As with many topics in the nutrition world, there is a lot of controversy regarding carbohydrates. To eat or not to eat? What kind? How many? Let’s go through the basics of carbohydrates so you can have a better understanding of this widely discussed topic and make an educated decision for yourself! We believe understanding the effects of food on the body helps to encourage better food choices — we hope this information helps you make health-promoting choices!
First things first, what are carbohydrates? Carbohydrates are one the three macronutrients, the other two being fat and protein. In order to support our energy levels and metabolism, we need these macronutrients in varying amounts. Once we have consumed carbohydrates, they are converted into glucose by our digestive tract. This glucose is then burned and produces heat and ATP – a molecule that stores and releases energy as it is needed by our cells. Of course, providing energy to our cells is important! There are three categories of carbohydrates: sugars, long-chain glucose, and fiber.
Not all types of carbohydrates are equal. We see this with other foods too — see our previous post about the different types of fats. The types of carbohydrates are classified differently based on how they are broken down and used in our bodies. For this reason, it is necessary to pay attention to the quality of the carbs consumed when looking to support optimal health! Sugars, i.e. simple carbohydrates, are quickly broken down by our bodies and only provide a short burst of energy. Long-chain glucose, i.e. complex carbohydrates, contain longer chains of sugar molecules than those in simple carbohydrates. It takes a longer time for these chains to be broken down and, because of this, they provide the body with longer-lasting energy. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate which our bodies are not able to break down. But, our bodies still benefit from it! The gut is able to use some of the fiber as fuel. Fiber-rich foods also serve as a source of prebiotics which, among many other functions, provide fuel for our beneficial gut bacteria.
As it was mentioned before, simple carbohydrates (also commonly referred to as refined carbs) are easily and quickly utilized by the body for energy. This leads to a spike in blood sugar and an increased need for insulin, something we want to avoid due to the negative effects it has on our health. Choosing these low-quality sources of carbohydrates can negatively impact mood and cognitive performance, speed up the process of aging, cause hormone imbalance, decrease sleep quality, and hinder recovery from exercise. Examples of simple carbohydrates include white flour, white pasta, pastries/baked goods, fruits drinks, high fructose corn syrup, etc.
Complex carbohydrates and fiber, on the other hand, provide many benefits for the body. These healthier carbohydrates are still high in sugars and starch, but have drastically different effects on the body in comparison to the simple carbohydrates. These carbs are nourishing to the body. Just as simple carbs have a negative effect on brain health, gut health, energy, blood sugar regulation, and disease prevention, complex carbs have a beneficial effect on all of these areas of health. Food is medicine! Sources of complex carbs include sweet potatoes, buckwheat, quinoa, oats, brown rice, dates, legumes and more! Looking for ways to include more of these health-promoting carbs in your diet? Try making a quinoa or buckwheat salad by adding a variety of vegetables to the cooked grain and toss with olive oil, herbs, and spices! Other options include: date and nut energy balls, roasted sweet potatoes, and overnight oats. The options are endless!