Some people think of carbohydrates as Fluffy, the three headed dog from Harry Potter, scary and ferocious, and some people view them as the 101 Dalmatian puppies, cute and snuggly. The question is, are carbohydrates good or evil? Should you be scared of them or embrace them? What is your relationship to carbs?
First, it is important to fully understand what carbohydrates are. Molecularly, carbohydrates are made up of multiple sugar molecules that get broken down and absorbed as glucose, which is a major source for your body to use and produce energy. Throughout the body, tissues, such as muscle and fat, can use other macronutrients as a source of fuel, in addition to carbohydrates. On the other hand, the brain’s main source of fuel is carbohydrates. This means, if you do not have an adequate amount of carbohydrates in your diet, you may feel fatigued, unable to concentrate, or have a foggy mind.
When glucose travels through the bloodstream it gets delivered to tissues to make energy, hence this is what people speak of when saying blood sugar or blood glucose. It is important to keep a balanced blood sugar because if it is consistently too high, too low, or a combination of the two, it can lead to potential health issues.
So, if needing carbohydrates is an aspect of a well-balanced diet, why do people say carbohydrates are bad for you? Why are there so many low carb FAD diets out there? Well, there are actually two types, simple and complex carbohydrates. Although they are both found in the foods we eat, our bodies respond to them very differently.
Simple carbohydrates are found in foods such as fruit juices, honey, sweets, soda, white rice, and white pasta. Correlating with the name, the molecular structure of simple carbs, is…well simple. The body can break these down quickly and easily, which means our blood sugar increases quickly, the glucose gets used, the body is satisfied temporarily, and hence may require to refuel sooner, as simple carbs do not stand the test of time.
Complex carbohydrates are found in foods such as vegetables or whole grains. Again, correlated with the name, these are more complex molecules which means the body has to work harder to break down these molecules into glucose, which then the body can use as fuel. This added step and time process creates a more gradual and steady increase in blood sugar. Of course, everything is best in moderation, so there are some downfalls in this system, such as, if they complex carbs are eaten in excess.
To put this into perspective, six pack abs would be so much more satisfying if you worked incredibly hard to get them rather than them magically appearing, right? Okay maybe that is a stretch, but the satisfaction of getting a six pack and feeling confident about it is a gradual and steady process and will create a more sustainable result. The body thinks of complex carbohydrates and the gradual increase of blood sugar in the same way.
Other terms you may have heard before are glycemic load or glycemic index. Glycemic index categories foods based on how quickly a carbohydrate is digested into glucose and then released into the bloodstream. Glycemic load is a system that categories foods based on how many carbohydrates are in a given serving. A glycemic load under 10 will have little impact on your blood sugar and a glycemic load above 20 will increase your blood sugar at a quicker rate.
Carbohydrates naturally exist in all foods, including, meats, grains, vegetables, and fruits. Depending on the other nutrients present in foods, the way you pair foods together, or the way you cook them can cause varying results in blood sugar response. For instance, due to berries having low carbohydrates and high fiber, this combination of nutrients cause a steady increase in blood sugar. Comparatively, bananas have a higher sugar and carbohydrate content and can raise blood sugar quicker. Pairing bananas with a fat, such as nut butter can slow the absorption of glucose and prevent your blood sugar from increasing at a quicker rate. Another example is al dente pasta, originating from the Italian culture, which means “to the tooth”. By slightly undercooking your pasta, it has a lower glycemic index and the body puts in extra effort to break it down and hence creating a more gradual increase in blood sugar levels.
Whether you are a meat eater, vegetarian, or even a caterpillar trying to turn into a beautiful butterfly, every being needs carbohydrates to grow and thrive. Simple and complex carbohydrates serve different purposes and benefit your body depending on the circumstance. Exploring and understanding the specific sources of carbohydrates your individual body needs to feel energized and healthy is empowering and can create beneficial results. Just like every macronutrient, moderation is important and we all need carbohydrates to have a balanced nutrition.
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