To start, what is the first food you think about when you hear the word carbohydrate?
All of these answers are right. Normally, we always think about carbs being bread, pasta, and pizza and not fruits and veggies. Pizza, bread, and pasta are also foods that are very easy to overeat, hence why carbohydrates get a bad rep. They are easy to overeat so we should just throw them out of our diet? NO! Truth is your body needs carbs. Another truth, if you think carbohydrates are bad you are not eating the right type or not eating enough of the right type (more on this later).
What Are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are foods that do not come from animals. Think potatoes, pasta, rice, fruits, vegetables. They are our bodies most abundant and available form of energy. Our bodies have different types of pathways to create energy. For example, glycolysis, Krebs cycle, and oxidative phosphorylation. Glucose is the primary energy source for cellular metabolism. Glucose=carbohydrates. The body converts glucose to ATP. ATP is energy. Glucose is needed for our brains and red blood cells. Our brains need 130g of glucose per day to function. Carbohydrates also spare protein and prevent it from being used for energy. In the absence of enough glucose ketone bodies will develop or the body will take amino acids from our muscles to generate glucose.
Carbohydrates not only provide our bodies with energy but they provide us with micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and fiber. Fiber is extremely extremely important. Fiber may lower the risk of constipation, diverticulosis, obesity, cardiovascular disease, etc. The rule of thumb for fiber is 25-35g per day or 14g per 1000 calories. On average, Americans consume only about 12-18g of fiber per day. I would make the argument that if you do not get enough fiber in your diet then you lack a good amount of complex carbohydrates.
There are two types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are monosaccharaides (single sugar units) and disaccharides (two sugar units). These include white bread, white rice, and things that we bake, like cookies. Simple carbohydrates usually lack a good amount of fiber and are going to digest quicker. Simple carbohydrates are great to eat pre or post workout because they are going to hit your bloodstream quicker and provide energy quicker than complex carbs. Complex carbohydrates are polysaccharides (many sugar units) and oligosaccharides (3-10 sugar units). Oligosaccharides are foods like beans, cabbage, and brussel sprouts. Complex carbohydrates are going to contain fiber and they are going to take longer to digest therefore they will not hit your bloodstream as quickly as simple carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates are a lot easier to overeat and normally they are higher in calories. It’s a lot easier to eat an entire pizza than an entire bag of spinach.
Cutting Carbs and Weight Loss
A popular thing to do when trying to lose weight is to cut carbohydrates from your diet. We have the keto diet or just low carb diets in general that help people lose weight. When we cut carbs from our diets we usually see a big drop in weight. That is water. Glycogen is the stored form of glucose in our muscles and liver and for every gram of glycogen stored there is about 3g-4g of water that comes with it. When carbohydrates are removed from the diet glycogen stores are being depleted. So we cut carbs and lose weight so it looks like cutting carbs is the best way to lose weight because if I add carbs back in my weight goes up? Wrong. When you add carbohydrates back into your diet you are filling your glycogen stores back up so it looks like you are gaining weight but it’s really water.
When your body starts to digest and absorb carbohydrates it has three options: use them for energy, store them as glycogen in the liver and muscles, or convert it to glycerol and fatty acids and store it as fat. Option one and two are the body’s first choices. If your body does not use carbohydrates for energy and glycogen stores are full the body will store it as fat. Glycogen stores are constantly being depleted and replenished.
Carbohydrates and Exercise
During high intensity, short-duration exercise carbohydrates are your bodies primary source for fuel. The muscles get energy from carbohydrates through blood glucose, stored glycogen, or consumption of carbohydrates. In adults there’s an average of 200 to 500 grams of stored glycogen in muscles and around 60-120 grams of glycogen in the liver. Depending on ones nutritional intake and activity will depend on how much glycogen is stored. Stored glycogen can be converted into glucose. Adults store about 2,600 kilocalories of energy as glycogen and about 2000 of those kilocalories can be used. During high intensity short duration exercise glycogen stores are depleted in about 20 minutes while low intensity, long duration exercise depletes glycogen stores in about 90 minutes. Intensity affects how glucose and glycogen are used. No matter how intense you exercise your body is going to use glucose. Fats and proteins do not oxidize as quickly as carbohydrates which is why the body prefers to use carbohydrates as energy. Pre, during, and post workout simple carbohydrates are going to be best because they provide quick energy. Also, when it comes to building muscle carbohydrate intake needs to be met before protein can do its role in muscle building.
How Much Carbohydrates Should You Consume?
Carbohydrates should make up 45-65% of your diet. Does this mean you should be constantly eating donuts and pizza to meet that 45-65%? No. This is an automatic thought that a lot of people have: If one consumes a lot of carbs they are obviously eating a ton of simple carbohydrates. You can consume a lot of carbs and still be perfectly healthy. Consuming most of your carbohydrates in the form of complex carbs will be the best option and it is also going to help increase your fiber intake. Whole grains make up a good portion of complex carbohydrates and have a good source of starch and fiber which are important in ones diet. A diet that is made up of mostly whole grains can help lower the risk for many chronic diseases. Sounds crazy right? Carbohydrates are not the enemy and can actually be beneficial for your health. Should you just consume complex carbohydrates? No. Moderation is a wonderful thing and you can consume simple carbohydrates in moderation. I myself like the occasional donut and pizza. Sustainable habits are the best habits.