Making Carbs Work For You
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients that our bodies need. They work in perfect harmony with the other macro and micronutrients to keep us alive and well. Unfortunately, they have been on the back burner for diet fanatics over the last couple of decades. Common misconceptions that I hear personally include phrases like, “Carbs are just sugar, there is no difference” or “To be healthy, you need to be on a low carb diet,” and “ I am trying to be healthy so I am on a gluten free diet.” I say, it’s time to let carbs off the hook and give them their chance to shine. Please, let me introduce you to the world of health benefits that carbohydrates can provide.
To begin, carbohydrates are our main source of energy. They are the gas that fills our tank; the battery to our energizer bunny. When you fill your tank with good, clean gas it will run to perfection. However, if you were to load up your tank with dirty unclean oil, your car may not last very long. The same goes for our bodies. My goal is not to focus on how many carbs one is intaking, but rather the quality of carbs one intakes. If an individual is consuming a high amount of processed refined carbohydrates, their body is not going to run very well. They will feel sluggish, fatigued, will most likely gain weight and be at an increased risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease (1).
Now lets get down to the benefits. As emphasized prior, just like with any other food product one consumes, it is critical to take into account the ingredients. You always want to find the purest, least processed form of any food you consume. These types of whole complex carbohydrates are high in fiber and are the body’s main source of vitamins and minerals. Examples of whole complex carbohydrates include Whole Wheat Bread, Couscous, Millet, Oatmeal, Quinoa, Sorghum, Barley, Rye and Brown Rice.
I also have a secret that most people do not know about. Lean in close and listen. Fruits and vegetables are actually carbohydrates! Countless times I have had people tell me they are avoiding carbs in their diet while biting into an apple or a banana. Fruits and vegetables especially are filled with essential vitamins that our bodies crave. Examples of high carbohydrate fruits and vegetables include bananas, yams, apples, corn, sweet potatoes, potatoes, lentils, broccoli and spinach.
Our body digests complex carbs much slower than refined carbs due to the higher fiber content. Because our bodies digest complex carbs at a slower rate, our blood sugar levels do not spike as high as when refined carbs are consumed. This decreases one’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes. To explain scientifically, after the carbs go through the stomach, they enter the small intestine. The pancreas then releases pancreatic amylase (an enzyme) to further breakdown the dextrin into smaller chains of carbohydrates. Further enzymes are released from the lining of the intestine to break down all of the carbohydrate chains into singular units. Once broken down all of the way, the intestinal cells can absorb them. The more complex the carbohydrate is, the longer it will take for cellular absorption, and the more vitamins and minerals the cells will have to absorb.
After the carbohydrate is absorbed into the cell, it enters into four main processes in order to produce energy: glycolysis, the pyruvate transition stage, the Krebs cycle and the electron transport chain. Once glucose has traveled through all of these processes, energy is produced. Even though other nutrients, such as fat, can go through part of this process to create energy, glucose is still essential in order to make enough oxaloacetate for the processes to run and create the energy the body needs. Long story short: glucose is necessary, glucose is good, we NEED glucose.
Our brains only allow access to two nutrients to pass through its precious membrane: glucose and ketones. Glucose is always the first runner up to provide nutrients to the brain. In order for our bodies to even produce ketones, they need to first be deprived of glucose availability. Many on the ketogenic diet encourage this. Yet, it comes with a price. Risks associated with the ketogenic diet include hyperlipidemia, gastro intestinal disorders, nephrolithiasis and micronutrient deficiencies (2). Ketones are derived from fat storage. However, because of the energy creation process we discussed before, our body is unable to use the fat storage without some access to carbohydrates. This is why our bodies are unable to survive if we were to completely eliminate carbohydrates from our diet.
So how are we going to make carbs work for us in the right way? The answer is to use them in the wisest way possible. If we can use carbs that will digest over a longer period of time and gain more nutrients in the process, then it is a win-win deal. Thus, whole complex carbohydrates are definitely the way to go.
1. Hill, T.(2013). Danger's all around. News Journal
2. Berggvist, A. (2012). Long-term monitoring of the ketogenic diet: Do's and don'ts. Epilepsy Research, 100(3), 261
3. Schmitz, A. (2012). "Digestion and Absorption of Carbohydrates", An introduction To Nutrition section 4.2. Prince.
4. Fetters, K. (2016). Stop worrying about carbs. Men's Health, 31(2), 037.