There seems to be so much hubbub and confusion about carbohydrates (carbs)… low carb, no carb, high carb, good carbs, bad carbs – on and on it goes. So what are the true basic facts about carbs, anyway? What exactly are carbs and why do we need them? Are carbs good for us, or are they bad for us? So let’s look at the facts…
Why do we need carbs? Our bodies need carbs to have fuel for energy. Basically, the carbs are converted to glucose (blood sugar) and either used immediately or stored in the muscles and the liver, for use later as required.
What is a carb? According to the Harvard School of Public Health: “The basic building block of every carbohydrate is a sugar molecule, a simple union of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Starches and fibers are essentially chains of sugar molecules.”
Types of carbs: According to the Mayo Clinic – there are three main groups of carbs – sugar, starch and fiber
Sugar – the “simple” form of carbs
- sugars found naturally in foods such as fruits, vegetables, milk and milk products; these natural sugars from whole foods have nutritional value that our bodies can use in the form of vitamins, minerals, enzymes and phytonutrients.
- processed sugars that are added to refined foods; these sugars have very little (or no) nutritional value compared to natural sugars from whole foods. Some examples of added processed sugars: brown sugar, corn syrup/sweetener, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high glucose corn syrup (HFCS), invert sugar, maltose, malt sugar, sucrose, sugar, fruit juice concentrates.
Starch – a “complex” form of carb
- consists of sugar units bonded together and can’t be used by the body until it is broken down into glucose (through digestion).
- found in vegetables, whole grains, cooked beans/legumes, peas
Fiber – a “complex” form of carb
- consists of sugar units bonded together
- found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, peas, cooked beans/legumes, some breads and cereals
- the two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble, are both necessary for optimal health
- soluble fiber dissolves in water; found in nuts and seeds, oatmeal, oat bran, most fruits
- insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water; found in barley, brown rice, whole grain cereals, wheat bran, seeds, most vegetables
What about ‘good’ carbs and ‘bad’ carbs?
- ‘good’ carbs are from whole foods. Fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes all provide carbs that have vitamins, minerals, enzymes and phytonutrients. Some processed grains (breads and cereals) with a very low amount of refining and/or processed sugar could also be nutritious.
- ‘bad’ carbs are from highly refined foods that have added processed sugars. These foods contain far less nutrients than whole foods. In fact, many processed foods are completely empty foods, with no nutrition – foods that fill us up, but leave us nutritionally starving. These carbs also digest so quickly that they cause the blood sugar to ‘spike’, which forces the pancreas to produce large amounts of the fat storing hormone insulin – an issue in many chronic health issues such as metabolic syndrome, pre-diabetes, diabetes, fatty liver and inflammation.
Another quick note about sugars: some of the healthier sweeteners that people use in place of white or refined sugars contain carbs. Many of these sweeteners also have nutritional value, such as honey, maple syrup, stevia and xylitol.
Many people are concerned about whether they are getting too many carbs in their daily diet and whether or not all the carbs will cause weight gain. These are likely the main reasons for people going to ‘low carb’ or ‘no carb’ diets. I would like to suggest that it is far more important to look at the source of the carbs a person is eating, rather than the amount. If the carbs are coming from whole foods – fruits, vegetables, raw nuts and seeds, and whole grains – their body will be able to obtain energy, vitamins, minerals, enzymes and phytonutrients which are all necessary for optimal health. If the carbs are coming from processed or refined foods with loads of added sugars (which the body can’t use, which likely spike blood sugar) – then perhaps concern is in order!
Are you interested in learning more about how to choose healthy foods for optimum health & energy? Contact me.
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