Busting Nutrition Myths: Carbohydrates
As the first in a series on our macronutrients (carbs, fats and proteins), we are tackling the myths surrounding carbohydrates.
Quickly, what the heck are carbohydrates? Well, folks, they are more than just bread. Carbohydrates are the most direct form of stored energy from the sun. Plants, through the process of photosynthesis, are able to harness the energy from the sun’s rays and convert that into sugars that are bound together in long chains. Now, to be clear, simple sugars and larger carbohydrates are both known as carbohydrates. The difference is in their size and structure. Simple sugars are single molecules while complex carbohydrates are long chains of simple sugars, bound together for effective energy storage within plants (and animals-we store carbohydrate in the form of glycogen within our liver and our muscles).
When we consume carbohydrates through plant materials (grains, fruits, vegetables), we digest the larger carbohydrates down to their simplest form: simple sugars (glucose, fructose and galactose). It doesn’t matter how big and complex the carbohydrate was to begin with, our digestion breaks that carbohydrate down into simple sugars for absorption. When we absorb glucose, this simple sugar is in the body’s preferred form for energy metabolism (aka-releasing energy to be used for work) within the cell. When we absorb fructose and galactose, we must convert these simple sugars into glucose in order to be used for energy metabolism.
Carbohydrates are the preferred and easiest macronutrient to use for energy. Both fats and proteins must go through extensive metabolism before they can be used for energy and, thus, there are most waste products that the body must process. Because of this, carbohydrates constitute the majority of a balanced diet (45-65% of your daily calories). Despite the simplicity of carbohydrates, there are a lot of myths out there regarding their impact on our health.
I searched google using “carbs” in the search box. The following are a few ideas about carbohydrates that need to be cleared up.
- “There are good carbs, and there are bad carbs.”
First of all, I have a problem with categorizing foods into good vs. bad. All food can serve a purpose and there are some sources of nutrition that should be a staple in your diet while there are others that should make occasional appearances in your diet. In terms of carbs, there are carbs that digest slower (what most folks think of as “good”) and there are carbs that digest faster (the “bad” ones). Complex carbs, meaning digestible carbohydrates mixed with indigestible carbohydrates (fiber), require more work to be broken down into simple sugars for absorption which is why it takes the body longer to break down. These have been shown to reduce cholesterol, improve colon health, help with weight loss, prevent a high blood sugar, etc. So, yes, they are good for your health. “Bad” carbs, on the other hand, are easier for the body to digest and are able to be absorbed much faster. These types of carbohydrates tend to cause a rapid increase in blood sugar. This can be advantageous! For someone with diabetes, refined carbohydrates are important for treating a low blood sugar. For someone like me who suffers from extreme hunger at times and the bad mood the often accompanies this hunger, having “bad” carbs around can help me to keep my mood a little more regulated before I get to my next good meal. More importantly, “bad” carbs are essential for athletes! They help to top off glycogen stores (stored carbohydrate within the body for easy access during exercise) before a work out and are extremely important for replenishing glycogen stores after a workout. Full glycogen stores before a workout or event allow an athlete to go longer before they fatigue-very important!! So, both types of carbohydrates serve distinct purposes and shouldn’t be labeled “good” and “bad.”
- “Carbs make you fat.”
Carbohydrates are no more capable than fats and even proteins for contributing to weight gain. If an individual consumes excess energy, regardless of the form of that excess energy, they will gain weight. Carbohydrates, particularly the more simple forms (refined grains/flours, juices, sodas, etc), do have the potential for causing increased hunger afterwards because they are so easily digested and absorbed in the body, which can lead to excess energy intake later on. Pairing a carbohydrate with a fat or a protein helps to regulate appetite and makes you feel fuller longer while also providing you with a good energy source.
- “I shouldn’t eat sugar.”
Sugar is a carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are sugars. They are one in the same. So, by recommending an individual remove sugar from their diet, a health care professional is essentially recommending that person remove all carbohydrates from their diet. This is not good for your body! The brain runs exclusively on glucose and will force the body to create ketones, the brain’s alternative energy source in times of starvation, which causes the body to become more acidic. Not good. So, please do not eliminate carbohydrates from your diet. That being said, eliminating “overt sugars,” as one of my clients liked to call them, can be a helpful tool for balancing your diet and preventing excess hunger and energy intake. Sugar sweetened beverages are the source of added sugars that can be most strongly linked to poor health outcomes. This might be the best place to start if a person wants to limit their added sugar intake. Added sugars within other types of food may contribute to excess energy intake so it’s worth keeping an eye one by looking at labels. But remember, all carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars (the same type of sugar that the term “added sugar” refers to) so it might be more worth your time to look at the overall calorie amount for the food and check in with how that food affects your hunger and desire to eat later on in the day.
Three Bean Salad
The following is an easy way to get carbohydrates into your diet with the added bonus of protein (beans are high in complex carbs as well as protein)! I love the affordability of canned beans!
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper
1/2 cup chopped red bell pepper
1 (15.5-ounce) can garbanzo beans, drained
1 (15.5-ounce) can kidney beans, drained
1 (15.5-ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
Combine the first 6 ingredients in a large bowl. For the dressing, combine the red wine vinegar, olive oil, pepper, lemon juice, and salt in a small bowl and whisk quickly until all ingredients are combined. Pour over the bean and vegetable mixture, stir to combine. Cover and chill before serving. Enjoy!!