Whether you’re trying to lose weight or just want to eat healthier, you may be confused by the news you’ve heard about carbohydrates. With so much attention focused on protein diets, there’s been a consumer backlash against carbohydrates. As a result, many people misunderstand the role that carbohydrates play in a healthy diet.
Carbohydrates aren’t all good or all bad. Some kinds promote health while others, when eaten often and in large quantities, may increase the risk for diabetes and coronary heart disease.
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates come from a wide array of foods – bread, fruit, vegetables, rice, beans, milk, popcorn, potatoes, cookies, spaghetti, corn, and cherry pie. They also come in a variety of forms. The most common and abundant ones are sugars, fibers, and starches. The basic building blocks of all carbohydrates are sugar molecules.
The digestive system handles all carbohydrates in much the same way – it breaks them down (or tries to break them down) into single sugar molecules since only these are small enough to absorb into the bloodstream. It also converts the most digestible carbohydrates into glucose (also known as blood sugar), because cells are designed to use this as a universal energy source. This is why carbohydrates can make us feel energetic. Carbohydrates fuel our bodies. Your body stores glucose reserves in the muscles in the form of glycogen ready to be used when we exert ourselves.
Carbohydrates are the highest octane – the most desirable fuel source for your body’s energy requirements. If you don’t have an adequate source of carbohydrate your body may scavenge from dietary protein and fat to supply glucose. The problem is when you’ve depleted your stores of glycogen (stored glucose in muscle and lean tissue) your body turns to burning muscles or organs (lean muscle tissue) and dietary protein or fat to provide blood glucose to supply energy needs. When this happens, your basal metabolic rate drops because you have less lean muscle tissue burning calories and your body thinks its starving and cuts back on energy requirements.
So you should continue to eat carbohydrates, discriminately selecting those which have the greatest health benefits.
The carbohydrates you consume should come from carbohydrate-rich foods that are close to the form that occurs in nature. The closer the carbohydrate food is as Mother Nature intended, the greater the density of other vital nutrients. If you are looking for health-enhancing sources of carbohydrates you should choose from:
Whole grains and grain foods: rich in fiber, protein, and some B vitamins and are very rich in minerals.
You can also source carbohydrates from processed foods such as soda pop or soft drinks, snacks such as cookies and chips, and alcohol. These generally are considered to be poor food choices and should be consumed rarely. The carbohydrate source (sugar and flour) in these food choices has been highly refined and processed. A diet rich in refined carbohydrates and processed foods has been associated with heart disease and the onset of type 2 diabetes.
Why are these sources of carbohydrates to be avoided?
1. They are calorie-dense and contribute numerous calories in a small amount of food. For example, a 7 oz bag of potato chips or corn chips has approximately 1000 calories. Most women on a weight management program will be aiming for 1200 daily caloric intake. So, this is what we mean by calorie-dense and nutritionally scarce.
2. They offer little appetite-holding power because they have no fiber or protein. As a result, you end up searching for food again soon after your first serving.
3. They contribute nothing to your nutritional profile except calories. This means you have fewer calories left for foods that your body requires for good health.
Whenever possible, replace highly processed grains, cereals, and sugars with minimally processed whole-grain products and ensure you have at least five servings of fruit and vegetables daily.
Rather than cut out carbs completely for a very short-term gain (usually weight loss), there are greater long-term health benefits in learning how to distinguish good carbs over bad carbs and incorporating healthy carbohydrates into your weight loss program.