of the Index even though candy bars are full of simple carbs. And here’s something that may be equally unexpected: Some complex carbs rank high on the Glycemic Index; that is, some complex carbs cause your blood sugar to spike higher and faster than some candy bars.
For example, a potato is classified as a complex carb, yet the starch in many varieties of potatoes (although not all) breaks down nearly as fast as pure glucose. Similarly, some overly-processed grains (such as many breakfast cereals and instant oatmeal) also cause your blood sugar to spike higher and faster than that candy bar.
And did you notice something else? The list of simple carbs includes fructose (which is found in fruits). If you eliminate simple carbs from your diet, you will eliminate a lot of colorful fruits and all the nutrients they contain. Obviously, that’s not a sound nutritional decision.
To help sort out the confusion, here’s a short-list of foods typically laden with overly-processed carbs that are quickly digested. These carbs offer limited nutritional value and boatloads of empty calories, and they tend to send your blood sugar spiking:
- Soft drinks, commercially-prepared fruit juices, and sweetened coffees
- Sugary breakfast cereals, even including brands boldly advertising whole grain ingredients
- Granola bars and other cereal bars and many energy bars
- “Designer” yogurts; that is, yogurts with syrupy fruit in the bottom; that fruit is essentially jam
- Baked goods, including everything from brownies to pies to muffins to many multi-grain breads
- Condiments such as ketchup, relishes, and pickles
- Commercially-prepared marinades, sauces, salad dressings, and dips
- Frozen desserts, including those made from rice and soy
- Candy and candy bars, of course.
Smarter choices include fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains that have been minimally processed (if at all). Of course, certified organic is always recommended whenever possible.
New Ways of Looking at Carbs
Obviously, the classifications simple and complex tend to be inadequate for dietary considerations. To help people discuss carbs in a more nutritionally helpful way, new terms are being used to describe the various forms of carb foods and their nutritional usefulness. The most commonly used terms are:
- Sugary carbs
- Starchy carbs
- Fibrous carbs
Sugary carbs include most fruits and everything in the bulleted list above (from soft drinks to candy bars). Starchy carbs include most grains, potatoes, and legumes. Fibrous carbs include a long list of vegetables such as celery, lettuces, and cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli.
Guide to a Healthy Plate of Food
We've devoted considerable space in our book, Eat to Save Your Life, to explain these sugary, starchy, and fibrous carbs in more detail, so you can make choices that are more nutritionally balanced. In the meantime, a good rule of thumb to ensure balanced nutrition is to fill one-half of your plate with fibrous carbs such as vegetables and one-quarter of your plate with starchy carbs such as rice, beans, or potatoes. The fourth quarter of your plate can be filled with protein foods.
According to the American and Canadian Diabetes Associations, 22.8 million North Americans (about 7% of the population) have diabetes; of these, nearly one-third do not know they have it.
When combined with proper diet and exercise, food supplements containing chromium, magnesium, manganese and certain B vitamins may help patients control blood glucose levels.
Harvard School of Public Health. http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/carbohydrates-full-story/index.html#what-are-carbohydrates accessed March 8, 2011.
Faqs.org: Nutrition and Well-being A – Z . http://www.faqs.org/nutrition/Ca-De/Carbohydrates.html Accessed March 8, 2011.
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